Kolkatta to Lucknow
The Dignity March has been traveling across the country with the intent of creating awareness and changing societal perceptions, attitudes and behaviors toward sexual violence. A bus full of survivors of rape and their families have been hosting discussions, conferences and meetings, to share their experiences without shame and fear. Their stories impress upon the listener, the urgent need to shift the stigma and blame that sexual violence carries, from the survivor onto the perpetrator. For she has done nothing wrong. She must be given the support and strength to continue to walk with her head held high.
It was with this message that the Dignity March arrived in Kolkatta. An event was organized by Swayam, an organization that works with survivors of sexual violence in slum areas of Kolkatta. On the lawns of Bishop’s college, survivors from the march shared their lived realities According to government data, West Bengal shows 1,64,798 crimes of violence against women in the last five years, A significant number of these cases relate to trafficking. At the press conference, Vinita* (name changed)I spoke about her sister, who was kidnapped by a woman in her village, and subsequently sold to two men in Rajasthan. There, she was beaten and raped for two months, and ‘kept’ by the man, as his wife. When she managed to escape and lodge a complaint with the police, she was accused of lying. Eventually she was rescued, and as a result of the incident, has a one and a half year old son. “Once my sister was rescued, we found out that the same woman was responsible for trafficking many girls from our area in Maharashtra. The common thread between all of them are that they are poor and from minority communities. People think they can do anything with the poor, because we have no right in this country, no voice. But I am standing here today to say that we will not remain silent any longer, that you cannot exploit us in this way.”
At the same conference, Garima Abhiyan Convenor, Ashif Shaikh shared that when cases such as this get labelled as ‘trafficking’ or ‘ kidnap’, they often neglect another important dimension of the experience, that of sexual violence. It is crucial that these cases are treated legally, as rape, and crimes of sexual violence
After visiting Bardhman district in Kolkata for an interaction with government school students on the aspects of child sexual abuse, the yatra entered Jharkhand. We were welcomed by members of the Jan Mukti Sangharsh Samiti and the Mahila Garima Abhiyan. Together, we paid a visit to the final resting place of Birsa Munda, the iconic adivasi warrior, who fought for the rights of tribal communities. Remembering is a political act. As a member of the yatra remarked,”it is these figures who came before us, who showed us the path of struggle. Their resistance has made it possible for ours to exist today.” In the context of Jharkhand, the issue of land rights, natural resources and sexual violence are inextricable. Members from the local organization shared how historically, women have always been at the forefront of the struggle to protect their land, which in turn, means the safeguarding of an entire culture and lifestyle. Sexual violence against tribal communities has always been rampant, as a strategy to destroy any resistance. At a meeting organized at St. Xaviers college, with students from the sociology department in Ranchi, Deepak* (name changed) who is from a scheduled tribe community shared his experience. He was tricked by an upper caste man, with the promise of a job. When he left, men from that community, entered his house and raped his daughter. Deepak has no land of his own, and a very meager income. He was socially boycotted from his village, and forced to migrate to another. “Members of our community are routinely harassed because we are often the poorest in a village. After the rape occurred everyone suggested I get my daughter married. Some even implied it was her fault. I stand by my daughter. I believe her. I will not get her married, I will ensure she gets an education and moves forward with her life. We might be poor, but we are not helpless.”
From Ranchi, the yatra traveled to the village of Gobandapur, in Hazaribag. Here a discussion followed after the Garima Yatra street play, depicting sexual violence, was performed. Members of the Mahila Mukti Sanstha, the local organization spoke about the prevailing fear and suppression in villages, where the culture of victim shaming and blame is so high,that women are afraid to speak out.They hope that interventions like the Yatra, can create confidence in other women, and encourage them to step forward.
Our time in Jharkhand included a meeting with Dr. Louise Mirandi, a cabinet minster who holds the minority and social welfare portfolios. She was empathetic toward the intent of the yatra, and assured her full support, particularly to safeguard the rights of women from marginalized communities in Jharkhand.
Next, the yatra arrived in Bihar. that ranks no. twelve on an index of crimes against women in the country. A significant number of these crimes include spousal violence, revealing a cultural fabric that enables sexual violence. Members of the yatra met with Mr. Krishna Nandan Verma, the education and social welfare minister, at his residence. He pledged his support to the yatra, and promised to take action, particularly against the use of the two finger test in Bihar.
At Chanakya Law University, a meeting was organized by the local partners, Human Liberty Network who work with survivors of sexual violence across districts in Bihar. Retired high court judge, Mridula Mishra was in attendance, and spoke in favor of the Yatra’s intention. “In my time as a judge, I have encountered many cases of sexual violence on paper. But to hear so many survivors speak, in person, has been an eye opening experience. It has also shown that no matter how many legislations we create, unless there is proper and efficient implementation, free from and impartial to social bias, we can never be successful in preventing sexual violence.” This is a point that was also raised by representatives of the Garima Abhiyan, who shared that budgets allocated toward the prevention of sexual violence, remain under-utilized, resulting in lack of one stop crisis centres, fast track courts to expedite cases filed under the POCSO act, and proper medical facilities to investigate cases of sexual violence.
Survivor leaders from the march also interacted separately with law students from the university. As they shared the challenges they have faced, particularly in the legal process, it became clear that as students of law, there is a big responsibility to be shouldered. Theories learnt in classrooms must find place and root in material realities, and as such the Yatra was an educational experience for the students who learnt first hand, the challenges faced by a survivor of sexual violence. Some of the students asked whether the Yatra would result in any benefits for the survivors and their individual cases- to which the survivors shared that the reason for being on the bus, was not to secure justice individually, but to create awareness and knowledge collectively. To ensure that what has happened to them, does not repeat itself with anyone else.
Survivors from different parts of Bihar also shared their experiences, concluding with a statement by a representative from the Human Liberty Network,about how the approach to sexual violence must shift from that of empathy and charity, to a rights based approach that recognizes the woman and her rights as a citizen of this country. This is particularly poignant in the landmark case of Bhanwari Devi. Though she has become a feminist icon and her courage has been instrumental in the implementation of the Vishakha Guidelines, her own case has been pending, awaiting justice since 1992.
Moving into colder climates, we entered Lucknow, for a meeting organized by AALI- Association for Advocacy and Legal Initiatives. The meeting was held at the famous ‘Sheros cafe’ which is run and managed by survivors of acid attacks. Acid attacks are an often ignored dimension of sexual violence, where the act of throwing acid is linked to the notion that a woman’s worth (particularly her marriage prospects) is determined by her beauty and appearance. Survivors working at the cafe shared how their own family members refused to support, even look at them, after the attack, declaring that their lives were over. With support from AALI, they have rebuilt their lives and moved from “being in the shadows, concealing our faces, to lifting the cloak and staring society in the eye.” Representatives from the yatra shared their experiences, as well as representatives from one stop crisis centres and lawyers working on these issues. An audience member who works for the rights of queer communities took the stage to talk about violence occurs because of our rigid notions of gender. “Until we break these constructs, of who a man and woman is, of what roles they must perform, what jobs they can do, how they must behave, violence will not reduce.”
We began the Yatra wondering if people would come forward and share their experience, if they would support a platform like this. What we have learnt, with each interaction, in each place we have visited so far, is that people are willing to talk, women want to come forward, and share their experiences. A feature that is distinctly different from the way stories of sexual assault and rape have been told till now, is that most survivors who have participated in the Yatra are clear that while they have their own battles to fight and win, the reason that they are on the bus travelling from place to place to tell their stories, is because they want a better society for their children. For your children. To prevent the violence that occurred with them, from repeating itself.. The act of storytelling allows survivors who have not yet spoken to realize that they are not alone, that there is no reason for shame and that there is courage in telling our stories collectively. Our country is filled with stories and experiences like those carried by the women on this Yatra. It is our responsibility, as members of society, at the very least, to listen to them.