Bhopal to Jaipur

“I look up, and I see the sky,
I look down, and I see the earth,
Yet there is no-one who listens to my story,
Yet, there is no space for me.”
-Folk song, Devgarh Baria, Gujarat
(in the context of ‘single’women- widows, those branded as witches, and those abandoned by family and community.

This verse echoes the sentiment of many of the women traveling on the Yatra. Years of silence, individual, communal and historical, have forced women to suppress their experiences of violence. The impact of rape is not felt only by the body, but leaves a much deeper imprint, resurfacing as memories, sorrow, guilt, humiliation and hurt. “No-one has listened to me, taken care of me like this before, a survivor remarked over a cup of tea. To be a part of this Yatra, stand in front of so many people, in front of a mic, expressing what happened to me, I hadn’t dreamt this could happen.”

Madhya Pradesh is often referred to as the country’s ‘Rape Capital’. A name that evokes shock and shame, but also indicates, a high rate of reporting of crimes of sexual violence. Compared to other parts of the country, MP has made significant progress in ensuring procedural justice for survivors of sexual violence. A meeting with newly elected Chief Minister, Kamal Nath, ended with him assuring that this precedent would be strengthened, specifically by setting up fast track courts to ensure survivors of violence receive speedy justice.

Statement of Chief Minister on support to Dignity March:
Official statement of Madhya Pradesh government on support to Dignity March
Deneek bhaskar – CM Kamal Nath said strictly curbing sexual violence against women and children
Free Press journal – MP CM – plan to provide justice to women children

Following this, the yatra traveled across Madhya Pradesh: Bhopal, Sehore, Ujjain, Dewas, Mandsaur and Ratlam, where significant work has been done by the Garima Abhiyan with survivors of sexual violence. Guests across events included representatives from government departments, specifically the women and child welfare, and education departments ; members of the judiciary ; members of the police, representatives from One stop crisis centres and child line-helplines and media practitioners. Each of these perspectives highlighted a different dimension of sexual violence: the role of the judiciary in ensuring convictions ; the role of the media in ensuring sensitive and diverse coverage ; the role of the government in ensuring budgets allocated for this issue are utilised efficiently.

In Mandsaur and Ratlam, the context of caste based prostitution was highlighted. These geographies see a high rate of trafficking, particularly of minors. Communities such as the Bachra and Bedia communities, have initiation rituals that compel girls as young as 13, to enter ‘dev vyaapar’. The girl’s earnings become the sole source of profit for the family, causing her to discontinue her education or explore any other career possibilities. She grows old in the trade, often ending up lonely and abandoned, by her family, clients and the community. Boys from this community face discrimination because of the work their sisters do, resulting in low employment rates within the community. At an event in Mandsaur, the additional SP spoke about the efforts the police were making, including the setting up of special units to monitor cases of trafficking, and awareness workshops amongst the Bachra community, to encourage them to not force their daughters into this work. He praised the Yatra for its intention of changing societal mindsets- “the law can only act once a crime is committed. But the work being done by the Garima Yatra is to ensure that the crime is not committed in the first place.”

Gujarat, often touted as a hub of development and modernisation. Yet government data reveals that it is has one of the lowest rates of conviction and reporting of crimes of sexual violence. As a local activist remarked, what sort of development model is that which doesn’t take into account women and their experiences? There has only been one Bilkis Bano. What of all the other women awaiting justice? Traveling to Devgarh Baria, Balasore and Ahmadabad, the Yatra interacted with various Mahila sangathans and civil society organisations. As an audience member at one of the events observed, “Conversation about the rural poor often focus only on economics. This Yatra highlights the personal narratives and experiences of women from these contexts, something largely ignored by mainstream media and policy spaces.” Further, the Yatra foregrounds the voices of women who are rarely heard, even if they choose to speak. At an event in Ahmadabad, the question of inter-caste marriage was raised, adding another dimension of sexual violence, when caste boundaries are crossed. At a community meeting in Devgarh Baria, women spoke of the practice of ‘Bride Price’, which compels families to marry their daughters off early, for economic profit.

Cold winds welcomed us in Rajasthan, a state with one of the highest rates of sexual violence in the country, with a history of child marriage and dowry related deaths, and caste based discrimination and violence. Traveling across Udaipur, Chittorgarh, Bhilwara and Jaipur, the Yatra interacted with various stakeholders from the government, students, community members. In Jaipur, a meeting was organised with over 200 lawyers, to discuss the role of the law in preventing sexual violence. A number of lawyers at the meeting revealed perspectives that were misogynist and discriminatory- highlighting the need to educate and sensitise the legal community to the experiences of survivors. In Kishangarh, the Yatra visited the village of BadarSindri, where members of the Nat community organised a program. Much like the Bachra community, young girls from the Nat community are initiated into caste based prostitution, and trafficked and sold. The program was unique as survivors from the Bachra community addressed an audience of women, from the Nat community. A few curious men were hesitant to enter the event- “we are lower caste, we are not allowed to enter?” they asked hesitantly. “We are all lower castes, assured a representative from the Yatra, you are more than welcome.” Shared contexts of violence and loss, will lead to a future of solidarity and resistance.

Most poignant was a visit to Bhateri, home to Bhanwari Devi and her 26 year old struggle for justice. An icon of the women’s movement, her story has been inspiration internationally, yet little has changed in her own village. She and her husband live in a quiet corner, amongst residents who still refuse to support her. “I will fight till I die. I am not afraid of anything nor anyone”, she declared during an interview. Arriving late at night, the Yatra was greeted by her, following which a meal was cooked and eaten collectively outside her home. The night ended with songs of hope, courage and solidarity, as she watched her fight take on new life, through the experiences of other women in the Yatra.

The next morning a rally through the village was followed by an event held at the local panchayat office. Not a single member of the village turned up for the event, though there was support shown from the local Sarpanch. But Bhanwari Devi’s spirit was not defeated. “They all stood and looked then, that’s what they’re doing now. But I will not remain silent.” She continues to fight, undeterred.

The Yatra’s strength doesn’t derive only from its public interactions. Much of the solidarities, friendships and connections are formed behind the scenes. One crucial site for this is the daily feedback meeting. A review of each day was conducted, leading to rich discussions and disagreements between the group. Some issues that were debated included capital punishment, the role of tradition in perpetuating sexual violence, and a lively rebuttal of comments made by ill-informed guests at events, who blamed the mobile phone for an increase in sexual violence. These conversations were anchored by the survivors, each keenly observing and commenting on various aspects of the Yatra. It is in these meetings that the collective responsibility and ownership of the Yatra is most clearly felt, and it is these exchanges that will continue to foster and strengthen this network of survivors of sexual violence. To listen to one another, disagree, debate, and re-consider.

The Yatra now enters its final leg, traveling across Haryana and Punjab, to reach New Delhi on February 22nd. 10,000 survivors, their families, local organizations and community members will gather to stand firm against sexual violence, at Ramleela Maidan. As mentioned by Ashif Shaikh, convenor of the Yatra, the intention is two fold: Through its travels, the yatra has made an effort to reach out to the government and various stakeholders in the judiciary, medical and police departments to ensure they perform their role with regard to addressing crimes of sexual violence. But more important than redressal, is prevention, which begins from society’s ways of thinking and conditioning.

This is the primary aim of the yatra, to challenge and question society, its norms and its silence.
To listen, to believe, to support, and to free the survivor.