Aroti village is located in Sangli district, Maharashtra. The houses are located on the outskirts of the village. Most of the people live in poverty, working as agricultural hands and hardly having any yield. Although elected bodies have been established by the government, their only sense of security is their ‘bhauki’, male-dominated village councils issuing their own social norms and giving out their own edicts.
She was curled up on a piece of oily cloth amidst a dog, some rodents, and solid food waste full of flies, in a hut made of cow dung, with a broken roof. I held her hand and asked if she was okay, and gave her some food to eat. She was pregnant, her eyes were swollen and she could hardly speak. When I held her hand and asked her what was wrong, she mournfully said, “After I lost my husband a few years ago in an accident I have stayed here, at my in-laws, along with my three children.”
The house right beside her hut belonged to her two brothers-in-law and their children, one of whom was a 14-year-old boy named Rohan*. As she spoke, the woman began to cry, tears dropping easily from her eyes she said, “Rohan often jumped in through my broken roof and raped me! I confessed it to the family and they beat me up with sticks. That’s when I ran up to the well and tried to jump in when a few villagers held and dragged me back home.”
After the attack, she was taken to the police station where she gave a statement saying that she had no one but the people who she stayed with, and that she had no complaint against the accused. She said she had no one but herself to blame as she felt worthless and was seen to have lost her family’s dignity in the village.
I stared at her in utter disbelief and called up the police officer. Initially, he agreed that she was raped, but later stuck to her version of having had sex consensually. She said she was banished from using the toilet, and had to walk miles into the field to attend to nature’s call. Her 4-year-old son was sitting right next to her, his eyes yearning for some kind of attention. He did not let me hold him, but sat on her lap throughout, trying to guard her against me.
I asked her if she could come along with me, and assured her that I would take her to a safe place. She was unsure. She paused and stared at me, and then asked me to come over the next day. I was clueless and uncertain about the situation. By then, all the villagers and her in-laws had gathered at the location. They said that it was their personal matter, and even the police had closed the case. Therefore, I was no one to question the survivor, as she had no complaint in the first place. I walked away from that place, but thought that if she had to survive, it was crucial for me to rescue her. Especially when she was in such a vulnerable state of mind, unable to trust anyone.
I came back to my city with a series of emotions flowing through my mind. At the same time, I was getting calls from so-called political leaders asking me not to take up the issue, since they have a huge vote bank in the village! The following night I could not sleep, constantly thinking about the poor lady. No matter what the papers said, I knew how her voice was stifled by her social condition, and how her vulnerability had weakened her will to get justice.
The next day on my way to Aroti, I called up the police patil and a few villagers who formed the so-called bhauki clan. I knew the only way to rescue her was to convince them of my intentions. I gathered them all and assured them that I had to come to take responsibility for her, along with her three children, as well as her unborn child. They seemed least bothered about her well-being, constantly blamed her and hardly spoke of Rohan who was the real culprit here. The only thing that mattered to them was the name of their village, their prestige, their bhauki, the caste hierarchy, and the dignity of their parallel institution being compromised due to the ‘acts’ of a woman.
I knew I could not intrude their structure and played along, assuring them that I would not malign the reputation of the bhauki and their village. After this, they were more than happy to let her go off the premises with me. I thought I had won half the battle. I could see a sense of hope in her eyes. She picked up her toddler son and sat in my car. I drove her to the hospital and made all the arrangements to take her to the shelter home. I called up the police officials and decided to personally monitor the case.
Although she believed in me and is in a safe place with her children now, it will take some time for her to psychologically heal and to speak up.
A certain mentality is deeply ingrained in our society. Women, especially those who are underprivileged, struggle daily for basic rights, recognition, and respect. They live in a culture that defines them by the male figures in their lives. Our society is such that it constantly attacks the vulnerable, especially women. Law enforcement agencies, delays in investigation, and the manner in which trials in rape cases are conducted only double the misery of rape survivors. Besides this, a large number of crimes of this kind go unreported because of complex social realities, fear of stigma, and the caste-and-gender based hierarchy. The dark side of rural India rarely affects our conscience.
People tell me this happens every day to thousands of women but no one will talk about the injustice, the lies, the threats. We all know that patriarchal prejudices ingrained for centuries are tough to shake off. Nevertheless, I plan to take the culprits head on and fight until justice is served. I will constantly strive for such women until they know that they have not done anything wrong – that it was never their fault.
*Names have been changed.