Long before women marched the streets of Delhi in 2013 following the gruesome gangrape of a paramedical student on a moving bus, there was one brave woman from a nondescript village in Rajasthan leading the charge for gender equality in the face of incredible adversity.
Her name is Bhanwari Devi, and she is synonymous with the landmark Vishaka Guidelines on sexual harassment issued by the Supreme Court. This historic 1997 judgement, alongside the 2013 law enacted by Parliament on the same, has empowered millions of Indian women to report incidents of sexual harassment at the workplace in an attempt to make these spaces safer for them.
However, it would be a gross oversight to associate Bhanwari Devi’s name with just the Vishakha guidelines. Her indomitable spirit and courage also symbolise the struggle of Indian women against the repressive institution of patriarchy in a social milieu, where speaking out against rape and sexual assault is still a taboo. With the added dimension of the pernicious caste system, whose wrath she has both suffered and survived, Bhanwari’s story remains an inspiration to the millions of India’s marginalised.
The long and winding road
This national icon is from the small village called Bhateri, which is located 55 km from Rajasthan’s capital of Jaipur. Born into the Kumahar (potter) caste, her family lived amidst the more powerful Gurjar caste community. In 1985, Bhanwari enrolled as a Saathin (“friend”) or grassroots worker for the Rajasthan government’s Women’s Development Project.
Among other tasks, she took up the cause of girl-child education, women’s safety, family planning, maternal health, and payment of minimum wages for famine relief workers. She also stood at the forefront of the battle against the practice of child marriage, female infanticide, and dowry. She would walk into various households in the village and spread awareness among women of the same.
With the practice of child marriage rampant in rural Rajasthan, the state government decided that in 1992 it would lunch a public campaign just weeks for the onset of the Akha Teej festival, which many considered auspicious for conducting marriage ceremonies. However, this festival also presented an avenue for many families to marry off young children. Members of the WDP were tasked with spreading awareness among local villagers and urge them not to conduct child marriages.
Bhanwari understood the circumstances she found herself in but proceeded nonetheless with real fervour. Of course, the village elders and local panchayat, were against this campaign since they believed that this was an encroachment on their culture and way of life. Getting married off by her parents at the age of just six, she understood the perils of child marriage.
When she found out about a Gurjar family’s decision to marry off their nine-month-old daughter, an enraged Bhanwari decided to persuade them against the idea and also got the police to help her out.
On the occasion of Akha Teej, the police stopped the marriage, but the family manage to conduct one in the following morning. The police took no action against the family.
Many among the high-caste community felt that Bhanwari’s intervention had brought about police intervention. Angered by an illiterate and low-caste woman, who dared to defy the prevailing social norms, the upper caste Gurjar community in the village ostracised her family.
As if the social and economic boycott weren’t enough, on the night of September 22, 1992, Bhanwari was gang-raped by her high caste neighbours after they had beaten up her husband unconscious.
Start of her struggle
In these circumstances, rape becomes an instrument of terror unleashed by upper caste men against lower caste women.
However, Bhanwari and her husband refused to be cowed down. They pursued the corridors of justice valiantly, despite the system’s utter insensitivity to their plight.
Over the course of police investigations and judicial proceedings, she gave her testimony eight times and remains consistent with her version of events. She publicly spoke up against the crimes committed against her in a conservative society where talking about rape is still a taboo.
Unfortunately for her, a trial judge in 1995 acquitted all the five accused in the case for utterly inexplicable reasons. Nearly 26 years since the incident, justice remains elusive, and her case remains pending in the corridors of the Rajasthan High Court.
“I am not afraid. What more can they do? I am not alone in my fight. The justice and the case are not just about me anymore. I am fighting for a society where there is gender equality; where there is no discrimination between two siblings of a household; where both brother and sister get equal rotis and education opportunities,” she told YourStory, earlier this year.
However, her fight did not go down in vain. Enraged by her plight, a collective of women’s rights group under the platform of Vishaka filed a public interest litigation in the Supreme Court of India, which brought attention to “the absence of domestic law occupying the field, to formulate effective measures to check the evil of sexual harassment of working women at all workplaces.”
In September 1997, the apex court issued clear guidelines which clearly defined the ambit of sexual harassment in the workplace, and the system establishments needed to set up to address it. It took the Parliament an incredible 16 years to further strengthen these guidelines and enact the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition, and Redressal) Act.
The fact that today companies are expected to issue a clear sexual harassment policy to employees and set up a cell to deal with these complaints is a direct outcome of Bhanwari’s struggles.
The site of her struggles
When she was gang-raped in 1992, her employers (Rajasthan government) abandoned her and refused to take any responsibility for the horrific incident claiming that it had taken place in the field. From a nondescript field in Rajasthan to the millions of offices in urban India (with pit stops in between at the Supreme Court and Parliament), her case has travelled a long way and, in the process, brought to the forefront of public discourse, the vulnerability of working women in India.
Although the laws today are a legacy of her struggle, Bhanwari herself has found no respite from the justice system. She continues to fight for justice against her perpetrators defiantly. “Again, no surprise, that nothing much has [also] changed for Saathins on the ground. As the lowest rung of the Women’s Development Program in Rajasthan, their job is to act as a bridge between the government and the masses, essentially, implementing and making any number of government schemes palatable. They continue to work in precarious conditions,” writes Laxmi Murthy for The Better India. This also goes for the millions of women working in the unorganised sector.
As critical as the 2012 anti-rape movement in India was for the public discourse against sexual violence, the site of these struggles was still confined to urban India (the major metro cities). The bigger battle is in the small towns and rural heartland.
Despite her trials, she found the time to educate her daughter Rameshwari, who has completed her master’s degree, and now teaches in a school. She is not alone in this fight. Her husband remains a pillar of support, and with support from activists in the state women’s groups around India, Bhanwari continues to fight against social evils like child marriage.
“I will continue fighting till my last breath. My fight is against the society where child marriages are still rampant despite being illegal. Law alone is not enough. Women, the whole society, need to support one another. Fight collectively against social evils,” she once said.
Her struggle has inspired other movements. The people of the Jaisalsar village in neighbouring Bikaner district, for example, have stopped child marriages altogether. The last child marriage took place here in 2014. “The movement to end child marriages is spreading through desert areas. The campaign is running successfully in 177 villages of Bikaner, Jodhpur, Barmer, and Jaisalmer districts. Some 49 villages have stopped the practice,” writes Tarun Kanti Bose for Village Square.
She has received many awards and accolades for her work, and deservedly so. Her incomparable courage and determination to battle the evils of gender inequality, sexual violence, child marriage and the caste system put her in a different league of Indians.