BY SHIBANI GOKHALE
Twenty-five years after Bhanwari Devi reported that five men raped her to deter her activism, she still awaits justice. Though the attack prompted nationwide protests in India and led to the enactment of a new legislation protecting women from sexual assault in the workplace, Devi’s attackers are yet to be punished.
Devi, now 56, was allegedly attacked by five upper caste men on the evening of September 22, 1992 in her small village of Bhateri in Rajasthan. Devi alleged that the men approached her and her husband, Mohan Lal Prajapat as they were working in their field and started hitting Prajapat with sticks, knocking him unconscious. She tried to beg for mercy but they pinned her down and took turns raping her for hours, she said.
Devi, who worked as a grass roots social worker for the Women’s Development Project initiated by the government of Rajasthan in Northern India, had prevented a child marriage involving two affluent and influential families of the village.
The men, seething with anger at her involvement, raped her to teach her a lesson, Devi says.
Her ordeal did not end there. After she filed a police complaint that same night, the police officers asked her to deposit her lehenga (a traditional skirt) at the police station for inspection, requiring her to walk home at 1 a.m. with only her husband’s blood stained turban wrapped around her sore and wounded body.
According to Kanchan Mathur, who has researched the case, the police officers expressed skepticism about her complaint and refused to believe her. They ultimately registered her complaint after she agreed to leave her skirt behind.
“Devi eventually received help from a non-profit organization called Vishakha who found her in a severely demoralized and shocked state,” said Mathur in an article she wrote for the Economic and Political Weekly entitled ‘Bhateri Rape Case: Backlash and Protest.’ “She was physically sore, bruised and weak.”
The group took Devi to the nearest city, Jaipur, for medical treatment. They also assisted her with court proceedings, which according to Mathur, were plagued with corruption. The judges assigned to the case were inexplicably changed five times and the sixth judge acquitted the accused men of rape.
“All I did was carry out my job,” Devi said in an interview with India Today in 1995. “And now I have been denied justice.”
Several politicians, lawyers and judges labeled the judgment suspicious and politically motivated. It sparked protests across the country. “It was a dubious judgement,” said Bharat of the Vishakha Organization in an interview with BBC. Mohini Giri, who head of the National Commission for Women at the time, said that the judge’s decision was unsound and ignored principles of justice. The Prime Minister of India at the time, Narsimha Rao, even awarded Devi a small amount of monetary compensation.
Although the state of Rajasthan was reluctant to file an appeal, it eventually caved to public pressure. But in the past 22 years, the High Court has held only one hearing on the appeal. Two of her accused attackers have since passed away, and Devi is still waiting for the next hearing.
The Vishakha Organization was able to secure a small victory for Devi by filing and winning a lawsuit in the Supreme Court of India demanding safety for women in their workplaces. The top court laid down certain rules and regulations governing sexual harassment of women at work in 1997 called the Vishakha Guidelines. These guidelines were eventually codified and The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act was passed in 2013.
But since the legislation was enacted, experts have been criticizing the lack of its implementation. A 2017 survey by the Indian National Bar Association found that 70 percent women who have faced sexual harassment at their workplace did not report it. It also found that of those who reported it, 65 percent said that the company did nothing to address their grievances and 50 percent said that their harassers were permitted to continue working at the same company.
In order to address such abuses in all developing countries, United Nations Women in conjunction with the World Bank and The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development have developed a Sustainable Development Goal Indicator 5.1.1 to track the enactment and implementation of laws protecting women from discrimination. The Indicator was presented at the 61st session of the Commission on the Status of Women on March 20. Sarah Iqbal, coordinator of the Women, Business and Law Project, for the World Bank group talked at length about the goals of the tracking system.
“We will be examining five aspects of the legal system of each country- The Constitution, criminal laws, family laws, property laws and labor laws,” said Iqbal. “We hope to assist countries draft and implement better laws for women.”
Iqbal pointed out that discrimination against women is not only harmful for women, but also adversely affects the country’s economy. The discrimination leads to illiteracy and increasing poverty.
“We are hoping that the indicator will help shine a spotlight on the issue and will draw attention to it,” she said. “We are very excited about it.”
Iqbal, who is originally from South Asia, has specialized in South Asian studies and believes that the indicator will be of tremendous use to India. She is of the opinion that it will shed some light on India’s failure to enforce its existing laws against discrimination against women more effectively.
Bhanwari Devi, of course, is not the only woman awaiting justice in India after being harassed or abused. The National Crime Records Bureau recorded 34,651 cases of rape and over 4000 cases of attempted rape in India in 2015. The total number of crimes against women including rape, attempted rape, sexual harassment at workplace, domestic violence and trafficking stood at a staggering 327,394 in the same year.
Even after the sexual harassment at workplace law was enacted in 2013, at least 20 accused sexual harassers have been acquitted, although the evidence suggested their guilt. In April 2015, an employee of Doordarshan, a public service television channel, lodged a complaint that her supervisor had sexually assaulted her. Although the allegations were proven correct, no action was taken. She was simply transferred to a different office in Delhi.
In December 2013, AK Ganguly, a Supreme Court judge was accused of sexually harassing an intern at a hotel in New Delhi. Although, the Supreme Court indicted him for committing an unwelcome act, the Home Ministry said that there was no evidence to lodge a police complaint.
In spite of the lack of action, Devi believes that women need to speak up and fight for justice. Devi, who was honored with the Neerja Bhanot Memorial Award for bravery and was invited to be a part of the United Nations Fourth Conference for women in Beijing has repeatedly said that she will not give up and will continue to fight for women’s rights.
“Women need to put on a brave face,” she said at a speech in Aurangabad. “All women and activists need to come together in unity to fight cases of sexual harassment and not stop until we get justice.”