The national media missed covering a rare awards ceremony in Delhi recently ï¿½ the Anita Sen Memorial Awards for 2006, which were given to women and women's groups for "sincerity, simplicity, selflessness, courage, and for being critically reflective".
Anita Sen, a programme coordinator with the NGO Udyogini, was killed in a train accident in 2002. Anita believed that development work should be guided by some core values like "sensitivity to society, simplicity, sincerity, forthrightness and care for the smallest things". Udyogini - which means woman entrepreneur - works with poor women to improve their skills to earn better livelihood. In 2004, Udyogini, instituted two awards - one for an individual and another for a group - in Anita's memory.
In March 2006, Laxmi Jain, 43, won the award for her 20-year struggle in the villages of Rajasthan against the victimization and exploitation of dakans - local women who are labeled as witches and then ostracized from society. Laxmi was just 14 when she got married to a man who was not mentally stable. She not only had to look after her husband, but also had to take care of two brothers-in-law and two sisters-in-law. Today, Laxmi, mother of two children, heads the Women's Empowerment Programme of Seva Mandir in Kherwada block, Udaipur. Seva Mandir, an NGO, has been working in the area of women's empowerment for almost two decades.
Q. You were very young when you got married and were burdened with several responsibilities. How did you still manage to work for the community?
A. While carrying out my household duties and taking care of my husband, I started studying again, after a long time. My in-laws let me study when they saw my determination. In 1984, I graduated from Class 10. My initial desire was only to work, earn a living. So I joined an anganwadi (childcare centre) and later worked in an adult education centre. But sometime in 1985, I got involved with the dakan (witch) issue. A widow in my village was declared a witch and harassed, particularly by a local policeman. This incident sparked something in me; I realized I had to do something for such women.
Q. How widespread is the dakan problem?
A. It's an old belief in the villages that some women have the capability to harm others. It is believed that these women have 'magical powers', which they themselves are not aware of. They can take the shape of a cat or snake and kill a person. So, the villagers ostracize these women and spend a lot of their resources in warding off the evil spells that these witches are supposed to cast.
According to a survey done in 2005 in 22 villages in Rajasthan, most women labeled as dakans are old (between 50-80 years), some are disabled. Besides social ostracization, they suffer verbal abuse in public; are sometimes attacked by axes and sickles in the fields; and even suffer abuse at home. Often, it is the men in the family - son, husband or in-laws - who label their women as witches. The children of such women suffer a lot. They have to drop out of school because they can't take the insults.
Q. Is it just an old belief or does a woman's social position make her more vulnerable to this kind of violence?
A. Almost half the victims come from well-off families. Factors like marital status (widows are more vulnerable), age and disability of the woman play their part. Often, the trigger for declaring a woman a witch could be a land dispute, infertility, long illness of a family member, fear of the woman finding out about her husband's affair. Witch accusations have been used to settle scores in land disputes. Sometimes, it's simply superstition - a woman who lost three of her four sons was declared a witch.
Q. So how did you tackle this issue?
A. We noticed that most women never reported the matter to the police. The police was so apathetic towards their problems anyway. In 1985, after joining Seva Mandir, which was already working on the issue, I decided to approach the jaati (caste) panchayats. It is these panchayats which publicly declare the women as witches. Most panchayats are dominated by men. Initially, they were reluctant to listen. But we persisted. We even organized training sessions for women to speak about the violence they suffer on this account. We explained how the dakan system was, in a way, like domestic violence. Most of the women declared as witches had some kind of conflict at home. We also organized an interface - between some of these women and the panchayat leaders. We have launched several awareness campaigns on the issue. Simultaneously, we have been working with young men, adolescents, sensitizing them to the problem.
Q. How have men responded to your role?
A. After all these years, they have realized that I am committed to this issue. Now, when I speak, they (men in the caste panchayat) listen. I have an identity. I have created a space for myself. It's been a slow process, but I have realized the power of collective action. I have also realized that no big change is possible without the participation of men. They have a big role to play in reproductive health and abortions based on sex-selection. And, contrary to popular belief, men are willing to listen. In a way, my confidence to carry on working has come from the fact that men are willing to debate on these issues.
Q. In your view, what has been the most important achievement of the women's struggle in the last two decades?
A. The Domestic Violence Act. It has given women new strength. In the future, I would like to see 50 per cent reservation for women in politics.