Meet the Feticide Fighters from Rural India
Bimla Devi, 57, of Basduda village in Rewari district of Haryana is no stranger to social boycott and ridicule. Socially ostracized by both men and women of her village, denied public services from local tradesmen and public transport operators and even brutally beaten up once while holding a women's meeting at her home, this diminutive-sized woman has displayed hidden strength in she dealing with her detractors.
Today, she is known as "Bimla Pradhan", even though she is not an elected representative, because of her relentless efforts to secure justice for the most underprivileged in the community - women.
Whether it is domestic violence, adult education for women or promoting the health and well-being of the girl child by campaigning against female feticide, Bimla is at the forefront, often collaborating with district authorities and taking to task errant families, some of whom still harbor feelings of resentment for what they term her "interference" in matters which don't concern her.
"I don't care if I am unpopular in some quarters and now my family accepts this," she says with a shrug. "I have faced opposition ever since I started my community activities by facilitating an adult education centre for women in my village about 20 years ago." In a journey often fraught with tensions and threats, Bimla was instrumental in mobilizing the village women to organize themselves into a 'sangathan' (group) for collective action on issues affecting women's well-being. "Once, during a meeting at home, a few men armed with sticks entered and attacked us. No villager came to our rescue! Such was the level of hostility that we had to confront on a daily basis," she recalls.
Now she is on a mission to spread awareness against the heinous practice of female feticide. "The district administration has a committee against female feticide and they have asked for my help," she reveals. At the same time she is critical of the authorities and questions their sincerity in tackling the issue and points out that "whenever I call the committee, no one talks to me". To illustrate this, she refers to a recent case she had pursued. Bimla says she found out that her neighbor's pregnant wife was planning to get an ultrasound test done to check the sex of the fetus, which is an unlawful act under Indian law. "I followed the couple to Rewari hospital and had to phone the Chief Medical Officer (CMO) of the hospital to prevent them from getting the procedure done."
However, the wily couple kept moving from one hospital to another, changing taxis to deter Bimla. "After a while, I had to give up as I ran out of money and could no longer follow them. I heard later that they had got the test done and left the village to get the fetus aborted as it was girl. Without the wholehearted cooperation from the authorities and the medical community, what can one individual do?" she asks passionately.
Bimla can take heart from the fact that at least one Haryana village in her district seems to have woken up to this crime against the unborn girl, and the credit for that must go to the village's female formally elected 'sarpanch' (chairman of the village Panchayat).
When Maya Yadav, 50, of Teent village in Rewari was elected to the post of the seat reserved for women, she was initially indifferent to her responsibilities and let her husband manage the official duties. However, members of two women 'sangathans' in the village motivated her to take interest in Panchayat activities and encouraged her to attend meetings and capacity building initiatives facilitated by a local NGO, the Social Centre for Rural Initiative & Advancement (SCRIA).
Soon Maya got involved in various social and developmental issues of the village. "I realized that the well-being and progress of our community could only be achieved by empowering women and protecting the rights of girl children," she recalls. Towards that end, she launched gender awareness programmes at regular intervals in the village with the result that today every girl in the village attends school.
Maya also claims that her village is the only one in the district where the sex ratio is even. This is no mean feat given that Haryana has one of the lowest gender ratios in the country with 861 women per 1,000 men, according to the 2001 Census.
She attributes this achievement to a number of factors. "In the first instance, the community rallies around parents of girls financially at the time of marriage. This prevents people from viewing the girl child as a financial burden," she explains.
"Also, we have stopped the practice of dowry. For this, we had to actually sensitize women more than men, because collecting dowry had become something of a prestige issue for women and they would compete with each other during weddings. Now the practice of buying and displaying dowry items has stopped because we would not go to a wedding venue where we heard dowry was being collected. This in turn has helped to discourage the practice of female feticide," she claims.
The Teent village example has inspired women's 'sangathans' across the district. Aware that in a patriarchal society violence against women starts even before they are born, many members of women's 'sangathans' have sworn not to adopt this practice in their family. "We have been networking with other 'sangathans' in the district and over the years have attempted to prevent this evil, on an average dealing with 15 to 20 cases a month," informs Bimla.
They succeed at times in preventing gender specific abortions, but often their efforts fail. "There are two reasons for this failure. On the one hand, the preference for the male child is so strong that no amount of reasoning, threats or awareness raising on the societal problems arising from skewed gender ratio make any difference to the errant family," observes Sunder Lal, Director of SCRIA. "On the other hand, such abortions form a well entrenched business with a large network of beneficiaries across a wide section of society," he adds.
The situation is difficult but it does not dishearten women like Bimla. She claims that in fact it only "inspires us women to fight even more vigorously for the right of the unborn girl child."
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Nitin Jugran Bahuguna
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