child marriage Bhanwari Devi
Bhanwari Devi still fights for justice after 26 years (Source: yourstory.com)

 

This week, Twitter has been inundated with calls for Oprah to stand for President 2020. Her Golden Globes speech commemorated women who have endured years of sexual abuse, and praised those who have spoken out against it because “speaking your truth is the most powerful tool we all have.” She castigated their male aggressors, profoundly stating: “Their time is up” and honoured Recy Taylor, an African American woman, who in 1944 was brutally raped by six white men and never lived to see her day of justice.

Oprah has been core to the Time’s Up movement, the campaign put in place to fight sexual harassment in the entertainment business and US workplaces. Yet she states that sexual abuse “transcends any culture, geography, race, religion, politics, or workplace.”

Let’s transcend then, and turn our attention to another powerful woman, Bhanwari Devi, who has fought against harassment of women in office spaces in Rajasthan.

In 1985, Bhanwari Devi was working for Rajasthan’s Women Development Programme. Her role was to campaign against widespread child marriages in the state. One day, Devi found out about an impending marriage of a nine-month-old baby, and immediately visited the family to urge them to retract the decision. The days that ensued are shocking: Devi, a “low-caste illiterate woman” was publicly shunned and ostracised by her community for “defying social hierarchy.” It gets worse: a few days later, Devi was gang-raped by high-caste neighbours.

Devi spoke publicly about her rape and it has been 26 years since then. It was the first time a woman came forward about sexual assault in Rajasthan. She was accused of lying. Her employers, the state government authorities, refused to take responsibility for her assault as the incident had taken place in the field.

Yet, Devi did not stop “speaking her truth.” Her case drew attraction from various NGOs and activist groups who called for workplaces be made safe for women and that the employer must take responsibility for their employees. In 2013, an Act was passed: Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition, and Redressal), also known as the Vishaka guidelines.

However her case has never been brought through the judicial system.

“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.”

Between 2002 and 2011, 20% of the female population in India — 15.3 million girls — were married before they reached the age of 18.

Oprah says “A new day is on the horizon,” yet we will only see the break of dawn when women are treated justifiably and underage girls are not being married off illegally. We will only see this day when Bhanwari Devi sees justice.

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