India’s #MeToo Pioneer Bhanwari Devi On The Burgeoning Movement
- IWB Post
- July 10, 2019
“When senior, powerful men abuse us, when they lose control and take advantage of women, what example does that set for ordinary people?” asks Bhanwari Devi, the mother of India’s #MeToo movement.
More than a quarter-century ago, Devi decided to raise her voice when the social mandate recommended doing otherwise. A lower caste woman, with no education whatsoever, Devi didn’t let her class or social status stop her from standing up against injustice even if it meant messing with the upper caste powerful men of her village.
It all happened in 1992 when Devi worked as a saathin at the Rajasthani state government’s Department of Women and Child Development, where her job was to educate the women of her village Bhateri about hygiene and family planning. Around the same time, she also started her campaigns against child marriage.
Devi, who was herself married at the age of 5-6, was attempting to stop the child marriage of a 9-year-old in September 1992, which didn’t go down well with the baby’s father and other higher caste men in the village.
As revenge, the baby’s father along with four other men approached Devi and her husband while they were working in their field and after beating her husband, two of them raped Devi. She didn’t let that incident scare her and filed a police complaint which backfired for her. She was ostracised in her village for going against upper caste men.
However, it was only because of this brazen woman that in 1997, India’s first workplace sexual harassment guidelines were adopted. Since then, they have been revised a couple of times and the Indian government is again considering new revisions in the wake of #MeToo movement.
Sadly, despite being the reason behind the harassment law, she still awaits justice in her own case. Speaking to National Public Radio about one of her abusers who is still alive, Devi says, “He might see this news of men in the cities being held to account. But he’s still a powerful man in my village. He’s turned people against me. I’m still ostracized by my community because I spoke up.”
While Bhanwari still awaits justice in her case, she is glad that the women have finally started speaking up for the injustice done to them. “It is God who gives me justice. The government has not. But now more women are speaking out. They deserve justice. They must speak out. Nothing should silence them. I hope they don’t feel any fear. They are empowered,” she said in a recent interaction.
However, what saddens her is the fact that a lot of sexual violence still remains unreported in rural areas. “There are so many abuse cases, often involving fathers-in-law, or brothers-in-law. It’s different from the city. In villages, abusers can hide behind their families. Victims, if they speak out, taint the whole village’s honor.”