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May her tribe increase

PE Usha, whose struggle against sexual harassment galvanised the women’s rights movement in Kerala, has a new mission today — empowering tribal women. Ramesh Babu examines....

india Updated: Mar 05, 2009 21:33 IST
Ramesh Babu

It has happened to most women at some point in their lives — that unwanted touch, gesture or look that makes the skin crawl and the blood boil. Most women bury the anger and the incident, reluctant to draw more attention to themselves.

Calicut university employee P.E. Usha refused to. One day in 1999, Usha was on a crowded bus taking her to her workplace when a co-passenger ejaculated on her, wetting her clothes. “Initially I thought of ignoring it,” she confesses. “But it struck me: he would then do the same to other women. I decided I would not let that happen.”

Usha succeeded in taking the bus to a police station and getting the culprit arrested. He was sentenced to two years’ rigorous imprisonment by a local court in 2006 but appealed, and the case is in a higher court now.

Meanwhile, some of her University colleagues began a smear campaign against her, even alleging that the incident happened with her consent. Her complaint to the authorities fell on deaf ears (one of the tormentors was the leader of an employees’ union). So Usha went on a fast-unto-death to force the university to book her persecutors. In spite of a report submitted to the Chief Minister last year, no action has been taken so far.

“More than the crime, its aftermath haunts the victim. She is victimised again and again by the system. There are enough laws to check harassment at the workplace. But most of them still remain on paper,” Usha laments.

With the ostracism continuing, Usha opted for a deputation to the Attapadi Hills Development Society (AHDS) in a tribal hamlet in Palakkad district. There she discovered a new mission — the exploitation of Adivasis, especially women. Unwed mothers, land-grabs, bootlegging — the problems were aplenty.

Thanks to ‘Thaikula Sangam’, a women’s group she founded, the number of unwed mothers in the area dropped dramatically. Sangam activists also raided illicit breweries. But Usha came up against the local mafia, which wanted to silence her.

She was dubbed a Naxalite and transferred back to the university. She approached the Kerala High Court to obtain a stay and continues her work among the tribals.

“Kerala is advanced in many ways. But women remain second-class citizens here,” says Usha (45). “Many organisations shed tears for them but when it comes to the crunch they back out. Women’s empowerment is the only solution.”