Why women in India must thank Bhanwari Devi
The stories of sexual harassment at the workplace seem to have grown from a trickle to a steady stream in recent times. We hear of a professor who found it amusing to use sexual innuendo when addressing his students at a prestigious university, of an internationally acclaimed environment guru preying on women in his institution, powerful movie producers who thought success gave them carte blanche to demand sexual favours. But, the good news is that more women are hitting back, trying to bring their tormentors to justice or at least exposing them.
I wonder how many people know that women need to thank a class action suit filed by women workers at an iron ore mine in Minnesota, which was finally settled for $3.5 million. It did not translate into much money for the women workers of the mine but it did set a precedent for sexual harassment cases from then onwards. The story of their struggle is captured beautifully in the film ‘North Country,’ starring the luminous Charlize Theron as the main protagonist. The story revolves around the struggle of a woman, Josey Aimes, who portrays the real life miner Lois Jenson who takes up a job in the mines in Minnesota and who is resented by her male colleagues and her own father who feel that she is taking a job which should rightfully have belonged to a man. The level of harassment that she suffers is shocking from the verbal to the physical and any protest is criticised as being the result of women not having a sense of humour. Her morals are questioned, she is shamed but she fights on.
The saga of Theron’s battle against the men at her workplace and her father is inspiring. Her anger is always tempered by the fear that she will lose this job, which enables her to give her children a good quality of life. It is this fear that leads to the silence, which perpetuates ugly behaviour at the workplace. In India, getting a job is tough enough for a woman. Hanging on to it involves many compromises, among them facing harassment in the workplace. A survey conducted by the Indian National Bar Association a year ago found that of 6,047 respondents, 38% admitted to facing harassment at work and a staggering 69% said they kept quiet about it for fear of losing their jobs.
Marvelling at the tenacity and courage of Lois Jenson, the remarkable woman who fought her male harassers to a standstill, I could not help but remember the Indian woman who fought so relentlessly for justice and whose case brought about the historic Vishaka Guidelines on sexual harassment. The judgment in 1997 was followed by the 2013 law on making the workplace safer for women at least in law.
Given her background, Bhanwari Devi’s case is as remarkable, if not more, than that of Jenson. Here was a woman brought up in a patriarchal environment dominated not just by men but by upper caste men and who yet had the courage to take on the system.
It was in 1985 that she enrolled as a saathin for the Rajasthan government’s women development project. Her opposition to child marriage and dowry was resisted forcefully by the men and women in her village, yet the feisty woman refused to back down. When she found out that a nine-month old baby was about to be married – she herself was married at six – she informed the police. They did nothing. The baby’s marriage went ahead. The response to this intervention by Bhanwari was terrifying. She was gang raped by her upper caste neighbours and her husband was beaten unconscious. She did not get the justice she hoped for. Her rapists were acquitted and she is still fighting for redress.
But the only good thing that came of her suffering is that a number of women’s rights groups got together and filed a PIL in the Supreme Court and this led to the landmark guidelines. Today, she is largely forgotten, no serious film has been made on this amazing woman. She continues her work in the same village she has always stayed, refusing to be browbeaten by the ostracisation she faces. If women can take on harassers in the workplace today, it is due to the efforts of this largely forgotten woman who still believes that she will one day get justice and who is unafraid of her attackers who live in the same village.