Awareness campaigns key to fighting the custom of virginity test, says Neelam Gorhe
Neelam Gorhe, a member of legislative council (MLC) from Pune and a senior leader from Shiv Sena, raised the issue of virginity test of brides of the Kanjarbhat community in the Maharashtra assembly. The discussion led to Ranjait Patil, minister of state, home, Maharashtra saying that the police will register cases against anyone advocating the virginity test. .
Have you spoken to the elders of the Kanjarbhat community? What are they saying about the issue?
I have not been able to talk to them. While a few people approached me regarding this issue, many have sent a written memorandum. The stand that the elders take is that it is not a virginity test. They say that they are doing it to solemnise the marriage. There is definitely a gap between ground reality and perception. This is not the first time that I have come across this custom. I have been working with leaders of nomadic tribes organisations since 1991. There was a conference at the state-level for reforms and development of nomadic tribes, then and the process was initiated. There were founders like Balkrushna Renke, Lakshman Gaikwad, Lakshman Mane, Murchand Bhat, Kavichand Bhat, also Dr Baba Adhav - all these people were part of the process. At that time, we organised community meetings.
We conducted more than 200 meetings across the city regarding issues affecting nomadic tribes. For example, in Kaikadi community, there was a custom of selling the bride. Similarly, I have heard about this custom of performing virginity test in 1992 itself. But I was under the impression that this custom would have changed after so many people having worked on the issue. This issue was raised by the youth group now and it became clear that it is still in practice. It is because of my initiative and with the co-operation of chief minister Devendra Fadnavis, the act regarding social boycott due to caste panchayat, was passed.
If a community wants to prove her chastity or if there is an "offence" which they think has been done by a woman, then she is supposed to compensate for it. I felt that after the law was passed, we can request the police and the social organisations to create awareness so that caste panchayat people know that they cannot do anything in violation of the human rights of any individual. It would be great if caste panchayat takes a step towards 100% literacy or zero malnutrition, zero maternal death or zero child marriage. They should not intervene with the social status of the woman. The law needs to be implemented. I have spoken to a select group of people and have told them that they should give this custom a serious second thought.
The police state that the couple in virginity test record statements saying no such test was performed. Therefore no cases get registered. What are your thoughts?
If you have gone through the proceeding of my ‘calling attention’ move in the State Assembly, it is clear that the first point is that the law does not mention this, is not true, it is not factual. Because,the police have not studied whether discussing a woman's virginity in public or conducting a test in this manner falls under the jat panchayat's purview. Second, the police have taken a viewpoint that the complainant has not come forward. Basically, in social offences like sexual harassment, in earlier times, when offences under Sections 354 or 509 of Indian Penal Code (IPC), complaint was not lodged because a compalint application was not filed by the affected women. But now there is a legal change that a third person can file an offence. Therefore, I raised a question related to Sati. Sati (a woman who has to burn along with her husband's pyre) herself never came to complaint that she had to perform Sati, does that mean that you won't register an offence if something like that happens? In social acts, even if the victim does not come ahead, the matter should still be investigated. I will never say that you must arrest people at random, or use the law to terrorise people. But when there is a possibility that a virginity test can be conducted, the police needs to ensure that it does not happen, by creating awareness that a caste panchayat cannot perform such tests. Second, a person in civil clothes should be present with a hidden camera. Third, the social activists working for the cause should be provided protection when they (social activists) complain. The affected girl cannot come forward because her married life is at stake. I have heard from the social activists that police reach 3 to 4 hours late and by then the test is done. Have the police tried speaking to the panch? Why do they do it? They maybe socially eminent people but they do not have a right to punish people. So basically, the police have not understood the law,to the extend that they should have, and that is the root of the problem, in my opinion. Police have to realise that the law is meant to stop the practice completely, and not just to punish the panch and the related people.
What are the steps between Ranjit Patil’s statement and its execution?
There are quite a few procedural things. He has raised two points. He is going to hold a meeting in the coming month with social activists and the panch, in order to ensure support from region-specific social activists, to help execute the law. I will also be part of the meeting. Second, he is planning awareness workshops for the police force. Third, every three months, there is a review of offences - how many offences are registered, how many chargesheets are filed, which government lawyers were assigned and what investigation is going on. The Minister for Home will take a review of all the offences registered related to offences involving caste panchayat. Every part, Western Maharashtra, Widarbha and Marathwada, does this. Once this begins, the effect will surely be felt. But nothing happens on its own. I suggest that the government conduct awareness campaigns for the caste panchayats as well. It is atrocious that in a rape case in Gadchiroli, caste panchayat people pressurised the family not to register the offence. The caste panchayat should know that offence can be registered against them as well for such acts under CrPC and IPC. This information should reach them. Gender equality should be accepted in caste panchayats. The caste panchayats have no right or locus standi to interfere in the personal and social lives of the people.