[By Bhanu Priya Vyas]
New Delhi (WFS) – “Back in my Saheli days, we started the process of getting an FIR registered. When a woman would go and complain against her husband, the constable would say: ‘Thappad maara to kya hua, roti nahi deta hai kya (so what if he slapped, does he not feed you well)?’
After all these years, I am happy to say that a lot has changed. Marginalised women across the country are solving their problems and going to police stations and filing complaints. And today, dalit women from villages in Andhra Pradesh are even training policemen in the National Academy [at Hyderabad].”
It’s been over four decades of activism and engagement with various issues connected to the lives of ordinary Indian women and yet neither have Dr V. Rukmini Rao’s memories faded nor has her commitment or energy levels.
Of course, the change that she is describing here has not come about overnight; it’s the outcome of decades of concerted efforts by rights champions like Rao and others associated with the women’s movement.
“My journey towards bringing about the change I wanted to see was triggered by my own experiences. I come from a middle class joint family and when I turned 24, I realised I was not quite comfortable with the idea of living in such a setup. Having food on your plate or a roof over your head is not enough. You need dignity and you need choices,”
shares the feisty 64-year-old.
This quest for equality, justice and rights for women has remained her priority ever since – when she was agitating on the streets against dowry deaths in the late 1970s, when she got together with other vociferous activists to inquire into rape investigations conducted by the police in the 1980s and even today, as she empowers Dalit women in the hinterlands to assert their entitlements and encourages them to speak up against domestic violence.
For Rao, activism became an inseparable part of her life when she set up the Saheli Resource Centre for women in 1981. She elaborates,
“A bunch of us decided to be proactive and raise our voice against the frequent dowry deaths and bride burnings that were taking place in those days. Operating out of a small apartment in Delhi, we started off by holding demonstrations after an incident had occurred and then following up on cases to ensure proper investigation.
Later on, we decided that we should create a space where women can come when they are alive; they should have an option to a better life. So our office doubled up as a rehabilitation centre for those in need of a roof over their heads.
However, even after working for around 15 years in the city and successfully bringing about changes in the dowry law, we realised that it was not enough. Whereas changes in the law had been helpful for well-heeled, middle class women, who could access the law by paying lawyers, our efforts had not really made a difference to the lives of the rural women. They were just as they had been years ago.”
From the busy, urban landscape of the national capital Rao headed straight to the quiet countryside of Medak district in Andhra Pradesh, her home state, where she joined the Deccan Development Society (DDS) in its endeavours to promote the rights of women farmers. Presently, the DSS, where Dr Rao is now Director and Board Member, is assisting Dalit women farmers to form a movement against genetically modified foods and instead promote village level local food security. Today, farmers in the DDS network are growing their own traditional crops and have created their own grain and seed banks.
“The issue of farmer suicide and the condition of their families after their death is close to my heart. Undeniably, though production of food has increased manifold farmers, unfortunately, are killing themselves because they don’t have anything left to feed their own.
This does not mean there is no solution. Dalit women and other marginalised communities have shown the way to sustainable agriculture. It’s time for the government to reach out to them,”
Apart from focusing on livelihood rights, as the co-founder of the Gramya Resource Centre for Women Rao has spent 17 long years fighting female infanticide, gender-biased sex selection, sale of girls and domestic violence in Nalgonda and Khammam districts of Telangana.
“Through our work in Gramya, we have run extensive campaigns to prevent trafficking, sex selection and intimate partner violence besides organising women in self- help groups and promoting food security.
But the main change that we have been able to bring about is in the attitudes of people towards education. Today, 99 per cent of the children in the area we work in are in school,”
says the woman who is largely “self driven and self motivated”.
Sure, there’s a lot she and her team has been able to accomplish, yet, at the same time, Rao maintains that “a lot still needs to get done”. She explains,
“As far as women are concerned, this country must learn to implement its own laws effectively, apart from creating more laws that can effect greater women’s empowerment and financial independence.
Besides this, it is vital that grassroots women emerge as strong leaders and occupy important political and administrative positions. Needless to say, women, too, have to make efforts to make this a reality. They have to believe in themselves and their abilities.”
In addition to helping women to assert themselves Rao has decided to adopt a slightly different approach to achieving her cherished objectives. She informs,
“When we had begun to raise the rights agenda, we had firmly believed that women must organise themselves and that they must fight.
A few years down the line it became clear that it’s futile for women to go on fighting while the other half remains the same. Unless the other half’s attitude changes, unless the men change, it is difficult to carry out any big change.
We can work with women, and have been working all along, but it is the men whose support is necessary now. It’s the fathers who keep demanding a son; it’s the husbands who raise their hand on their wives. We have to try to change that mindset.”
It may have been a lifetime of struggles and trials but this dedicated campaigner never tires of doing her job. It’s the little victories that keep her going and wanting more.
“When a person who is living a very troubled life is able to break free from oppression; when women tell me that their husbands have stopped beating them and that they have started doing things together, it reinforces my belief that empowerment is something that women can bring to themselves.
All they need is a little bit of encouragement. And when I see a little girl who was a runaway bonded labour become a successful teacher, happily married and a loving mother raising her children as a confident young woman, it helps me to keep stepping up to provide that impetus,”
she signs off with a smile.
This article is published here under a partnership arrangement with © Women's Feature Service