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Mar 8, 2016

Woman, Open Your Eyes…

Pooja Parvati   /   Pooja Parvati

As dusk falls in Paimar Ghat village on the banks of Punpun River in Bihar, the deep-throated voice of Rooni Devi as she leads a group of women and youth in the chorus song “Ekrake kaise mitawa Sakhi, tanik khola najariya, dekha…” (Sister, open your eyes and look around at the exploitation faced by women, let’s see how we can end this…) is mesmerising. 

Rooni Devi heads the Mahila Dastak (means Women’s Watch) which was formed a year ago to create awareness among the community to raise their voice for a violence-free life. Rooni Devi might not understand the significance of International Women’s Day but, it is only appropriate that today, we celebrate her activism as a testament to how women continue to find their voice and assert it.

The Mahila Dastak has been established by a local NGO, Nari Gunjan based in Punpun block in Patna district in Bihar. The NGO has been working with the community to create awareness on rights for women and education of the girl child, especially Dalit girls. It was founded by 2006 Padmashri awardee, Sudha Varghese. Nari Gunjan has been supported by Oxfam India since 2014, as part of its support to the RAHAT network that comprises of six NGOs working on women’s rights.

Mahila Dastaks are a unique experiment in community-led social change. In Paimar Ghat village, Rooni Devi along with ten other members meet once a month to discuss the major problems that confront their village and nearby areas. They have reached out to over 100 households since they were established, spreading awareness on the need to end violence against women. Sixty-six per cent of the households in the village are Dalit households.

“In the beginning, it was very difficult to convince women to join the group. After a lot of persuasion, it was formed in the village. Today, these women are aware about issues related to domestic violence and support the women from their own as well as nearby villages to stop domestic violence. Earlier, their husbands would not allow them to be part of such activities but now a few of them have extended support to the group,” shares Rooni Devi when asked to narrate the journey of the Mahila Dastak

“My husband used to get drunk every day and beat me. He also stopped giving me money to run the household. It was after I became a member that I realised I had a voice and can put an end to this”, volunteers Sushma Devi upon being asked who among the group had faced domestic violence. When asked whether they still face violence at home, they all boisterously speak in unison, “Let someone even try!” 

It would quickly become clear to anyone who meets these women that the experiment has been a success. As Rooni Devi proudly shares, “Earlier, I used to be scared to open my mouth for fear of abuse. Today, I can confidently talk to anyone about the need to end violence against women and girls. Now, we also meet regularly with the Panchayat Sarpanch to discuss non-payment of wages to women workers.” 

Neha, who works as Programme Officer, Gender Justice in the Oxfam India - Patna office, upon being asked on how they track impact, says, “Apart from anecdotal evidence, we compile monthly reports using specific indicators and subsequently have been advocating with the state government for more effective implementation of the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005.’’ 

The Act is a progressive civil law, complementing existing criminal laws, and provides for immediate relief—to married and unmarried women—ranging from medical aid, shelter, monetary support and legal assistance. Oxfam India’s recommendations for effective implementation of the Act can be found here.

Additionally, Yuva Dastak is a related experiment that is operational in the village. It comprises of mixed groups of boys and girls and sex-disaggregated groups to create awareness and understanding among the youth on ending violence against women and girls. 

Says Nitish Kumar, all of 17 years and a member of the Yuva Dastak, “I have seen my father beat my mother and felt helpless about it. In the early days when we set the group, nobody would listen to us but things have changed somewhat and we get attention when we raise any case that we come to know of.” He adds, “I personally knew of four cases that have since been resolved. We also speak on the need to put an end to child marriage.” Incidentally, he is also Rooni Devi’s son.

Today, as we celebrate International Women’s Day amidst reports of violence against women, a flicker of hope is alight thinking of the Rooni Devis who, in their own significant ways, are challenging status quo and empowering other women to raise their voice against violence. The song continues to fill the air…”sister, open your eyes…”


Written by Pooja Parvati, Research Manager at Oxfam India 


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