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Discriminated hill women suffer in silence

Times of India News Service, June 16, 1998

NEW DELHI: Balamdei of Kot Manyar village in Tehri district of Uttar Pradesh has been behind bars for some months now with no hope of deliverance. Her crime – she accidentally killed her alcoholic husband while trying to wrench away from him the pickaxe he was about to hit her with.

Charged under Section 304 of the IPC, she is shunned by both family and community and no one has come forward to post her bail or hire a lawyer to defend her.

A dalit woman of Jakholi village was raped by an attendant when she had gone to the local hospital for treatment. She was condemned by the entire village and prevented by the elders from filing a case. Subsequently, her engagement to a young man of the village was also broken off.

These are just some instances of the abuse and sexual exploitation that women and girls face in the Uttarakhand region of UP, say social activists. “Today life has become miserable in the hills due to alcoholism,” says Ms Kusum Rawat of Mahila Samakhya, an NGO working for the uplift of women in Tehri district. Women are the victims of molestation in buses, hospitals and schools and the culprits go scot free because they can easily get bail, she alleged.

The Mahila Samakhya, which undertook a sample survey of crimes against women in Tehri Garhwal during the past two years, found that in several cases the accused went unpunished because of indifference and apathy on the part of the local authorities. Apart from this, social pressure forced the victim to either suffer in silence or pay the price for voicing her grievance by being ostracised by the community.

Ms Rawat who was in the Capital to present the findings of the survey to the National Commission for Women (NCW) said that the backwardness of the region added to the sufferings of the women. Cases of abuse often surfaced long afterwards due to the remote locations and inaccessible approaches. Even after this, justice was rarely served due to the expenses involved in seeking legal redressal.

Balamdei’s story is not a new one. Married to Dalbir Singh for 17 years, the couple have two boys and two girls. Balamdei worked alone in the fields to support her children. Shortly after marriage her husband took to drinking. He sold his wife’s jewellery and other property to maintain his habit and picked up fights with her practically every night.

The irony, says Ms Rawat, is that even her own parents felt she had shamed them by her act and said she should have killed herself as well. On being explained the facts of the case, they calmed down but expressed helplessness in coming to their daughter’s aid, saying their son had threatened them against arranging bail for her.

Ms Rawat said the NCW was aware of Balamdei’s case and had asked her to arrange a lawyer besides ascertaining all the facts in the case. According to NCW sources, the commission will be writing shortly to the local administration asking for an explanation. If necessary, an NCW team could also be sent to the area, the sources said.

Despite being one of the most backward districts in the country, the local administration is doing nothing to alleviate the lot of women in Tehri, Ms Rawat alleged. In this context, the NCW sources said they have asked women’s organisations in Tehri and other districts of Uttarakhand to hold mahila adalats so that cases of oppression see the light of day.

Another disturbing feature in the region is the growing number of deserted women. To understand and highlight the pathetic plight of hill women who have been deserted by their husbands, the NCW had in collaboration with a Dehra Dun-based NGO, the Himalayan Action Research Centre (HARC), organised a public hearing last month. With the objective of sensitising the policymakers, administration and society, the public hearing was the result of an in-depth study undertaken by HARC during the past two years or so which revealed an increase in the number of deserted women in the region due to several socio-cultural factors.

The study was conducted on 250 deserted women spread over Pauri, Tehri, Chamoli, Dehra Dun, Uttarkashi, Almora and Pithoragarh districts of Uttarakhand. On an average every village surveyed had two or three deserted women.

Among the reasons cited for desertion were inability to bear a child or a male child, male migration from hills to city, or if the woman was illiterate, had brought insufficient dowry, was suffering from asthmatic or terminal diseases or was handicapped or inefficient in agricultural works or domestic chores.

The study said these deserted women had no social status and were not recognised by the administration. “In Uttarakhand, a woman who has been left by her husband without divorcing her neither comes in the category of divorced woman nor in the category of widow. Mostly these deserted women though married are made to lead the life of a widow. Not getting maintenance from the husband, a deserted woman is deprived of the basic amenities,” it says.

At the conclusion of the public hearing the NCW made a number of recommendations. These included compulsory registration of marriages, training-cum-short stay home for deserted women at district level, legal literacy for women, mobile courts which could reach places in high altitudes where women were left isolated by society, strengthening of the panchayati raj and a women’s police cell at zilla level.

It was brought up before the NCW that in many cases the sarpanch/pradhan was corrupt and women had no resources but to accept the corrupt pradhan’s decision. It was, therefore recommended that a block level grievance cell be set up so that a woman could easily complain against a corrupt official and get quick redressal of justice. (UNI)