CAMPAIGN IN HIMACHAL PRADESH

The campaign in Himachal Pradesh was focused in Solan and Sirmour districts including a total of 70 gram panchayats. Panchayat representatives, members of Mahila Mandal, members of Ekal Naari Shakti Sangthan, health workers and Anganwadi workers were a part of the campaign.

The rejuvenated Kanya Bachao Samiti (KBS), which keeps track of pregnant women in the area, focused on the issue of safe public spaces for women and girls, domestic violence and gender-biased sex selection during the tenure of the campaign. Topics including declining child sex ratio, family planning, sexually transmitted diseases, safe pregnancy termination, among others, were raised and discussed with people present in the meetings. Registration of pregnant women was also raised as an important step central in ensuring the health of both women and children.

The participants of the KBS meetings often shared their experiences among each other. Many of the people shared that when it came to sports, education and employment, girls and women were given equal opportunities as boys and men, but when it came to helping in domestic chores, inequality continued to exist. It was still the female’s domain.

The revival of KBS has been particularly significant for younger women in the villages, who are seen participating in the KBS meetings in larger numbers than ever before.

The campaign also educated members of the panchayat in issues such as safe abortion, domestic violence and gender-biased sex selection among others. The panchayat-level KBS meetings took place in the offices of the gram panchayats. It helped in ensuring their participation and building a sense of ownership on these issues.

The need for Swayatha Nyaya Panchayats was also raised during the campaign. People asserted that this would lessen the burden on the gram panchayats and also help in making the redressal mechanism more efficient.

With the help of focused group discussions with multiple groups of people, local gender social norms were highlighted and discussed. Menstruation came out to be one of the taboos surrounding women and girls. They face prohibition in entering religious places during periods, not touching the household granary, not cooking and serving food because it’s considered a sin to do so. They are ostracized within and outside the home during the cycle.

As part of the impact of Kanya Bachao Samiti, families had started celebrating the birthdays of their daughters as well as daughters - in - law.

To view photographs from the campaign, click here.

Following are some of the case studies which highlight the concerns of the people who were involved in the campaign.

47-year old Sunita Sharma recalls how difficult it was for her to leave the house when she first began attending the Mahila Mandal meetings (Women’s Group) in her village in the late 1990s. “The SUTRA fieldworkers would come around and encourage us to get together…I would want to go, but there was a lot of resistance from my in-laws. We lived in a joint family of 25 people, and there were a lot of chores for me to do. One day, the other women in the collective came home, and they persuaded my husband that I was doing nothing wrong by going to these meetings. After that, he stood by me, and no one objected when I left the house.”

In the meetings, Sunita learnt about gender equality, and the problems which stem from patriarchy, such as gender-biased sex selection and domestic violence among other things. “I learnt many new things, and slowly transformed…I became more in informed, and more confident. Today, I never hesitate to speak my mind...I have opinions on many things, and I don’t hesitate to voice them!” Gradually, Sunita emerged as a leader of the mahila mandal. Today, she is the Pradhan of the Kanya Bachao Samiti which convenes in her village Thappal, situated in Dharampur Panchayat, Solan district every month. “We formed the KBS to keep a watch on gender-biased sex selection…everyone in the village knows we keep an eye out. We track the pregnant women, and also ensure that they get adequate rations they need from the AWC.”

Sunita’s journey to greater empowerment and self-confidence is mirrored in the growth of the KBS. Over the years, she became involved in recruiting more and more members to the KBS. She explains that “collectivization has great advantages…whenever we want to get anything done, we go the Panchayat office or police station in a group…it is easy for officials and other villagers to dismiss one of us, but it’s harder for them to ignore a group.” Neelam, a member of the KBS, adds that, “each one of us has gained more confidence and knowledge which has helped us tackle our problems. We have learnt not be ashamed while discussing matters like menstruation, that domestic violence is illegal, and we deserve better”.

Such is the power of women’s collectives in rural Himachal Pradesh.

A meeting of the Kanya Bachao Samiti is underway in the office of the Gulahari panchayat in Dharampur block. Around 15 members of the samiti – including representatives of Women’s Groups and AWWs from the villages in the Panchayat, and most members of the Panchayat – are present. The women sit in a circle on the floor, while the men sit on chairs, slightly outside the circle. The agenda of today’s meeting is the Domestic Violence Act of 2005. Chandravati, a Sutra field worker, introduces the Act and explains that various kinds of violence fall under its purview: physical, sexual, emotional and financial. “If a husband doesn’t let his wife go outside the house to work even though she wants and spends all his money on alcohol, then that can be considered financial violence,” explains Chandravati, drawing assenting nods from the women in the circle. A male member of the Panchayat quips, “Wives who work outside the house nag too much,” evoking laughs from the other men present. He goes on to say that the Act is being misused by several women who slam false cases on their husbands and in-laws. “Progress and development always brings both positive and negative aspects”, Chandravati counters, “If a road is built in our area, it ensures better connectivity for us. However, it also leads to an increase in traffic and pollution in our environment. The law is important for those women who suffer from domestic violence, and it is up to us to educate people not to misuse it.” The male members of the panchayat nod slowly. Later, they share that the trainings they receive from the Government as Panchayat members are usually limited to development issues. Through this association with Sutra, however, they are slowly learning systematically about other issues. “They know these issues well,” says the Pradhan (head) of the Panchayat, “this knowledge helps us tackle such problems when we encounter them in our area.”

“My daughter’s husband used to beat her up badly,” shares Pooja Devi, a member of the Kanya Bachao Samiti of village Thappal, Himachal Pradesh. “Sometimes, he would whip her with a belt.”

When Pooja Devi heard about how her daughter was suffering, she shared her problem with other members of the Kanya Bachao Samiti in her village. They decided to approach her daughter’s husband to discuss the matter. Sunita Sharma, the Pradhan (Head) of the Kanya Bachao Samiti in Thappal village, recalls that, “When he didn’t listen, we dragged him to the police station. He promised to stop, but the violence continued…so then we took him to court.”

Pooja Devi shares that the court case went on for a long time, and was a difficult period for her daughter. “It dragged on for two to three years, and my daughter had to go to court several times during the process. In the end, when he [her son-in-law] came to court, he cried and promised he wouldn’t hit her gain. So the judge gave him another chance….yet he beat her up yet again, and she came back to live with us.”

This story is not unusual in rural Himachal Pradesh. Even though the Domestic Violence Act of 2005 gives women suffering from domestic violence a means to seek justice in court, the process is often long-drawn and expensive. “Not all women can leave their in-laws and go back to their natal homes…so while the case drags on, the woman sometimes continues to suffer,” explains Sunita Sharma. She adds that a local Nyaya Panchayat would have been far better equipped to handle the matter. “Pooja’s daughter had support from all of us, and yet she continued to suffer, even after the court’s decision…if we had a Nyaya Panchayat, then the matter would have been resolved speedily and effectively.” Leela Devi, a member of the Sutra staff, explains that Nyaya Panchayats (local bodies for dispute resolution) used to exist in Himachal Pradesh before 1977. She adds that “I doubt that her husband would have had the courage to defy the decision of the Nyaya Panchayat and lapse back into his old ways…you see, once the Nyaya Panchayat decided something, the entire community would back it. It’s very hard to go against the entire community…"

Pooja’s daughter has gone back to living with her husband for now. Says Pooja Devi, “I let her go because the new Pradhan (Head) of her village is a woman, and she promised to look out for my daughter….I do want her to have a well-settled family life, but I constantly worry about her.”

“If a guest comes to my house while I am menstruating, I feel ashamed to serve him water. I feel as if I have made him drink my menstrual blood.” A meeting of the Kanya Bachao Samiti of village Manjoli Kotri in Nahan block, Himachal Pradesh is in progress. 55-year old Maya Devi, an active member of the KBS and mother of two daughters, is explaining that she feels this way because like other women, she is impure during the menstruation period. She announces that she asked her daughters to observe the same rituals that she had to practice when she first got her period as a teenager: “When my older daughter got her period, I asked her not to see her father’s face for ten days. She would stay in her room every morning, and come out only when he left for office.” Her daughter would be served food and water separately from everyone else, and would not be allowed to enter the kitchen. However, Maya adds that things are not the same everywhere: her daughter is now married, and does not have to observe these traditions at her in-law’s place. Vimal Rana, Maya’s neighbor and head of the Mahila Mandal (Women’s Group) of the village, nods and says, “It is good that such traditions are changing. We are not allowed to enter the kitchen or milk the cow because we are impure, but still have to do the heavy work of gathering fodder for the cow.” Her comment evokes murmurs of assent from other women in the room. One of them says, “If a guest comes, we are supposed to tell him that we can’t offer him water because we have our periods. Why should our periods become public knowledge?” Another member adds, "If we are too ashamed to tell them, we are supposed to feel guilty because we have committed a sin by serving them water. No matter how we act in such a situation, we feel ashamed.”

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