Bhanwari Devi

Bhanwari Devi, A Rape Victim Who Changed India’s Sexual Harassment Law

Around 4 decades ago, a woman was gang-raped by her higher caste neighbors in front of her husband just because she tried stopping a marriage of a nine-month-old infant girl. Nearly a quarter of a century passed, but she refuses to surrender. Bhanwari Devi is an Indian social worker from Bhateri Rajasthan who is currently helping rape victims in search of justice. Devi’s subsequent treatment by the police after her rape, and court acquittal of the accused, attracted widespread national media attention and became a landmark in India’s women’s rights movement. This is her story.

The unlikely heroine of women empowerment- Bhanwari Devi

Bhanwari Devi was born to a caste Kumhar in the Bhateri village of Rajasthan. Kumhar, traditionally are pot makers who belong to a lower caste, while most people of her village belonged to the Gurjar community of milkmen, which is higher in the caste hierarchy than Bhanwari’s. Bhanwari Devi was married at the age of six to Mohan Lal Prajapat who was eight years old at the time. Together they had four children, two sons, and two daughters. While her elder three children are uneducated, her youngest daughter completed her Bachelor of Education and is an English teacher at a school.

Bhanwari Devi

In 1985, Bhanwari Devi started working at the Women’s Development Project (WDP) run by the Government of Rajasthan as a Saathin. The organization overviews cases of women’s exploitation such as rape, child marriages, dowry, etc. Devi would often take up cases related to land, water, literacy, and health. During this time many villagers supported her and even encouraged her to continue the work. Soon after, she was appointed a case of the attempted rape of a woman from a neighboring village. However, things changed in 1992 when Bhanwari Devi took up the issue of child marriage. As Rajasthan is a home to the practice of child marriage, many people stood against her. She was alienated from society and people stopped trading with her family and her community.

When the state government of Rajasthan decided to launch a campaign against child marriage during the fortnight preceding the festival of Akha Teej, which is considered an auspicious date for marriage, Bhanwari Devi actively participated in the campaign. Though the campaign along with Devi received massive backlash, she continued with her efforts to prevent child marriages. With this, she got involved in a case where a man named Ram Karan Gurjar had planned to marry her nine-months old infant daughter. Though Devi persuaded them to stop the marriage, the family stood determined. After Devi left, the DSP and SHO of the village started taking rounds of the village to stop any potential child marriage from happening in the area. Though Ram Karan Gurjar successfully married his daughter, many villagers including him thought that the police visits are associated with Devi’s efforts.

The whole village turned against her and boycotted her family and her community. Bhanwari Devi lost her job as her employer was roughed up, while her husband was beaten up by another Gujar. People stopped selling milk to them and pushed the family to starvation. According to Bhanwari Devi, on the evening of 22 September 1992, when she was working with her husband in the field, five men attacked Devi and her husband. Her husband was beaten with sticks until he passed out. Then the men took turns raping Devi. In her complaint to the police, she named the five men: Ram Sukh Gujjar, Gyarsa Gujjar, and Ram Karan Gujjar, her uncle Badri Gujjar along with another accomplice Shravan Sharma. The men were angry with her for trying to prevent a nine-month-old Gujjar girl’s wedding.

The police were slow in lodging FIR and slower in medically examining Bhanwari. It took more than 52 hours for her to get medically examined while Indian law requires this to be done within 24 hours of an alleged rape and her bruises were not recorded. Even during the interrogation, she was accused of lying and her rapists denied rape.

Bhanwari Devi

After a local newspaper condemned the incident, Devi’s plight was heard by several women activists who started helping her with the case. Thanks to their efforts, the case was handed over to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), India’s federal police. The five accused were finally arrested more than a year after the crime and were charged with harassment, assault, conspiracy, and gang rape. Although the accused were arrested and tried in court, they were backed by the local MLA, Dhanraj Meena. The judgment was dubious, as they judged cleared the charges on the basis that a village head cannot rape, men of different castes cannot participate in gang rape, and a man cannot rape in front of a relative – this was regarding two of the men, an uncle, and nephew, a member of the higher caste cannot rape a lower caste woman because of reasons of purity and an elderly cannot rape.

This judgment ignited a massive protest and outrage on both national and international levels. Thousands of people took to the streets demanding justice for Bharwani Devi. But despite the outrage, only one hearing has been held in 22 years. In 1997, the top court came out with Vishakha Guidelines, laying down norms to protect women from sexual harassment in workplaces. The judgment is based on the fundamental rights of women. And the guidelines later became the basis for a 2013 law passed by the Indian parliament to prevent sexual harassment of women in the workplace. Though Bhanwari Devi has no role in this law, she acted as a catalyst for this.

Moreover, her case has encouraged more rape victims to prosecute their rapists. Bhanwari Devi has received several awards for her exceptional courage. She continues to live in the same village as her attackers and proudly works for Saathin even today. Devi believes that a single incident does not define us instead it’s our reaction to that event that creates who we are.

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