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OUR JOURNEY TO VISHAKA – A Forum against Sexual Harassment

Bhanwari Devi was a village-level social worker or a ‘Saathin’ of a development programme run by the State Government of Rajasthan, fighting against child and multiple marriages in villages. As part of this work, Bhanwari, with assistance from the local administration, tried to stop the marriage of Ramkaran Gujjar’s infant daughter who was less than one year old. The marriage took place nevertheless, and Bhanwari earned the ire of the Gujjar family. She was subjected to social boycott, and in September 1992 five men including Ramkaran Gujjar, gang raped Bhanwari in front of her husband, while they were working in their fields. The days that followed were filled with hostility and humiliation for Bhanwari and her husband. The only male doctor in the Primary Health Centre refused to examine Bhanwari and the doctor at Jaipur only confirmed her age without making any reference to rape in his medical report. At the police station, the women constables taunted Bhanwari throughout the night. It was past midnight when the policemen asked Bhanwari to leave her dress behind as evidence and return to her village. She was left with only her husband’s bloodstained dhoti to wear. Their pleas to let them sleep in the police station at night were turned down. The trial court acquitted the accused, but Bhanwari was determined to fight further and get justice. She said that she had nothing to be ashamed of and that the men should be ashamed due to what they had done. Her fighting spirit inspired fellow saathins and women’s groups countrywide. In the months that followed they launched a concerted campaign for justice for Bhanwari. On December 1993, the High Court said, “it is a case of gang-rape which was committed out of vengeance”. As part of this campaign, the groups had filed a petition in the Supreme Court of India, under the name ‘Vishaka’, asking the court to give certain directions regarding the sexual harassment that women face at the workplace. The result is the Supreme Court judgement, which came on 13th August 1997, and gave the Vishaka guidelines.

The life story of Bhanwari Devi brings to the fore the blatant truth that indulging in self-pity and self destruction can lead nowhere in life. She has acted as a torchbearer in common woman’s search and defining of her identity. Protection of Women against Sexual Harassment at Workplace Bill, 2010 would help in creating an enabling environment for women to work without any fear of any form of harassment that in turn would deter their withdrawal of employment from the labour market. This Bill however needs a careful discussion on its strengths and weaknesses as it has also left out the domestic workers from its purview. Recognising this need, Equity Foundation, Bihar is planning to launch VISHAKA a FORUM on Protection of Women against Sexual Harassment at Workplace. VISHAKA will be dedicated to this ordinary woman with extraordinary life. Woman who refused to be a victim; who had enough grit to triumph over the troubles and tragedy that are her constant companions: sexual harassment and abuse; domestic violence; riots; gender bias… VISHAKA will engage with representatives from the government, media, civil society, lawyers, trade unions, youths, academics, and working women who will discuss the issue and challenges, its gaps and strength with a pragmatic approach. It aims to focus on the issue of gender discrimination at work keeping the recent amendments to the Bill in mind. It will also provide inputs to develop gender sensitisation amongst employees adopt gender equitable policies and achieve compliance under the law governing sexual harassment and discrimination in India. VISHAKA will also provide awareness of various legal options in handling various issues faced by employers, management, unions and so on.