Womens rights abuses in India begin in childhood

*Posted by Frances*

A few weeks ago I went to the screening of acclaimed filmmaker Kim Longinotto's ‘Pink Saris’ at the Human Rights Action Centre. Many thanks to the Women’s Action Network for highlighting the important issue of rights’ abuses in Uttar Pradesh, India, where marriage often takes place at an early age with wives at the mercy of their in-laws from then on.

The film concentrates on the work of Sampat Pal, self-proclaimed women’s rights activist known throughout Uttar Pradesh, whose fame is both useful in her work but also shown to be something with the potential to preoccupy Sampat as the film progresses. Nevertheless, throughout the hour and half long film we learn the extent of abuse that can take place in Indian villages due, at least in part, to deep-seated traditions such as the caste system, dowry and position of girls in society.  

We are told that a girls’ life is very cruel and the issues in the film undoubtedly often work as illustration of child’s rights issues prevalent in parts of India. This abuse of rights starts at a very young age, when children, as set out in the UN’s Convention on the Rights of the Child, should have the right to formal education as well as protection from all forms of abuse, exploitation and cruelty. For many girls in Uttar Pradesh, these rights are not adhered to.

Although illegal, child marriage is still common, preserved in tradition. Indeed the vast majority of the girls that Sampat Pal tries to help are under 18 years old. Within the first five minutes of the film, text appears on the screen to tell us that in parts of India unmarried girls who become pregnant are often killed by their own families. This issue is only added to by the fact that families strongly disapprove or forbid their sons from marrying girls from a lower caste, even if they have become pregnant.  

It is clear, however, that being married does not always offer much protection for girls either, since they are vulnerable to abuse from their new families in the form of beatings, sexual exploitation or being thrown out of the home. Some girls, we are told, marry as young as 8 years old and what is more shocking is the fact that they will then no longer have any contact with their own parents. Once married, your own family will not take you back, even if you are suffering at the hands of your in-laws. Even if you are able ever to secure a divorce from an abusive husband, you will be alone with nowhere to live and no benefit of education. It appears too that the tradition of the dowry still prevails and it is not surprising perhaps that the prospect of such an expense can cause families not to value the birth of a baby girl, blame the mother for not bearing a son and even resort to killing the baby.

That is not to say that the issues do not continue throughout a woman’s life. Indeed, the one adult woman featured in the film is a widow whose in-laws have thrown her out onto the streets. With no money, support or education it is difficult to know how she will survive. The abuse of rights that begins in childhood continues into old age for many.  

A girl’s life is indeed very cruel and it is here that the change needs to start. Without more enforcement of the laws in place against child abuse such as enforced marriage and even infanticide, the mindset which allows human rights abuse will not be able to change.

It was very heartening that Sampat Pal was able to challenge the situation many young girls were in. The main method seemed to be in the form of creating a spectacle to publicly shame the perpetrators of abuse. It was very powerful, for example, when the whole village came out to watch Sampat describe how a girl’s father-in-law had been raping her, shouting down those who said this should not be talked about, and in fact culminating in the girl herself telling her neighbours what had happened.  

There is perhaps some safety in that and real power in telling those who have known you the longest what has happened behind closed doors. It was clear that this girl was terrified she might be killed by her in-laws and nobody would know. So it seems a step forward. What was difficult to watch, however, was that, while Sampat was able to ensure some pregnant girls did get married and some husbands were warned by the police, in the end each of the girls had to return to their in-laws’ home. As one young girl of about 15 said to camera, while her two young children clutched to her side, it was expected of her to return despite the violence she had suffered, and, indeed, where else would she go?

Sampat says at one point, ‘ we have to wake people up’ and it is clear that this is what she and others like her are trying to do, to challenge taboos and traditions that allow abuse of rights to go on unhindered. In the same breath, Sampat acknowledges that this will not happen overnight. As children’s rights activists, this is where we come in. We will work to support this evident longing for change, which is captured in the film as well as disseminated by journalists in the country. Women’s rights abuses start in childhood and need to be tackled in childhood.  

The key to this change will indeed come through dissemination of information by journalists and the ever-empowering force of education. We see in the film one young girl, Renu, who Sampat is able to take into her home for a while. From a timid beginning when it was clear that the issues of abuse by her in-laws had to be teased out of her by Sampat, Renu became a compelling individual as she started to attend school and realise from her studies that she is part of something that is going on in villages all over the country. She is not alone and feels power from that. At the end of the film it is inspiring to watch her express a strong desire to study and ‘be someone’.

As yet, very few girls in these villages have access to education or knowledge of this sort, but let us hope that Sampat Pal, flawed though she may be in her increasing quest for fame, is evidence of a growing tide of change sweeping through rural India where life for girls is cruel from a very young age.

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