The Nari Nyay Sangh, composed of 19 women from Jharkhand’s Godda district, works to protect the legal rights of women facing domestic, social or sexual violence.
“After her husband’s death, her brother-in-law tried to axe her. He claimed she had eaten the soul of her husband,” said Yukta Devi, recalling a witch-hunting episode in Ghatkurawa village in Jharkhand’s Godda district. “After that, the entire community assembled to bring in an ojha (exorcist).”
“When we learned about this, I informed all the women in my panchayat. My husband locked me in a room because he knew I would intervene,” added 36-year-old Yukta Devi. “Thankfully, the other women arrived and stepped in.”
They proceeded to file a police report under the Prevention of Witch Practices Act and made sure that the woman accused of being a witch was treated with respect.
Fondly called ‘Badlav Didi’, Yukta and the other women in the story are part of the Nari Nyay Sangh, a group of 19 women belonging to different panchayats, who work towards protecting the legal rights of women facing domestic, social or sexual violence.
Recalling the longest-running case taken up by the Nari Nyay Sangh since its inception in 2016, another member Geeta Devi shared the story of Gulshan Ara, a 35-year-old paddy field worker from Chaura village in Godda. After six years of marriage, Gulshan’s husband had divorced her using triple talaq. The primary reason was they did not have any children. After the divorce, her marital family wanted to keep Gulshan out of the village. This was when the Nari Nyay Sangh stepped in. “After we warned her husband and mother-in-law of legal action, they agreed to reconcile,” explained Geeta. Now, despite their separation, Gulshan is able to live in the same hamlet as her husband.
Their modus operandi
“When someone comes to us with a complaint, we first take a handwritten application from them,” said 50-year-old Rajmani Devi, explaining the Nari Nyay Sangh’s standard operating procedure. After reviewing the application, someone from the Sangh contacts the complainant via a phone call and attempts to thoroughly understand the issue. Thereafter, a group of six to seven ‘didis’ go to the field and enquire about the dispute with the complainant’s neighbours.
All aspects of ongoing cases are discussed during fortnightly Sangh meetings, which take place on the 13th and 26th of every month.
“We ask the complainant whether she prefers reconciliation or a legal case as the next step,” said Rajmani. If the complainant prefers reconciliation, the didi’s talk to both parties and try to get them on the same page. If this is not preferred, then the Sangh proceed with legal proceedings, as per the complainant’s wishes.
Manisha, an active member of the organisation, said she always carries a brown diary with her, in which she has jotted down all the relevant portions of the IPC (Indian Penal Code) as well as various dos and don’ts that pertain to such instances.
“The very first thing we have to do is file an FIR at the nearest police station and take a photocopy of the FIR,” explained Manisha. She firmly stated that they cannot be denied from filing an FIR. “Bolna bhi mera adhikar hai, pehnana bhi mera adhikar hai, FIR likhwana bhi adhikar hai (I have the right to speak, to wear what I want, and to file an FIR),” Manisha said in a sing-song voice.
“The justice system may be blind but we will be their sight,” she added, with pride.
The women of the Nari Nyay Sangh have been at odds with the justice system, on various occasions.
Sharing a story of being threatened by a local police officer, Manisha said, “He told us that he would tie us to a tree and beat us with a cane.” She added that this did not stop her or any of the other didis.
“If we receive proper authority or identity cards, then it will be easier for us,” Geeta continued. “In the judicial order, we currently hold no power.”
The women have faced resistance not only from the legal system but also their own families.
“When I joined the Nari Nyay Sangh, my husband started fighting and arguing with me,” said Geeta. “He insults me everyday, and my children do the same now.”
Geeta went on, “But now I know how to ignore them.”
“Didi samvidhan se chalti hain aur dada samaj se chalte hain. (Sister Geeta follows the Constitution while her husband follows societal norms),” explained Manisha, evoking laughter from all the other women present.
She added, “We confront the wrath of not only our relatives, but also of victims’ families who fight with us because of our work. We have to listen to their nonsense and abuse.”
Prior to founding the Nari Nyay Sangh, most of the 19 members were part of self-help groups. “Many women would come to us with incidents of domestic abuse, child marriage and other injustice,” recounted Geeta, adding that they usually attempted to address disputes, despite their lack of legal knowledge at the time.
Based on a comparison of National Family Health Survey and National Crime Records Bureau data, an analysis by Pramit Bhattacharya and Tadit Kundu for The Mint had found that an estimated 99.1% cases of sexual violence go unreported. In most of such instances, the violence is perpetrated by the victim’s husband. There is also a correlation between lower literacy and under-reporting of violence.
“This is a rural and backward region. Most of the time, women either accept male domination or do not raise their voice due to lack of legal awareness and poverty,” Geeta explained.
This is why Geeta and her colleagues felt the need to form a women-led organisation to deal with instances violence against women.
The women participated in workshops on the legal system, conducted by PRADAN, an NGO that works with women’s collectives. Equipped with better awareness, they set up the Nari Nyay Sangh. They were the driving force behind this transformation, which was made possible by the IKEA Foundation’s project STaRtuP (SHG-led transformation of Rural Communities via Partnership).
The organisation acts as a bridge between women facing violence and the legal system that is often inaccessible to such women.