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Originally produced for UNICEF

Overcoming violence

Sehra Khatum, Group Member and Health Volunteer
Bargai Slum, Ranchi, Jharkhand
Before the mahila mandal was formed there was a lot of domestic violence in Bargai. The men often got drunk on hariya (rice-based alcohol). Then they came home and beat up their wives. The turning point came in 1997. A woman had been very badly beaten by her drunk husband and was so upset she wanted to file a report with police. She decided to come and talk to the mahila mandal first and we persuaded her to let us try to solve the problem ourselves.

Twenty members of the mahila mandal gathered together to meet with the man and his wife, and carried out a complete post-mortem on everything that had happened. The man was drunk and on entering the house he had found a piece of furniture in the way. He kicked it and his wife had asked him, "why did you kick the furniture." For this he had beaten her, because she dared to question him.

We told him, "Look, how casually you beat your wife! You did it without a thought. Do you realize what a terrible soup you would be in if she had filed a First Information Report with the police? Do you know how much money you would have to pay for your thoughtlessness?"

We said these things very calmly and gently. We did not attack him. We just wanted to explain the situation clearly so that he understood. Eventually he said, "I realize I have made a mistake and I have learned that the mahila mandal is strong. I hit my wife and look at all of you, sitting there and listening and talking all this time."

We had started at 5am that morning and did not stop until 10am. By then he had agreed to apologize to his wife, he had promised never to beat her again and he had promised to pay for all her medical bills. News of what happened spread through the community and afterwards we had a lot less trouble with domestic violence. We have a lot of respect from people here because we have brought roads and new buildings and houses for the poor to this community. Men and women in Bargai know that if a woman is beaten, we shall respond. If a woman has to go as far as filing a complaint with the police, then all the women of the mahila mandal will support her. It makes the men think twice. If they make a mistake they usually apologies. Before the mahila mandal this never happened.

The story of Ramnagar Village
Rehmut, Read Coordinator, Bettiya,  West Champaran, Bihar
The dacoits are easy to recognize. They are healthy and strong, and wear thick moustaches. They dress in lunghis and carry guns with bullet belts crossed over their chests. They turn up in the villages and demand anything they want. They take food. They force the villagers to give them shelter. They rape the women and girls. The villagers throughout the border area were powerless against them. The police take little action and if there is a risk of confrontation, the dacoits simply disappear into the jungle or across the border into Nepal. The mahila samiti of Ramnager Village in West Champaran talked about the dacoit problem at their meetings. They decided that the village must take a stand, and they would refuse to give any more supplies to the dacoits. The next time the criminals showed up, everyone refused to give them grain. The dacoits were furious and on 15 December 1995, they retaliated with the massacre of 15 men. Some of these were the husbands of women on the mahila samiti.

The massacre was so serious that the authorities had to take action. The District Magistrate came himself to this very remote village. The Superintendent of Police was there as well. The villagers insisted that they needed protection, and if the police could not provide it then they would do so themselves. They asked for weapons and the police agreed, but they increased manpower in that area as well.

A year after the massacre, and every year since, the people of Ramnagar commemorate the massacre with a procession through the village that is led by the widows of the 15 victims. Every y ear they re-affirm their pledge that they will not give into the dacoits. They will not supply them with grain. They will not allow them into their homes. The message has gotten through to the dacoits. They still prey on other villages but they leave Ramnagar alone.

Satia Devi, Pandeywara Village, Hazaribagh, Jharkhand
Member, Damodar Governing Body

We were bonded labourers. All my family was. The men worked in the fields for the Brahmins. The women worked as their domestics. To this day my mother picks up cow dung for those people.

I got married fifteen years ago. My husband's family was also bonded. When you are like us it is not possible to make a good marriage. But this was at a time of land reform and because of our condition we were granted 18 kathas of land. Yet the land was worthless. It was full of rocks and the soil was very poor. We could do nothing with it so our situation did not change.

Around 1992, the people from PRADAN asked me to join the mahila mandal. I told them it was useless because we were too poor. We showed them the land and explained we could do nothing with it. PRADAN said that if we would contribute labour to clear the land, then they would help us. We decided we were working for nothing for the Brahmins so we may as well work for ourselves. PRADAN put us onto a "food for work" scheme belonging to the government so that even while we worked our own land we could get food.

We thought it would take us three years to clear the land but we did it in six months. The soil was very poor but PRADAN told us that if we cultivated it, then we quality would improve. We took a loan to purchase a bullock cart and that first year we harvested a good crop of linseed. Every year the land got better, especially after the District Rural Development Authority installed lift-irrigation. Now we can even grow wheat on that land.

All this time I was a member of the mahila mandal and together we were making changes in the schools and the health services in the community. We were winning a lot of respect. The high caste people who used to abuse us even began to greet us, and to invite us to sit down with them. They said to us, we live in the same village so we must work together. Many things were changing for us. As was the custom I got my daughter married when she was 15 years old but the cluster members of the mahila mandal called me to a meeting and criticized me for child marriage. I had to apologize and promise not to send my daughter to her husband until she was 18 years old.

Twice I have been accused of witchcraft and both times the mahila mandal has saved me. I was accused because of the jealousy of people. I have land that grows well, when before it was barren, and also I speak out and am a strong leader when before I was enslaved. Family members even accuse each other of witchcraft here just because they want to get hold of your property. For some women in this state that kin of accusation can cost them their lives. The mahila mandal called a community meeting to explain my situation, and my husband supported me as well. Afterwards things improved but there is always tension.

Sulma Khatun, Group Member, Health and Nutrition Volunteer, Bargai Slum, Ranchi, Jharkhand
Two years ago a group of us went for training and our health and nutrition team has been running ever since. Every Saturday we make house visits in the community. We know who is pregnant, where the new babies are, and what advice to give about immunizations and oral rehydration. When the polio teams come around we mobilize everyone to bring their children.

At the community building run by the mahila mandal we have a health post that we manage ourselves. Every week a doctor comes and provides free health care to families here. During the first year, things ran very smoothly and many people came to the health post because UNICEF provided us with free medicines. When UNICEF stopped supplying, the government service was supposed to take over but nothing has ever come. The mahila mandal raised money from the group savings to buy some medicines that we gave away free to people who cannot pay, but we cannot afford to do that all the time.