Bhanwari Devi and sexual harassment at work

Bhanwari Devi, the woman who inspired Indian women's fight for sexual harassment law at work.

In 1992,  I was a happy go lucky teenager comfortably immune to the spine-chilling fate of Bhanwari Devi. An illiterate woman from a small village in Rajasthan who had dared to oppose a social evil called 'Child Marriage'.  And what a fool she was to believe that her employer the government of India, would actually back her fight and protect her while carrying out her duty, diligently.

Yes, the woman Bhanwari Devi was employed as a grassroot worker by the government of Rajasthan as part of the Women's Development Project. She was called 'Sathin' or 'Friend' and she fought relentlessly against various issues in and around her village. But when she touched the subject of 'Child Marriage' she faced opposition in her own backyard. And when she fought tooth and nail to stop the marriage of a 9 months old girl child, her feisty spirit and justice were both burned to ashes. And from that arose a fight against sexual harassment at work in India. Yes, Bhanwari Devi's relentless fight for justice acted as a catalyst for women to demand, safety and dignity at workplace. Read on to know how.

Understanding the custom of Child Marriage:

The Prohibition of Child Marriage Act of 2006 defines "child marriage" means a marriage, or a marriage about to be solemnized, to which either of the contracting parties is a child; and child for purposes of marriage is defined based on gender of the person - if a male, it is 21 years of age, and if a female, 18 years of age.

This act though only holds true for Hindus, Christians, Jains and Buddhists. It does not bind the muslims, as they challenged this act with the sanctity of their personal law or Shariat. But sadly even today girls are married off rather young, even as young as 10 months. Although traditionally people like to call it 'the first marriage' meaning, they promise their daughter to the groom and his family. But the consummation of the marriage takes place later. But numerous incidents will tell you that 'later' could well mean early teenage. Read here to know about the 4.5 million Indian Teens who got pregnant in 2015-2016. 

Quote By Late Chief Justice J.S. Verma

According to UNICEF child marriages have fallen from a percentage of 47 to 27 in 2016. Although this is encouraging, a lot needs to be done in this front. Child marriage symbolises a patriarchal society where women have little or no control on their present or future. An early marriage takes away any opportunity of education or economic freedom for a girl child and instead subjects the child to sexual exploitation, domestic violence, early-age pregnancy and ill-health. Sadly even today in houses across India, a woman is considered subservient to a man, and child marriage seals her fate, rather cruelly.  Although some like Pinki Tanwar have fought their way to freedom. 

Why is fighting this custom of Child Marriage so difficult?

In a country where the fight to equalise sex ratio is an ongoing process, female foeticide, dowry, child marriage are customs people indulge in to wash their hand off their daughters.. It is appalling to see a female child burdened with cooking, house chores and more while her brothers are encouraged to study and earn a livelihood. 

Under these circumstances, finding a groom for their daughter is a way of passing on their liability to the next house.

Or it is also a way out for economically weaker section to find a better house for their child.

Or as the virginity and promiscuity of the female child is directly linked to the family honour in India, so many families prefer to marry off a girl of puberty age, to avoid any untoward incident. In fact this hollow idea of family honour has led to some horrific and barbaric cases of 'honour killing'- where girls who married outside their religion, caste, gotras or more were killed by her own family. 

And these are age-old traditions and customs that are so deep rooted in our lives, that we turn a blind eye to anyone who shows us its real and ugly face.

This is what Bhanwari Devi experienced as a child bride and this is what she sought to fight off as a 'Saathin' or a grassroots government employee of women development projects. 

What happened with Bhanwari Devi?

In the year 1992, Bhanwari Devi tried to persuade the family of a girl child against her child marriage. Even after a chance police intervention the marriage of the child took place, after one failed attempt. The family of the bride belonged to the higher Gurjar caste and they took offence to Bhanwari Devi's intervention in their customs. 

In September that year, Bhanwari Devi's husband was beaten up with sticks and she was raped by people from this upper caste clan.  The five men she named in her police complaint also included - Ram Karan Gujjar, the father of the child bride. Unfortunately she faced indifference from Police ( rape victims are often shamed, mocked and denied justice by the authorities), even her medical tests was done almost 48 hours after the incident due to laxity in paperwork and magisterial go aheads. Only after the intervention of media and social activists were the accused arrested. Unfortunately, the first judgement in her case denied any justice to her.

                                           Sexual Harassment at workplace

Massive protests were held against the judgement that cited-

That a women of low caste cannot be raped by men from higher caste. That elderly men of age 60-70 yrs o age cannot rape and that village head would not indulge in the same. These clearly did not seem to be based on evidence as the law demands. The case was reopened after a massive show of strength by groups and activists across India. Yet the case has not come to a closure for have the accused been punished. 

What is inspiring about a lost case and a women who couldn't get justice for herself in all these years?

During her fight for justice her employers, the government of Rajasthan abandoned her. They chose to ignore the facts - that although Bhanwari Devi was raped not in office or during office hours, the reason she was raped was for carrying out her duty and working honestly. One of the accused was the father of the 9 months old child bride, against whose marriage she had protested and left no stone unturned to stop it. Her employers had clearly failed at providing protection to her. 

It was this side of this case that brought together groups in India to demand through a petition- safer work environment for women. This demand led to the declaration of the 'Vishakha Guidelines', in 1997, which dictated the laws to protect working women. And this served as the foundation for the 2013 'prevention of sexual harassment of women at workplace' bill being passed by the Indian Parliament.

Bhanwari Devi's spirit of fighting for the right unchained an entire generation of working women in India. And is inspiring generations after that. 

Here is the link to Handbook on Sexual Harassment of Woman at Workplace in India that all employees and employers and institutions must read and imbibe to. The Handbook clearly explains the mandate. It decodes what a workplace is, what is sexual harassment, the prevention, prohibition and  more. 

Bhanwari Devi is the Shero, the new age working women of India have a lot to thank for. In all these years, inspite of justice eluding her, Bhanwari Devi has not given up. And it should matter to us that she did not choose the evil way of Child Marriage for her kids. instead she gave her daughter a light of hope - education!

Also read about other gusty women 

Bertha Benz

Dear Daughter stand up for yourself 

Nirbhaya No More

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March 2 Hispanic Mama on Multicultural Kid Blogs: 3 Latinas Who Nevertheless Persisted

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Comments (19)

Coralee Posted on Jul 21, 2018

Never seen a beettr post! ICOCBW


Makeupmagique Posted on Apr 04, 2018

So inspiring!! We definitely need more brave and strong women


Mala Posted on Apr 04, 2018

Women, specially in India, has to fight for every single right, small or big, that they deserve. Nothing comes easy for a girl/ women in India. Whether it is child marriage or sexual harassment at work place ,justice is not given easily. I salute this lady, who stood up for what is right and what should be done


Swetha Shenoy Posted on Apr 04, 2018

Thank you for sharing these inspiring stories!


Namrata Kumari Posted on Apr 03, 2018

Yes, I agree that policies and frameworks exist for tackling sexual harassment at workplace, however, the need of the hour is a strict implementation to act as a deterrent.

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Varsha Bagadia Posted on Apr 03, 2018

More often than not it is the people who relentlessly work towards women empowerment and betterment that are made to suffer the most. Her story is chilling.

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Papri Ganguly Posted on Apr 03, 2018

It feels great to know about a woman like her. Very inspiring.

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Jhilmil D Saha Posted on Apr 03, 2018

Just a few days back i was going through her case and gad also watched Nanduta Dad\'s Bhawandar. Salute to this Iron lady for being so brave to face all adversitirs and emerge a winner

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Minakshi Bajpai Posted on Apr 03, 2018

I\'m feeling so proud right now. Great to know about Bhanwari Devi.

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Aditi Posted on Apr 03, 2018

Thanks for sharing the link. It\'s nice to know about rights.


Jayshree Bhagat Posted on Apr 03, 2018

Fantastic post... Thank you sharing this amazing write up for sexual harresment.. Its definitely a must talk topic and initiative to get rid of it


Airene Guha Posted on Apr 03, 2018

Oh God, oh god! This is just so crazy sick. Are they all mentally retarded?? There\'s so much more to care if we want our country developed and events like this prove how sick are we. At least, some one took a stand!

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Mrinal Kiran Posted on Apr 03, 2018

Such a shameful thing! Why for every offence a women is subjected to sexual violence! And we take pride in this culture of ours! :(

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Jhilmil Posted on Apr 03, 2018

She is an amazing lady who needs to be recognized for the immense work she has done.

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Priyanka Patwari Posted on Apr 03, 2018

Salute to this lady. It is fact that strength of Truth always won..


Sharvari Paivaidya Mehan Posted on Apr 01, 2018

It is unfortunate that even in today\'s day and age us women have to stand up to sexual harassment. It is women like Bhawari devi that suffered because they stood up against child marriage which is another evil of the society. This is a fantastic post. Sharing it.

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Leanna Posted on Apr 01, 2018

This is sickening to read about, but at least something came out of it! The power of the people to be inspired and come together to make change.

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Ishieta Posted on Apr 01, 2018

Thank you for sharing the link to the workbook. It is something that we should all go through to know about our rights and protections in place (hopefully)

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Ishieta Posted on Apr 01, 2018

Hats off to this lady, she has truly been a devi in taking a stand for something in our country for which one\'s own female relative wouldn\'t!!! It is extremely sad what happened with her,and sadly, both child marriages, and work place sexual inappropriate conduct still take place. In India, it is safe to say that every single day there are 100\'s of instances of inappropriate behaviour being experience by women. and to speak up, sadly is still frowned upon! I hope we are able to leave behind a better world for the daughters of the future - possible you think???

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Charu Chhitwal

Charu Chhitwal, Founder KetchupMoms has daring tastebuds, a love for travel and an owl for her soul. It’s little wonder then that she loves to write and share her tips and tricks on traveling, food,

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