India: Gita's Story
Gita lives on the edge of Muru, a small village in the Kutch (or Kachchh) district of Gujarat, bordering on the salt marshes of the Rann of Kachchh. The region encompasses thousands of square kilometres of grassland and desert, and the majority of its population lead a rural existence, far from major cities. Muru is home to a community of barely a thousand, who depend mainly on cattle, sheep and goat herding for survival.
Gita is now eighteen; in 2010, at the age of fourteen, she was subjected to a brutal sexual attack; an all-too-common occurrence in India, particularly for women lower down the hierarchical caste system that still dominates rural areas such as Kutch. Gita is a Dalit – the Dalits are a group formerly referred to as ‘the untouchables’ – and although her experience of sexual assault is not unusual, what marks her out is her decision to speak out in defiance of the system that works to silence so many Dalit women.
I heard about Gita when I travelled to Gujarat as a guest of the Dalit organization Navsarjan, which is active in over 3,000 villages in the state, as well as in its cities. Navsarjan aims to eliminate discrimination based on untouchability practices and to push for equality of opportunity for all, regardless of caste or gender. The Dalit Empowerment Centre (DSK) is the hub of Navsarjan’s activities, where it co-ordinates eighty field staff drawn from local communities, and provides training for young Dalit people, helping them move out of caste-based occupations.
Navsarjan has carried out valuable research into access to justice for Dalits in Gujarat. They discovered that Dalit women remain particularly susceptible to violence; it pervades their villages, homes and intimate relationships. If they seek justice they often face barriers when seeking to file legal claims, and lengthy delays once cases are under way. During their research Navsarjan made a request to every District Superintendent of Police in Kutch, Bhavnagar and Rajkot for data on cases of violence against Dalit women, requests to which the police are legally obliged to respond by India’s Right to Information Act. Fewer than half the police stations in those areas responded, a telling indication of police attitudes towards Dalits.
During my time with Navsarjan I heard story after story of abuse committed against Dalits, but there was something about Gita’s story and her determination to demand justice that I found particularly moving, so I travelled to meet her with Navsarjan social workers Pretti and Kalpesh.
The bumpy, dusty 67-kilometre journey by bus and jeep from the district capital of Bhuj was a very physical demonstration of how remote Muru is from urban centres. After travelling for four hours we arrived in the village and had barely left the jeep when we were confronted by two aggressive young men demanding to know what we were doing. My explanation that I was here to take photographs and visit friends seemed to satisfy them, and we were allowed to continue on our way. We walked to the two small concrete structures on the edge of the village where Gita lived with eight members of her extended family. Gita’s father, a round, friendly man with a large grey moustache, seemed nervous to meet us at first, but proved a kind and generous host. Chai was made and we sat outside in the dry heat of the desert to talk about Gita’s situation.
Still a child of fourteen when she was attacked and raped by a higher caste adult male in her village, Gita brought a legal case against the perpetrator of the crime with the support of Navsarjan. A year had passed since the complaint was filed, but the case was nowhere near reaching the courts. As we talked, Gita came to join us. Wearing a turquoise dress, she had a serene dignity and a maturity beyond her fifteen years. The late afternoon cooled, friends of the family came to pay their respects and greet us, and as we discussed the progress of the case a tall man in his early thirties approached our group. He had come to make Gita and her family an offer: an apology and financial compensation on behalf of the perpetrator and his family in return for not pursuing a prosecution. Our presence in the village appeared to have caused an immediate response, and perhaps a fear that action might actually be taken.
Such an offer is hard to refuse. Gita’s family is poor and mainly reliant on work provided by richer, higher caste members of the village. Given the difficulty of achieving justice through the judicial system, in particular for a Dalit girl, it would be easy to assume that there is no point pursuing these matters through the courts. As the man left, it seemed taken for granted that a bribe would take care of the situation.
The dilemma had a visible effect on Gita, whose eyes filled with tears. She wanted to pursue her case and bring the man to justice, but the unspoken pressure to accept the offer and avoid future hardship for her family must have been difficult to bear. Nevertheless, with reassurance from Pretti, she gathered herself and confirmed she would continue with the case.
We spent the rest of the evening playing cricket with village children and wandering around the outer edges of the village. Camels, cows and buffalos were being herded by the colourfully dressed Kachchhi women, while the men, dressed in white, drove up and down in tractors and on motor bikes, along the dirt tracks in the village. There was a certain tranquillity to the scene. As the sun set, we returned to an excellent dinner with the family and then settled down for the night under the stars in our wooden and rope beds.
The next morning we woke to find the family busy with chores around us and, after chai and chapatti for breakfast, we walked with the some of the women about a kilometre out of the village. There they were working on a government road-building programme for the minimum wage of 100 rupees, about a pound a day. It was towards the end of April and by midday the temperature would reach forty-five degrees centigrade. Resplendent in their saris, the women worked, digging and moving earth and rocks with tin pans, accompanied by some of their children. The resilience of the women in the searing heat and dust was humbling to see, and gave a glimpse of the extraordinarily tough lives they lead.
Before we took our leave, Kalpesh reassured Gita and her family that Navsarjan continued to support her case and would make a subsidised place available at DSK if she came to need it. Then we made our way to the bus and down the dusty highway.
Today, some three and a half years later, the case is still pending in the sessions court and a charge sheet has been filed by the investigating police officer. The accused is from another state, Haryana in northern India, which complicates matters, but this extraordinary slowness seems accepted as a normal part of due process in India. Gita is still awaiting justice.
Story and photographs by Andy Martinez
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