What Women Safety Means in Haryana Poll-Bound
Rohtak (Haryana): The women of Fatehpur settlement do not venture out of their homes after sunset. As the last rays of the sun dissipate in the night sky, business begins as usual at local liquor stores or thekas dotting the streets of this suburb of Rohtak.
“God knows what these men will do when they get drunk. We can’t even leave our homes,” says Anita, a day laborer and member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist). Anita and several other concerned local women repeatedly complained to authorities such as the City Commissioner, but to no avail.
“When an accident occurs, they [the thekas] close one day and reopen the next evening,” continues Anita. Riding her salwar to cross the muddy, sewer-riddled lane outside her house, she adds under her breath, “The police are paid, why would they shut them down?”
With Haryana assembly elections less than a week away and parties campaigning at full throttle, politicians have been talking a lot about empowering women. In its recently released manifesto, the ruling Bharatiya Janata party pledged to launch a pink bus service, install sanitary napkin vending machines, open self-defense training schools and fast-track courts to hear cases relating to crimes against women.
With a slew of laudable promises, one can begin to have hope for the future of women in the state. “We have done the most for women compared to any other government that has ruled Haryana in the past,” says an enthusiastic party activist outside the BJP office in Rohtak. When asked what those efforts were, he slips through the crowd before he could begin to elaborate.
In early September, the Ministry of Women and Child Development commended the government of Haryana for making significant progress in improving the sex ratio, particularly in Mahendargarh and Bhiwani districts. This supposedly marks the success of the “Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao” campaign launched by the BJP state government when it started its term in 2014.
“But improving the sex ratio isn’t everything, is it? The ruling regime does not allow us to talk about empowerment, it forces us to reconsider if our women are even safe,” says Jagmati Sangwan, a prolific women’s rights activist and key member of the All India Democratic Women’s Association. (AIDWA).
Sangwan’s question is not without merit. As sex ratios rise in Mahendargh, the same neighborhood saw the gang rape of a 14-year-old girl as she returned from a coaching course in September 2018. According to the latest report published by the National Crime Record Bureau, Haryana has the highest rate of gang rapes in India. At 1.5%, this rate is five times higher than the national average of 0.3%. A total of 191 such cases have been reported in Haryana, meaning at least one such rape happens every other day.
“When our representatives come out with flags in support of rape defendants, what can we expect from our government? said Sangwan, referring to the abduction, rape and murder of an underage girl in Kathua district of Jammu and Kashmir in January 2018. After the horrific incident, two members of the Bharatiya Janata party office led a march in favor of the accused of rape, waving the national flag.
“The BJP regime has done nothing for women,” says Geeta Bhukkal, a sitting MP for Jhajjar constituency in Haryana and also a Congress candidate for the upcoming elections.
Elucidating her party’s view on women’s issues, Bhukkal echoes Sangwan’s assertion that the current government forced her to keep women safe before she started talking about empowerment. “When girls leave school because of teasing, what happens to beti padhao?” she asks.
“I have worked hard to ensure that there are operational CCTV cameras in my constituency. I have also asked members of the Durga Vahini to take an active interest in training these young women,” says Bhukkal, referring to the female wing of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad., which claims to provide social services to women through self-defense training camps, among other services.
“It’s not about the Congress or the BJP, it’s about what we can do for our women, who are not only harassed by the men in their villages, but also by the men in power, the politicians and the police, people who are supposed to work for the masses,” Bhukkal concludes before apologizing to resume his door-to-door.
On the outskirts of Rohtak district, Sangwan and other AIDWA workers are campaigning for Kamlesh Lahli, a former construction worker and CPI(M) candidate from Kalanaur constituency. “One vote can make all the difference. It is important to make an informed decision,” says senior AIDWA member Rajkumari, addressing an audience of women. They listen intently, periodically interrupting to support her speech, which addresses the injustices faced by working-class women.
“This time we will not be bought by money, we will vote for those who advance our cause”, rings Saroj, dressed in a colorful dress salwar kameez, before abruptly apologizing – “I left some tea boiling on the stove!” – and rushing out of the house, cradling her son in one arm. Vidya, a young mother with two young sons straddling her, wants the next government to increase her elderly husband’s pension. “It’s quite uncomfortable being married to a man much older than me,” she said in a disgusted tone. Her husband’s age places the burden of economic security solely on 22-year-old Vidya.
Unlike the women in the Fatehpur settlement, the women gathered in Ganhori Devi’s house in Dhakla village of Badla township are much older and come from landowning families of the dominant Jat caste. Ganhori Devi beams as she points to a calendar hanging on the wall of her spacious bedroom: “Party workers came and distributed these calendars to every person in the village. The calendar features an image of local BJP MP OP Dhankhar standing alongside a sullen Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Despite the gifts offered by the BJP door-to-door, Ganhori Devi does not yet know who she will vote for. “Someone gives a calendar, some give bracelets or candy or a dupatta. We’ll take all those gifts from all parties, but we’ll vote for whoever we want in the end,” Ganhori’s older sister, Channo Devi, playfully remarks.
The sisters – Ganhori, Channo and the eldest Sandokha – all in their late 70s, are looking forward to election season. They engage in the electoral exercise with enthusiasm, taking part in rallies and attending speeches, savoring the rich food that is presented to the participants and taking home festive paraphernalia.
“Now we’re older, we don’t have a lot of responsibilities, we can walk around during election season,” Channo says, in response to being asked if she fears for her safety when attending such events. events. “Why do you keep asking about women’s safety? We all know what it is like for women here whether it is under the current BJP government or under any other party! a neighbor chimes sharply.
Back at Fatehpur Colony, Anita ushers me out of the house with sudden urgency, after offering me a glass of Fanta and a long chat about the lives of working-class women like her. “Come back and visit me, but not so late in the evening next time!” The men have already ogled me and I really don’t want an incident to happen,” worries Anita as she escorts me out of her lane and onto the main road to catch a car.
Shahat Rana graduated from Ashoka University with a degree in journalism and is currently working as a freelancer.