India: In addition to campaigns, community change from within needed to halt cultural misogyny Print E-mail

 Friday May 25 2012

Rooting for change  

One for the women, Gramya organisation president Dr V Rukmini Rao is all for the cause (Nagara Gopal)

To Rukmini Rao, the sex ratio isn't just statistics, it is a quest to explore and change the world that is largely dipped in gender bias, discovers Vishnupriya Bhandaram

In her quiet home in Jubilee Hills, the hardback edition of Unnatural Selection by Mara Hvistendahl sits worn out. Unnatural Selection is a book about the skewed sex ratio in the world, which looks at choosing boys over girls as an existential matter. This book perhaps best describes V. Rukmini Rao's 40-odd years, rooted deep in the women's movement. The grey-haired, austerely dressed woman, wastes no time in pleasantries. She speaks with a purpose. “The government is helping, no denying there, but with a ‘cradle scheme', the message being sent out is that it's ‘okay' to leave your girl children,” she exclaims.

Married at a young age, Rukmini left her family at around 24, education is truly what Rukmini relies on. With a Ph D in psychology from the Delhi University, Rukmini stepped into the women's movement out of passion and before she knew it, she became an inseparable part.

Against dowry
Around the time when dowry killings were gaining presence in the north, Rukmini dove deep into the problem to stop harassment for dowry of young women in Delhi. Rukmini informally formed the resource centre for women ­ Saheli and as a team they demanded police action, proper investigation of cases and punishment for the guilty. Saheli was officially formed in 1981. “After a bride was burnt we would go and do ‘haye haye' and protest. But we realised that protesting after a murder is not the solution,” says Rukmini. Families of the victims would come to them and ask, “Didi saaman dila do… (just get us back our things (dowry)” Rukmini avers that the mindset wasn't changing, “They wanted things to give as dowry for their second daughter's wedding. It didn't occur to them that dowry in itself was wrong.” Rukmini soon realised that a world must be created where women could lead a life with dignity and not succumb to violence.

Like a true social activist, Rukmini backs this up with data that Andhra Pradesh holds the place for highest rate of crimes against women. According to a 2011 report by the National Crime Records Bureau 27,244 cases were registered in the year 2010. “It's horrific, anti-women attitude is growing instead of depleting,” During her extensive work in Delhi, Rukmini along with her autonomous group, Saheli helped bring in changes to 12 laws, including the 498A on domestic violence and the law against pornography. “We even got women police stations instated in Delhi,” she says with pride. “We were just putting band-aid for cancer, the real issues still kept growing,” says Rukmini.

For the next ten years, Rukmini worked with a motive of making women to take control of their own bodies and destinies. Rukmini moved to Hyderabad in 1989 and worked with the Deccan Development Society. She worked with rural women, working to bring awareness regarding feminist issues among dalit and adivasi women. Even before Self Help Groups were initiated by the government, Gramya Resource Centre for Women, Rukmini's brainchild in Andhra Pradesh had been setting up Sanghas, working to provide women with financial independence.

Helping Lambada tribals
Working primarily in Chandampet and Devarkonda mandals of Nalgonda with lambada tribal hamlets, Rukmini and her group can be credited with providing for land rights and access to credit for underprivileged women. Rukmini also helped in exposing the sale of baby girls being trafficked for adoption in the State. “Babies were being sold for a mere Rs. 650. Most of the times, the women of the family would be told that their daughter would get a better life and an ‘English-medium' education and that would make it easy,” recalls Rukmini. Funding should be the second thought when it comes to changing society, says Rukmini. In her time spent protesting against dowry killings and custodial rapes, Rukmini took in a number of women in her house and sought out to help them. “You try and help as many people as you can. Don't worry about the funding,” she says. Today Rukmini's focus lies in setting up self-reliant leadership in the villages. She says that women in the villages now look out for their own rights, food, security, education and health. In all this talk, Rukmini also points out that feminism tends to often make women change, she disagrees and says that even men need to change, otherwise this ‘upliftment' will become a repetitive process. Collective action is how any permanent change can take place asserts Rukmini. “The many women I have spoken to and dealt with are eager to eke out a better life,” she adds.

Rukmini says that she is thankful to shows like Satyamev Jayate for raising important issues. “ It's funny we need a celebrity to take the effort. But it's good, we need to have alliances of this kind to spread the truth,” she says.

No words and no amount of paper can quantify what needs to be done for the betterment of the female life in this country. According to Rukmini, this is merely the tip of the iceberg. She believes that deep-rooted attitudes don't fade away with mere campaigning; communities need to change from within. Rukmini Rao fights the fight for many women across the country, to create generations of strong women and perhaps in a hope to finally find the gender question answered for.