V Rukmini Rao has been fighting for women’s rights for over four decades. She co-founded the NGOs Saheli Resource Centre in Delhi, and the Gramya Resource Centre in Hyderabad, and was instrumental in the implementation of Section 498A of the Indian Penal Code, which for years was the only viable recourse that battered wives had against abusive husbands and in-laws in the criminal court. She also worked towards strengthening India’s rape law, and for the land rights of women farmers.
But the incident of the infant twins always stands out for her.
“Two little girls had been abandoned by their families in a village just 130 km from Hyderabad,” says the 68-year-old much feted Hyderabad-based activist. “The villagers had heard about our work, so they called us. We rescued them, and got government authorities to set up a committee to look into female infanticide in the area. We were part of it,” she narrates.
What they found shocked them to the core: “There were 12 or 13 ways to kill unwanted babies.”
It was a hard knock for the team, who went on to dig out more discomfiting truths about women and girls in the underbelly of society. Girls did not go to school even though the government had set up facilities for them; families were not only exterminating children but also selling them; illegal adoption agencies were offering Rs 500 to 1500 to buy babies; and children were being ‘exported’ to Europe with the ‘broker’ getting free tickets and making Rs 10,000 as commission.
“No one wants daughters, and this problem is only getting worse in certain sections of society; the sex ratio is declining,” rues Rukmini, who did her PhD from Delhi University. “We realised that if the family is poor and a third daughter is born, they will get depressed and try to get rid of her.”
So Rukmini and her NGO began supporting such families with food and basic necessities, even counselling the new mother so that she felt supported.
They formed child protection committees in over 70 villages, and are running the children’s helpline 1098 along with the government. After the brutal 2012 Delhi gang-rape case, they set up a team of counsellors who have so far worked on over 570 cases of domestic violence.
Rukmini has identified certain intrinsic inequalities that keep women oppressed. “Only 13% of women own land; that puts them at a huge economic disadvantage,” she explains. Further, she says that even in places such as Andhra Pradesh where self-help groups of over 10 million women are in place, banks are still reluctant to invest in women. “Even families would rather take a loan to buy a vendor’s cart for a son rather than a daughter,” she notes.
Having worked with Dalit farmers for half a century, Rukmini shares that caste issues play further havoc with women’s safety and rights. “I was married off at 18, I ran away from home at 24, got married and divorced again, before I realised I am better off single. I have no husband, no family, no caste. If anyone asks me my caste, I say I’m Dalit,” she says defiantly. And it’s not just the Dalits, but also the Muslims, adivasis and the transgender community she supports.
“We have to be there for them. I want Indians to be more concerned,” says Rukmini. “Many years ago, we used to raise funds in England, telling them India is a poor country. Today, we can’t say that. Some of the richest people in the world are Indians. But they aren’t helping other Indians.”
Rukmini, who looks up to Gloria Steinem and Mahatma Gandhi, is getting the marginalized to take care of themselves. She got 30 village girls to run a marathon and raise Rs 1 lakh to help women farmers last year. “You can be one person and still act,” she says. “You don’t need a lot of resources to make a difference.”
First published in eShe magazine