I went to China in 1995 to attend the 4th International World's Women Conference. We had all gathered at the Delhi airport around 10.30 p.m. We were waiting for our flight to Beijing. The group of 165 women representatives was divided into small groups, based on language, work of same interest, etc. Dandavate madam (Mrs. Pramila Dandavate) was accompanied by a lady. She came to our group and asked us to look after that lady. We were supposed to protect her. As Pramilatai was a very close friend of my mother-in-law, Smt.Kusumtai, she directly said," Hema, this is Bhavaridevi from Rajasthan. She is a rape victim. She is fighting for justice in Rajasthan high court. All like minded women's organizations are supporting her in her fight for justice. If possible she will attend sessions related to rape crimes in China.
It was my first experience of talking to or accompanying a rape victim. So many questions came in my mind, like who were the rapists, why did they do this, was it because of some enmity, did you know them, were they arrested when you first lodged a complaint........I never mustered enough courage to ask her these questions. Everytime I tried to talk to her I could see the pain and suffering in her eyes. She covered her face with the ghoongat. We could feel she was terribly afraid of something. She was afraid of being assualted by the rapists!
On reaching Beijing, we went in for registeration. We were alloted rooms. The whole Indian group of social activists was placed in different apartments. I never got a chance to meet Bhanvridevi again. I decided to attend the planery session on Rape Victims. Rape victims from different nations, (who had overcome the shock and trauma and were doing some work for other such victims ) were going to share their experiencies! Five women from different parts of the world shared thier experiences. They were from England, Africa (Uganda), Indonesia, Mexico and Philipine.
Anna (name changed), a 19 year old girl from Africa, came and related her story. In her own words, (ofcourse as I remember it after almost 23 long years), she said," Believe me friends, I am trying to forget the whole episode but it is very difficult for me to forget it, even after 7 years! It keeps coming back to me, as if it has happened yesterday. It leaves a bad taste in my mouth. I spit hard and decide more firmly to work for rape victims around me. I still remeber the day. I was 12 years old. My school was over. The next couple of days was holidays! We were together, all 6 of us and we were really happy. Jumping, shouting, running and chasing each other. Our way home was through woods. Suddenly we were attacked by soldiers. Actually in my country we have tribes, and one tribe attacks another to establish its superiority. Two girls and a boy managed to escape. My brother and his friend (both of them were 14 years old) were taken captive along with me. We were produced before their leader. Actually it was like offering him with a gift to please him and be in his good books! The leader looked at me and ordered his subordinate, "strip her". I did not know what it meant, but my brother did. He tried to protest saying she is too young for that. My brother was shot dead. His friend tried to express his anger and annoyance. He too was shot. I was too horrified by all this. I tried to rush towards my brother. I was using abusive language for them. They beat me mercilessly. Most probably I fainted. I donot know how long I was left there. When I regained my conciousness, I was presented before the leader. I had bruises and wounds. My body ached. I was hungry. I was crying. I was begging for mercy. Nothing helped. For them the only thing that mattered was: I was a female. The leader raped me. I was supposed to serve him. This included cooking, collecting fire wood, cleaning vessels, washing clothes, body massage and most important sexual pleasure. And that too whenever he demanded. I tell you it was horrible and a hell. This continued until they caught hold of another girl. This might have been six months, eight months, I don't remember. Then I was handed over to the whole group. I have been raped, beaten, insulted countless number of times. I continued to live. Why? I don't know. I survived. Why and How? I don't know. Maybe God almighty had something in store for me. One day I realised I was pregnant.The sexual assault continued even during my pregnancy. Like everyday after I finished with my chores, I went to the woods to collect fire wood. Suddenly I had pains. I was weak. I suffered like anything. I gave birth to a daughter. My first thought was to leave the baby to die and end my life. I thought before I die let me hug my baby. The minute I lifted her up, something inside me warned me if you are not safe your baby is also not going to be safe. Either live for her sake or kill her before you die. I decided to live!
I started running. I was not knowing which way to go. I prayed God for mercy and guidence. I kept on running till my feet could carry me. I cannot recollect how many times I fainted due to fatigue, exhaution and hunger. I don't know for how many days and nights I travelled. I fed my baby with the sticky fluid oozing from plants and trees. Finally towards the end of a long day's journey, I reached a settlement! I never knew whether they were friends or foes! I was so exhausted, it hardly mattered. The settlement may offer me food, warmth and shelter, or it may have pain, suffering, humiliation in store for me. I had been through so much, that nothing mattered. I remember having entered the area and the next thing I recollect is faces of soldiers strangely looking at me. I think I must have fainted.
I told them about myself: my name, my family, my father, his business everything! Some of them knew my family. They informed my family about my condition and called them to take me home. I sat imagining my mother and father rushing down to greet me with welcoming out streched arms. The thought of meeting my parents, going home with them to the warmth, love and protection of my family was quite soothing. The relief of being with my people was so reassuring that I dozed off, only to be woken by the leader of the group. He told me that my parents have simply refused to recognize me. They said that a girl who has stayed with the enemy and served them in this manner cannot be a member of their family. We feel coming there to meet her would be a waste of time! I didn't know how to react. Everything was over for me. I begged to the leader to give me a place to stay and some work. I was ready to do any type of work, any!
He was a nice person. He offered to give me work, food, shelter and some payment. He expected me to work sincerely and I was not allowed to take my baby. There were no other favours or services expected out of me. He was like God to me. I worked hard, gave them no chance to complain. Gradually I settled down. By then I was almost 16 years old. I realized that there were many girls who suffered like me. I was lucky to have survived all this. I think I have survived and am alive, because God wishes me to help girls in distress. Believing this, I started providing shelter and support to rape victims. Today we are a group of 35 ladies living happily together!
Today, when I am sharing this with you, I feel, if a 19 year old girl can show such courage and matuarity, why cann't we? If she can try and come out of such traumatic condition and use this as a driving force to do something for other victims, why cannit we? Will we ever learn to treat rape incidents as accidents or bad dreams and start living a new life, instead of sitting back and feeling sorry for ourselves!