Violence and discrimination towards women has been the subject of immense debate and discussion in legal, academic and social circles. If women were much respected and revered in Ancient India, their status considerably declined in the Medieval Period and after the advent of the British, women continued to be treated as the weaker sex, subject to abuse and discrimination.
Although the British Period witnessed the arrivals of many social reformers on the scene, who through their ideas sought to bridge the socially-fabricated discrimination between men and women; women still had a long journey to cover before they could be bestowed with rights comparable to men.
Twenty-first century ushered in a wave of change. Not only it marked the advent of a new millennium, it was a revolutionary period for women in many ways.
However, on one hand while urban India witnessed the emergence of women in many a public fora, out of the four walls of their house, yet the same assessment could not be made for women residing in rural areas. It would not be completely right to state that women are the subjects of marginalization even today. Women are no longer relegated to the fringes of the society like before. Women have established their forte in every major field today and have been successful as pilots, Olympians, politicians, journalists etc. Yet, there are certain evils that continue to plague the society and push these women to the edge of the society.
Rural India, to a great extent has not experienced the benefit or advantages of globalization and thus continues to reel under ignorance and illiteracy. Fallout of one such aspect of this ignorance is the prevalence of superstition or in other words, the lack of a rational and scientific assessment of things.
Advancements in the field of science and technology have not permeated to the rural corridors of India much, when compared to the urban counterparts. Many rural areas do not even have proper electricity, health care facilities, schools, or proper law enforcement machinery.
Witch-hunting is an outcome of the prevalence of ignorance and widespread illiteracy. In simple words, witch-hunting can be defined as the branding of a woman as a witch and thereby accusing her of committing gruesome acts like causing deaths or bringing about deadly diseases to the people of that locality. In India, states like Assam, Jharkhand, Orissa, West Bengal, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan etc. continue to witness instances of witch-hunting even today.
Witch-hunting is actually a legacy of the violence against women. Although traditionally, a woman was branded as a witch for reasons like people's ignorance and their lack of scientific approach towards things or happenings surrounding them; today, some section of the society take advantage of this ignorance and indulge in such name-calling for reasons like the appropriation of the woman's property if she is a single woman or worse, a widow or an adivasi. There have been several instances wherein women who were alone and had property had become victims of such foul conspiracies. Firstly, they have were branded as a witch and then attacked and killed.
The atrocities committed against such women are deplorable and shocking to the extent of brutality. Usually, by branding them as witches, a fear psychosis is created in the minds of the poor and ignorant villagers and the women, then, is socially excluded and ostracized. In severe instances, she is stripped naked, made to parade in the public, her hair is cut off, her face is blackened, and other such shameful ways of punishment is meted out to her.
A class of people called the "quacks" (known by different names in different communities) exploits the ignorance of the villagers. These quacks pose as doctors and make their patients do irrational things to cure their diseases. In most cases, when someone in the village falls ill, a vulnerable woman is made the target and based on no proper reason, accused of practicing witch craft. Certain rites are performed by these quacks to decide on the guilt or innocence of the accused woman. Based on the fulfillment of certain conditions, the accused woman is either labeled as a witch or set free from such name-callings. It is beyond any doubt that the actions of these quacks are nothing but mere exploitative practices.
As per a study undertaken by Rural Litigation Entitlement Kendra (hereinafter "RLEK"), more than 2,500 women have been killed in the name of witch-hunting in India in the past 15 years.
As for women, who have been fortunate enough to live, even after such accusations, are often compelled to leave their homes and move to safer places in fear of persecution.
Despite the existence of this problem for ages, the issue of witch-hunting has failed to garner the required attention in all circles of the society. Very few cases of witch-hunting have made their way to the corridors of justice. The reasons are not hard to decipher. These instances occur in remote places where there is lack or almost no legal machinery. Firstly, such cases are hardly reported. The blind faith of the villagers in the quacks and their fear of going against the entire community who believes in these quacks have resulted in a "culture of silence" that has hindered the problem from reaching the necessary law enforcement officials.
Health care facilities are hardly present in such remote areas. Moreover, if they are present, they are costlier compared to what the quacks charge and thereby people opt for these quacks than approaching any health care facility that may be in existence in such areas.
Very few states have come up with legislations to curb the practice of witch-hunting. Bihar was the first state to come up with an enactment called Prevention of Witch (Dayan) Practices Act, 1999. Jharkhand has a legislation in place called Dayan Pratha (Prevention of Witch Practices) Act to protect women from inhumane treatment and providing them with legal recourse. The Chhattisgarh Tonhi Pratarna Bill 2005 (Chhattisgarh Prevention of Atrocities on Women in the name of Tonhi) was formulated in 2005.
While efforts have been underway to ignite the minds of ignorant villagers and help the poor and vulnerable women, they are yet to achieve any significant results. RLEK has been fighting against this issue for some time now along with The Indian Rationalist Association that is involved in making the rural masses develop critical and scientific thinking whilst discarding illogical beliefs.
Many women rights groups have also come forward although they have not been as vociferous as in other forms of crime against women like rape or domestic violence.
But the problem persists. Most of the times First Information Reports (hereinafter "FIRs") are hardly lodged because of reasons like it is seen as a social taboo or fear of some villagers to invite the wrath of the entire village community and police officials do not like to get involved in such instances.
The Government does not have an adequate rehabilitation scheme in place for such women. Thus, even after they are branded as witches, they are accorded no protection by the authorities.
Amidst this insignificant development, there are such women who were victims first and subsequently decided to fight against the issue. Birubala Rabha, from Goalpara (Assam) was herself a victim of witch-hunting who went on to raise her voice against this gruesome practice. So much so, that in the year 2005 she was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Instead of state-specific laws, India needs a national law relating to the subject of witch-hunting on the lines of The Prevention of Domestic Violence Act, 2005. Analyses of the provisions that apply in such cases reveal that they are not stringent enough. No anticipatory bail must be given to the accused.
Most importantly, the Government must take initiatives to establish the necessary infrastructure; open up schools and healthcare facilities in such far-flung places at subsidized rates so that people do not have to throng the homes of these quacks. In fact, once a quack is identified, he must be interrogated and brought to book.
Apart from that, civil society has an effective role to play. NGOs have made several efforts to control this menace yet more needs to be done to sensitize the public.
It is indeed shameful and is a blot in our society that despite having made advancements in so many fields, such ancient practices still find a place in our society.