When Rama (name changed), a 17-year-old girl from Kanjarbhat community, “failed” a “virginity test” after her marriage to 35-year-old Sudhir (name changed) in January this year, her life became miserable. She was beaten up by her in-laws, while her family members were too scared to speak up or even file a police complaint. That’s when Vaishali Bhandwalkar, convener of the state Child Marriage Prevention Committee, decided to help Rama and fight the humiliating practice.
“Initially, it was a case of child marriage, sent to us by women from Pimpri area. But as we collected information, it turned out that the girl was being tortured for failing the virginity test,” said Bhandwalkar. “We have now decided to file a case in the civil court”.
As part of the “virginity test”, the bride and groom have sex on a white sheet, and the community elders oversee the “test result”. If the bride doesn’t bleed, it is presumed that she had physical relations with a man earlier, and she is “punished” by the elders.
“The girl’s father has now been asked to pay a huge sum of Rs 80,000 as a penalty,” said Bhandwalkar.
Bhandwalkar is among those behind Nirman — an organisation for the emancipation of Nomadic Tribes (NT) and De-Notified Tribes (DNT), which are among the most marginalised communities. They have now planned a series of campaigns to prevent child marriages as well as seek a ban on ‘virginity tests’.
“This Women’s Day, we are planning to step up the campaign and focus on the women who have been affected in these communities,” said Bhandwalkar.
There are at least 42 communities under the NT and DNT, including Ramoshi, Kanjarbhat, Wadare, Kaikadi and others. “Twelve years ago, we were among the first-generation post graduates from our community who came together to fight for our rights,” said Bhandwalkar, who hails from the Ramoshi community.
“It has been a struggle for us to lead a dignified life,” said Bhandwalkar, adding that back in 2013, they had to stage demonstrations and organise a series of workshops to get included, and avail the benefits for NT-DNT members, in the National Draft Policy for Women.
Due to their nomadic nature, the NT and DNT were not included in the Census, and have often faced the stigma of being branded as “criminals”. Bhandwalkar said these communities lived in constant fear of police persecution and violence from the local population.
Explaining the work done by her organisation, Bhandwalkar said, “Nirman now has direct intervention in NT-DNT communities in 10 villages of Indapur, and 10 pockets in Pune, including Phule Nagar, Vishrantwadi, Bhosari, Yerawada and Mundhwa. Youths are being trained from these communities. In 2014 -15, 1,900 people received Aadhaar cards, 770 people received benefits from various government schemes, 65 children received birth certificates, 240 people received PAN cards and 420 applications were filed for the caste certificates, of which 57 received their certificates”.
A training centre at Vishrantwadi, set up in collaboration with the Tech Mahindra Foundation, helps students secure placements in various Pune-based companies, she said.
An open school, Savitrichi Shala, has been set up at Phule Nagar slum, especially for children from these communities who are engaged in begging. “While we have enrolled 73 children, our aim is also to sensitise teachers on issues related to discrimination faced by them… we are also focussing our campaign on violence against NT-DNT women and opposing caste/jat panchayats,” she said.