Breaking the Boundaries of Women’s Oppression in Rural West Bengal – By Sydney Skov

Recently I traveled to a community just outside of Kolkata, to an area called South 24 Parganas, to meet a woman who is promoting women’s rights from the grassroots. After driving through the lush greenery of palms and cultivated fields, a welcome change from the bustle and concrete of Kolkata, I was warmly greeted by a woman named Runu. She led me into a compound of several small buildings with a central courtyard criss-crossed by colorful laundry lines that was home to her and her extended family. I set up a camera and we began an interview that would shed light on the realities faced by women in West Bengal.

The area of South 24 Parganas is well known for being a source of trafficked children, especially young girls. The realities of growing up a girl in a rural environment in West Bengal are still bleak; many girls have no access to education or if they do, they are not allowed to attend because of prevailing beliefs that girls are an unworthy investment (destined to work in the home and be married off to live in someone else’s family) or they are forced to drop out due to social pressures, household responsibilities, or the myriad pressures of poverty. Families living in poverty can be persuaded to sell their children wittingly to a brothel or can be easily tricked by a trafficker, told that their child will be given a productive job in the city. Instead she is sent to sell sex. Girls who remain with their families in rural areas grow up with little exposure to various ways of life and believe that marrying young and working in the home is the only option for their lives. They grow up in an environment in which community members listen to a scene of domestic violence playing out in a neighbor’s house for entertainment.

Runu is an inspirational woman. Not only has she taken charge of and transformed her own life but she is leading community initiatives to help other women in the surrounding communities do the same. Years ago, she was involved in an abusive and violent relationship with the father of her son and was struggling to find a way out to protect herself and her child.

If a woman, alone, approaches a police station in South 24 Parganas and reports that she has been beaten, abused, or raped, she will be sent away. Completely ignored. Enter Jeevika, an organization promoting women’s rights and access to education and legal recourse across communities in South 24 Parganas. Jeevika is a collaborating parter of Kolkata Sanved, the NGO implementing culturally sensitive Dance Movement Therapy sessions for the psychosocial rehabilitation of survivors of trafficking and violence with which I am currently working. Runu came to Jeevika and found a way to file the appropriate legal documents with the support of Jeevika and the community. Now an independent and well established community action group called Alordisha supports women who are in violent or abusive relationships. Runu is now a leading member of Alordisha. Jeevika also conducts rights and gender workshops which offer knowledge of and exposure to other avenues and livelihood options for girls and women.

The video that Runu and I created together about her transformation and her inspiring work with Alordisha and Jeevika will be shown in two weeks time during the NGO CSW Forum. Her voice will be heard alongside those of Jeevika Executive Director, Dolon Ganguly and Kolkata Sanved Founder Director, Sohini Chakraborty during a parallel event titled, Breaking Boundaries, Building Lives to be held on March 17th. The parallel event is part of this year’s Committee on the Status of Women, Beijing 20+ at the United Nations headquarters in New York City. From South 24 Parganas to New York City, we must remember that the fight for women’s equality is far from over. However, I find hope in the stories of powerful and inspiring women like Runu who are shaking the ground beneath our feet.