The Jewel of India!
Taraji receiving the award from Indian Solidarity Council.
One afternoon in July 2015, Tara Ahluwalia (dearly known as Taraji), received a letter by mail informing that she had been selected as a recipient of the “Jewel of India” award for outstanding performance in the field of women’s empowerment! She was shocked to see the letter. She wasn’t keen on receiving the award unless she was really satisfied about the authenticity of the organization and the award. She then learnt that it was an independent agency, the Indian Solidarity Council; with its own confidential selection committee and it had constituted the award about 15 years ago. Some of the criteria to select candidates were state level participation, awareness in the media about the candidate’s work, overall working style of the social worker, whether the non-profit organization is grassroots-based and so on. The agency had been monitoring her work for quite some time and Taraji was requested to receive the award on August 12, 2015 at the auditorium of the Indian Society of International Law awarded by six eminent personalities: Dr. Bhishma Narayana Singh (Former Cabinet Minister and Governor of Tamil Nadu), Dr. G. V. G. Krishnamurthy (Ex-Chief Election Commissioner), Justice O.P. Varma (Former Governor of Punjab and Chief Justice of Kerala), Mr. Joginder Singh (Former Chief of CBI), Mr. O.P. Saxena (President of All India Lawyers’ Forum) and Dr. N.S.N. Babu (Secretary-General, Indian Solidarity Council). The award was also given to candidates in the fields of education, health etc. There were about 500 people in the award ceremony including international candidates as well. She herself was quite impressed that she was the only candidate in the field of women’s empowerment in Rajasthan.
Taraji has tirelessly worked in the field of women’s empowerment for more than three decades from grassroots to policy level. She takes a multi-pronged approach from providing short-stay shelter to female survivors of violence to confronting the Jati panchayat changing their mindset and from training women to be self-sustainable to talking to the police and law-makers to make policy-level changes. More about her overall work can be found at Supporting and empowering female survivors of violence.
Six-year old Suman and her family
A glimpse into Taraji’s work: recently, she has been supporting a six-year old girl, Suman, who was a raped by an 80-year old “Bhopa.” A Bhopa is a religious leader worshipped like God by thousands of followers in Bhilwara, Rajasthan. The 80-year old, who still tested positive in a potency test, had raped the child in a farm when she had gone to take water. She was found with all her genital parts ruptured. The girl’s family was not allowed to go to the police station by the followers of Bhopa. In fact, they forced the family to pay Rs. 16,000 as a penalty to the community. The family arranged for the money by taking a loan from Baniya (loan lenders) for ten-times the prevailing interest rate. Bhopa’s followers used the money for their sexual pleasure. Ridiculously enough, the Jati panchayat banned Suman’s family from living in the community, as they were a symbol of shame.
Suman’s family took her and left their home at 2 am and came to Taraji around 6 am from about 90 km away from Bhilwara. First, the girl was promptly given medical care. Next, from Taraji’s experience, she had learnt and devised clever techniques to file police cases with evidences. Since children are often afraid to talk in front of policemen, Taraji had the girl narrate the incident in her home, recorded the video and made a CD for documentary evidence. She also collected the child’s undergarments and vessels from the farm as evidences.
Taraji started the court trial on Bhopa and 11 Jati panchayat members. Taraji had Suman under her custody. Even when the court case was going on, 2 of Bhopa’s followers tried to kidnap the girl when she was in the restroom. Taraji had a lot of police protection, saved the girl from kidnapping and complained about this as well in the court and demanded Rs. 3 lakhs compensation. The accused Bhopa and the 11 Jati panchayat members are currently behind bars. The case is also filed under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offenses (POSCO) Act. Those convicted under this law cannot come out of the prison within 12 years. T araji got media attention to this issue and advocated to get rid of Bhopas as they use their powerful role to make sexual assaults. Suman has stayed very strong through this process and continues to go to school.
Once a case is on, Taraji works until the end to fight for the victims and their families. After the case, the Jati panchayat offered the family 2 lakhs to leave the community but the family would not accept it. The family continues to live in the village with full faith in Taraji’s words and they trust that she will fight for them. When the survivor’s family becomes courageous, there is great change in the attitude of the community. When the criminals are brought to justice, this sends a huge positive message to the community that even powerful men cannot escape after doing wrongful things to women. The main positive outcome when a case is successfully resolved is that women are encouraged to open up against violence and get a lot of support from the community.
A woman declared as a ‘witch’ and burnt by her mother-in-law for rebelling about the extra-marital affair of her husband.
Taraji is planning to make a documentary film on witch hunting from her thirty-two years of experience. After years of work, Taraji has worked hard from grassroots to policy level to get the “Dayan Virodhi Act” passed. According to the act, any person who declares a woman a witch will be behind the bars for 12 years. She has recently got Rs. 2 lakhs as state compensation to 3 cases of witch hunting. One recent witch hunting case was of a woman (photo), who was burnt alive by her mother-in-law for rebelling the extramarital affair of her husband. She had third-degree burns when she came to Taraji. She was kept in ICU and taken good care of. She has recovered and is working in a factory for Rs. 250 a day. Though she is a Muslim women and uneducated, she has come out from that household with her two children, 16 year old girl and 18 year old boy and is confident that she will get her kids educated and will have a good life.
Taraji works tirelessly on issue after issue. She has seen a change in the mentality of people over the years. Due to years of work, she has gathered so much trust and power in the area that she has police and judicial support and the accused would be afraid if Taraji is dealing with a case. Many times she has single-handedly tackled risky cases and we like to call her the Iron woman! We are very glad that her work has been recognized and she has been awarded the well-deserved “Jewel of India” award. We hope that she gets more support for her work to empower the women and to change the mindset of the people of Bhilwara. AID is proud to have had the opportunity to support Taraji’s work for the last 6 years.
“The inner strength that comes from the smiles in the face of the victims once a case is successfully concluded is what keeps me going and that’s the greatest award to me” says Taraji.
Dr. Aparna Lakshmanan, an AID Columbus volunteer since 2009, is currently pursuing postdoctoral research in blood cancers at The Ohio State University Columbus, Ohio.