Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Little Has Changed For Modern Day Subhashini : A Short Story of Rabindranath Tagore is Still Relevent in Present Time

Little has changed for modern day Subhashini

Shampa Sengupta

When the girl was given the name of Subhashini, who could have guessed that she would be “dumb” when she grew up? Her two elder sisters were Sukheshini and Suhashini, and for the sake of uniformity her father had named his youngest girl Subhashini. She was called Subha in short form.

Her two elder sisters had been married with the usual difficulties in finding husbands and providing dowries, and now the youngest daughter lay like a silent weight upon the heart of her parents. People seemed to think that, because she did not speak, therefore she did not feel; they discussed her future and their anxiety concerning it even in her presence. She had understood from her earliest childhood that God had sent her like a curse to her father's house, so she withdrew herself from common people....”

The above lines are taken from a short story “Subha” written by Rabindranath Tagore more than 120 years ago. The journey of hundred and twenty years is long enough. But has there been any substantial change in lives of today’s disabled women? Or their lives linger in the similar darkness? Are they still deemed as a curse by their families and general society?  Like Subha, do they still face desertion and abuse by their in-laws because of their disability? Sadly the situation remains the same.

It is a known fact that in India, birth of a girl does not bring joy. Even though there is a law against it, female feticide is a common phenomenon. And “market value” falls more if she is born with dark complexion. What happens if she is born with any impairment? Dejection of her family increases and her abuse starts from her early childhood. Professor Anita Ghai, who is herself a wheel-chair user, has shown in her different writings the position of a disabled girl in the family structure.  Only in the month of August in 2013 in Bangalore, a blind woman was killed by her husband – investigation of the incident shows that her husband was not aware of her disability before marriage.

Disabled women are not just denied traditional roles of wife or motherhood, the society is not ready to accept that they can have a sexual life. As a result, there is no attempt to give them any form of sexuality education (unlike non-disabled women, they cannot learn from their peers or general surroundings). This “asexual” role assigned to them makes these women more vulnerable.

It is interesting that these women are seen either as “asexual” or as “hyper-sexual” but never at par with women without disabilities. In the year 2000, a girl with hearing and speech impairments was reportedly raped in a prison van by two policemen in Kolkata. When we from our womens network visited the concerned police station, the Officer In Charge told us “ We do not mind helping you with other cases, but this is about a deaf girl. And we all know these people are more sexually active, it was she who initiated the action, so I can not treat this case as rape”. We were astounded.

However these kinds of comments are not restricted to policemen. In 2012, another young girl, who was a homeless and had intellectual as well as psycho-social disabilities was sexually abused within a Government Mental Hospital in Kolkata. When this essayist met the Hospital superintendent, he said that “This girl used to run after all the male workers of this hospital. Mentally ill women usually cannot control their sexual urge. I am worried about my male staffs.”

The traditional Indian society still now considers marriage is the ultimate goal of every woman. Till date disabled women like Tagore’s Subha find it difficult to find a match. So in some of the states of India, Government announces special packages for grooms who agree to marry a disabled (read defective) girl.

Though the National Policy on Disability mentions women with disabilities, till 2013, none of the disability legislations of India have a gender component within its ambit.

Though domestic violence issues remain buried under the carpet, cases of sexual assaults on disabled women, particularly those within institutions, draw attention of media. It is to be noted here that in the year 2012, only mainstream media reported more than 40 cases of sexual abuse on disabled women in West Bengal.

Time period of 2012 -13 can be earmarked as crucial phase of women’s movement in India particularly in the light of the Delhi Rape Case of December 16th,2012 which lead to public outcry on sexual abuse and thus forced the Indian Government to take some measures on the same. As Government composed Justice Verma Committee to look into the changes required in the sexual assault laws, we, the disability groups, took the opportunity and placed our case studies and suggestions to the Committee. To our delight, we saw that Verma Committee gave due importance to our issue, gave us opportunity to face-to-face interactions with the concerned persons.

We found quite a few of our suggestions accepted by the Verma Committee – in their recommendations; they have made several suggestions which can be helpful to combat sexual violence on the disabled women. Though not all their recommendations were accepted, in the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 2013, we have found echoes of these recommendations.

The writer is an activist working on gender and disability rights for last 25 years.

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