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How Bitiya Murmu Has Been Fighting For Women’s Rights In The Santhal tribe

By Lekhaka

Forty-year-old Bitiya Murmu hasn't let a single life experience go waste. Her journey to becoming a social activist and a leading Santhal voice, began when she was barely 13. A child bride, a mother at 15, and a survivor of domestic violence - it is Bitiya's grit and determination that she charted out a course that made her a source of inspiration not just for her daughter but also thousands of women around her.

She was born in the village headman's family - her grandfather worked for the upliftment of women and her father fought again injustice meted out to women. From when she was four, she remembers people thronging to her place. Over the years, she heard innumerable stories of subjugation of women, customary denial of right, and torture and public humiliation of women in the name of witchcraft. She could have probably in due course become an activist. But life had other plans.

Her father passed away when she was very young; her uncle not only took up her deceased father's job, he also took away the land that could have supported Bitiya, her two siblings and her mother. Women have no property rights in Santhal tradition. With neither the job nor the land, Bitiya's mother had no source of income to raise her three daughters. Though undesirable, Bitiya's mother decided to stay with the rest of the family for the sake of her daughters. Bitiya realised over the years that her mother's condition was similar to many others because women did not have property rights in Santhal tribes.

"I was too young to realise what marriage was. And then within a couple of years I had my daughter. I was tortured by the in-laws and finally abandoned. I had to raise my child somehow," she says. Bitiya worked in farms and did other manual labour to bring food to the table. She refused to take any financial help from her husband or her in-laws. With the help of her mother, she also completed her graduation in Sociology.

It was during this time when she was spotted by Radha Krishna Das, secretary, Vikas Parishad. Moved by the fight Bitiya was putting up to come out of her deplorable condition, he motivated her to join the social sector. In 1990, she joined a training programme, followed by an interview that employed her as a volunteer in a project. She worked as a field worker for over 15 years.

"I still remember in 1998, a woman was working in the field when her husband suddenly attacked her and beat her black and blue. Accused of witchcraft, she was forced to eat human excreta. Her head shaven, she was paraded naked in the entire village. The villagers held us hostages for protesting against this injustice," she recalls. Bitiya was among those who protested against the inhuman practice; tortured and harassed by the villagers, the woman finally got some semblance of justice. She was compensated with Rs 10,000 by the state government.

Bitiya has come across many such incidents while fighting for the rights of the women in the village. "The violence against women ranges from their banishment to lynching, when pronounced a witch by the villagers. They can declare anyone as a witch and give weird reasons for ostracising her," she reiterates. "Witch hunting is rampant in Jharkhand. Widows, in particular, are ostracised and forced to live in constant fear of death."

With her rich experience in the field, Bitiya ventured into setting up her own NGO Lahanti in Dumka in 2006. In Santhali, Lahanti means progressive; the idea behind the NGO was to create a legal platform of like minded tribal women who could exclusively work for the social and economic betterment of down trodden and neglected women who were really in distress. For the last nearly 15 years, through her NGO, she has been working relentlessly for women and the most marginalised in the Santhal community, to end all sorts of discrimination against them.

"I don't regret being a rebel, I think I did the right thing. The core area of our work remains women's issues. Harnessing the support of a thousand women, Lahanti has come this far and I have the support of all those who stood by me. We are able to bring about some changes in the lives of the women. We can at least count ourselves as citizens," she says.

Apart from women-related issues, Lahanti also works on food security, forest rights, and livelihood rights. She runs 'Bal Club' for children who have been deprived of the basic right to education; the club is a place to help children decide their future course of action.

For Bitiya, property rights for women is an issue close to her heart and she wants to make an example of her own life. "I don't have a son, all my property will go to my daughter. And I will continue fighting for all the women around me to end this discrimination," says Bitiya.

Bitiya's journey is far from over. If anything, it is just taking off. Oxfam India has supported Bitiya in her fight to end gender discrimination and create a fair and just society. Oxfam India's campaign India Without Discrimination aims to create a fair and just society and discrimination warriors like Bitiya are our leading lights. An inspiration to many, her story spells out clearly in bold, even, that come what may there is always a ray of hope.

Photo Credit: Javed Sultan

Read more about: women
Story first published: Sunday, December 20, 2020, 8:00 [IST]