While in Chennai, I was reading a newspaper (The Hindu) and saw an article about a sixteen-year-old named Sunita Murmu. I’d never heard of her before, and I expect most Westerners haven’t. But you should know her story.
As one news story summarizes, Sunita faced persecution in her village in West Bengal when she got romantically involved with a non-tribal boy from a nearby village. The local tribal panchayat, or self-proclaimed governing body, sentenced her to be stripped publicly and endure sexual harassment while walking around her village. Nobody raised a hand to stop this punishment; in fact, many of the local men took photos and videos of her on their phones, and spread around the footage in order to dissuade other girls from committing the same “crime.” Even her parents did not interfere.
For two months after the traumatic event, Sunita recovered in solitude in her parents’ hut. Then she spoke to the police and lodged a formal complaint against her harassers. Due to her perseverance, and her ability to identify her harassers within the tribe, the six main criminals were arrested. However, fearing a backlash from the locals who wished to see “tribal values” enforced, Sunita has been relocated to a government home for children, where she is being educated in hopes of being able to live independently one day.
Sunita has been awarded the National Bravery Award by President Pratibha Patil, and women’s organizations in India are holding her up as an example of a woman who bravely fought for justice. Otherwise, however, Sunita’s case is far from unique; women in India face sexual harassment and violence on a regular basis, and very few are able to speak out in their defense. The accused perpetrators are free to move around the village while out on bail, while Sunita has essentially been exiled from her home for her own safety. Many members of her family do not speak to her, out of shame, or fear for their lives.
Sexual equality is not yet a reality in India, as in many parts of the world, even including the West. What Sunita survived was terrible, but not uncommon, and hopefully her courage helps inspire change.
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