“If non-violence is the law of our being, the future is with women.” - Mahatma Gandhi
Women are equally endowed with human dignity and no woman should be discriminated against or targeted for exercising her autonomy. There are forces in society that become very uncomfortable when women assert their constitutionally guaranteed rights and fundamental freedoms, including religious freedom. Such anti-social elements resort to violence to frustrate the constitutional vision of women-empowerment. Religious violence, combined with inadequate access to justice, intensifies the marginalization of victims, with serious implications especially for women.
Last month, ADF India allied lawyers responded to one such incident in Koraput district of Odisha where six women – Sonari* (21) and Suroma* (45), along with Suroma’s four young daughters, were targeted for their faith.
On February 14, 2021, Sonari and Suroma were participating in a prayer meeting where around 30 Christians were assembled peacefully. Their prayers were rudely disrupted by a violent mob of 70 men who forcefully entered the place of worship and began assaulting the Christians present there. They especially directed their rage at Sonari, Suroma, their pastor and his wife. The victims were threatened that they would be attacked again if they did not give up their faith.
After subjecting the four of them to verbal and physical attacks, the mob had the audacity to drag them to the local police station. The perpetrators then brazenly lodged a complaint against the victims alleging that they were involved in forceful conversions. An interrogation by the police revealed that there was no truth to the allegations. However, instead of assuring the victims that they would be provided protection, they were advised by the police to curb their religious activities for their own safety. Following this they were permitted to return home. However, their troubles did not end at the police station.
When Sonari and Suroma returned home, they were shocked by the hostility that they faced from their own relatives who accused them of bringing disgrace to the family. Sonari and Suroma’s father forcefully extracted an undertaking from them that if they continued to practice Christianity, the family would accept no responsibility for their safety.
A few days later, Sonari, Suroma, and Suroma’s four daughters, were pushed out of their home by their own family when they refused to deny their faith. Despite having no income and lodging, the women refused to be cowed down and with much struggle found work as daily labourers to sustain themselves.
Every year, March 8th is commemorated as International Women’s Day. However, heart-rending stories of oppression and ostracization of women like Suroma and Sonari remind us that we still have a long way to go in protecting and promoting the dignity of women.
ADF India’s allied lawyers are providing legal advice to the courageous sisters to help them secure justice. Through the Vanishing Girls campaign, ADF India is working to protect the rights of women and girls and advocating to end their discrimination.
*Name changed to protect privacy of individuals.