JHARKHAND: 65-year-old Ranthi Devi was once dragged out of her house, tonsured and paraded naked in her village on charges of practising 'witchcraft'. A few days later, more than 600 self-help group (SHG) women turned up before the village 'mukhiya' in the village panchayat to save her honour and counsel her.
The villagers promised such incidents will never recur. The accused were made to publicly apologise to the woman by touching her feet. They were later sent to jail for the crime they committed. The incident has changed Ranthi Devi's life, making her live a stress-free dignified life -- no one holds her responsible for illnesses or deaths in the village.
'Witch hunting', a recurring social evil in Jharkhand, took 27 lives in 2019, while 26 people were killed in 2018 and 41 in 2017, according to the State Crime Records Bureau (SCRB) data. Thanks to 'Garima' project launched by the Jharkhand government to prevent 'witchcraft', the affected women are identified and made financially independent by providing various livelihood opportunities to them.
"The perception of villagers towards me has changed; they do not consider me a 'witch' anymore. It is all because of the SHG members who have given me a reason to live," says Ranthi Devi.
She adds that ever since SHG women came to support her and conducted awareness drives against the social evil, it has instilled fear of law among a handful of villagers out to brand her a 'witch'. "These SHG members visit me in a couple of months and ask me if I have any problem," says Ranthi Devi.
Similarly, Samina Devi of Barketunga village under Kolebira Block of Simdega was regularly threatened and beaten up by some people in the name of practising witchcraft. When she protested, a case was registered against her. After being informed about the case, the SHG members approached her and went to the police station, settling the case after the perpetrators signed a bond not to bother her anymore.
As many as 1,149 such women have been identified by launching the drive in more than 500 villages and they are being provided security by village committees. Since these women are traumatised with most of them leading a secluded lifestyle, psychological counselling is being ensured to them.
"Each victim’s case is followed up. They are given a form to fill which is assessed by experts to ascertain their mental status. A psychological analysis of these forms helps in knowing if these women are leading a normal life without any fear," says a Block Resource Person Reshma Khatoon who is associated with Operation Garima.
These women are also given SHG membership and provided different livelihood opportunities to make them independent, she said. "To spread awareness against the evil, street plays, wall writing and other means are adopted to reach out to villages," says Khatoon.
Workshops at block levels are organised, which are headed by block development officers. Other officials and public representatives from Jharkhand Legal Services Authority along with the locals attend it. Discussions take place without taking names of 'witchcraft' victims.