The Abuse That People Don't Recognize As Violence —And One Woman's 40-Year Fight Against It

At the heart of V. Rukmini Rao's work is women's empowerment.

For Indian activist V. Rukmini Rao, the fight to end domestic violence in her country has been a 40-year journey. While campaigning to pass legislation to make domestic violence illegal, she also helped create the first women's shelter in the country. She has been recognized as a leader in the feminist movement in India by organizations around the world, but Rao isn't nearly ready to quit fighting for gender equality. 

"I don't see myself as a leader; I see myself as a worker," Rao told A Plus at an event organized by U.N. Women. "The thing is when you see so much injustice around you, it makes me very angry, and I feel I'm damned if I'm going to allow this."

Rao got her start as an activist when she moved to Delhi in the 1970s. Rao, who was working at the time at the National Labour Institute after defying cultural norms by leaving her first husband, had already proven herself to be someone who wasn't afraid to take action when she felt it was necessary. In Delhi at the time, she says, women started realizing just how prolific domestic abuse was in their country and started coming together to address it.

"Physical violence, I think everyone recognizes as violence," she said. "What women don't recognize is the mental violence and torture. We didn't have the language to say, you know, this is mental torture."

V. Rukmini Rao Photo Courtesy of U.N. Women / Ryan Brown
V. Rukmini Rao Photo Courtesy of U.N. Women / Ryan Brown

Over the next decade, she would fight for legislation that would make domestic violence illegal and also sought to create systems of support for survivors. In 1981, Rao helped set up one of the first domestic violence centers for women in the country where women were given medical care, a safe place to stay, and legal aid and information on filing for custody and alimony. 

As women began to recognize that they had others who would fight for them, so did the women begin to realize they were allowed to fight for themselves. 

Rao recalls the story of someone who had recently come to her Gramya Resource Center for Women. On the day after her wedding, the girl's husband told her that he had only married her because his family forced him to. He would, almost daily, call her fat and ugly and remind her that he never actually wanted to marry her. One day, she packed her bags, took her jewelry, and left him.

"The same person 20 years ago, 40 years ago, would say, my mother-in-law took away my jewelry and I don't know what to do and I don't know where to live, she talked as if it was the end of her life," Rao said. "Whereas, 20 years later, because of the changes that have happened in society, a young woman can say, this is it. She can say, something bad has happened to me, but I don't want it to be the end of my life. I want to get on with it. So she just got on with it."

Through training other women, Rao helped expand the center's concept to other communities. By decentralizing the organization, their mission was able to expand beyond what Rao and other volunteers would have had the capacity to build on their own and created a network across the country of women supporting women. 

"There's a big shift in power relationships when women are able to collectivize," she said. "Some of the work that we're doing is basically collectivizing women to raise their voices against any kind of injustice." 

Last year, the Indian government began formalizing the centers that Rao and her colleagues helped create. The first center that Rao opened with a group of volunteers is now overseen by a paid staff of 15. She hopes that this change will make access to justice even easier for women who are seeking support at these centers and will help educate more men on the issue. 

Rao, meanwhile, won't be giving up her fight for justice anytime soon. She says she continues to be inspired by the women she sees who, even as they are often alienated from society due to their class and lack of education, are still able to continue to work hard and take care of their families, all while living a life filled with joy. 

"The fact is there is a real change in how women see themselves as powerful," Rao said. "In this whole business, what we have to recognize is that we need a little support to make the women actually have the confidence to move forward with their own ideas."

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