‘If she had a voice, she could have screamed out’

Beed (Maharashtra), Aug 23 (IANS/ 101Reporters) Fifty-year-old Shantubai Rahu (name changed) wakes up at 5 a.m. every day, cleans and feeds her son Rushikesh, places a clay pot with water near him and ties his hands tightly to a cot in the two-room hut, before leaving for work. This has been her routine for decades now.

Rushikesh (35) is mentally challenged, and Shantubai has been on her own ever since her husband died 10 years ago. “We had 12 acres of cultivable land. But we sold most of our land for Rushikesh’s treatment and are now left with only one acre. No schools cater to my son, or else I would have taken him there,” Shantubai tells 101Reporters.

Shantubai has been doing odd jobs in small factories of vermicelli and spices, on farms and even as a domestic help. She faces sexual violence from men who work around her. When she returns home, her brother-in-law either beats her up or rapes her, while her son screams helplessly.

“Neighbours are aware of my situation, but they never come to my rescue. People call me a bad woman and say I am the reason for my husband’s death and the birth of a mentally-challenged boy,” Shantubai bemoans.

When Shantubai approached Kaij Police Station to complain against her brother-in-law last year, she was dissuaded saying it was a family matter. “Once the brother-in-law came to know about it, he thrashed me even more. I then went to seek help from the gram panchayat, where I was shamed for talking about sexual abuse,” she adds.

Sonali Ramesh (name changed), a 25-year-old farm labourer from Lahuri village, cannot speak or hear since birth. She lost her husband in a road accident 14 years ago. She has been through many forms of violence, which she cannot communicate as she is illiterate, according to her mother-in-law Kashibai Suresh Hazare.

Kashibai, and six others who work with her, claim she is often molested, at times raped, too. “Only yesterday did I see two men from the neighbourhood pull the loose end of her sari, while she was making tea on the porch,” laments Kashibai.

“If she had a voice, she could have screamed and made a noise,” adds the mother-in-law, who had complained to the family of the molesters, but to no avail.

“When we approached the village panchayat, we were questioned as to why such things happened only to Sonali. They said she is ‘corrupting’ men by wearing colourful saris. We were slut-shamed in front of everyone,” she adds.

Deep-rooted social stigma

Organisations like Navchetana Sarvangin Vikas Kendra, a not-for-profit based in Kaij, have been trying to create awareness. “Initially, villagers would pelt us with stones for saying something they did not believe in. Our major challenge is to work with the gram panchayat, which is stuck in the past and encourages stigmas in society. Since access to pension is a tedious process, we have been supporting the disabled and their families with rations, zero-interest loans and livelihood training programmes such as tailoring,” field coordinator Kaushalya Chandrakant Thorat tells 101Reporters.

Nagarbai Vishwanath Thorat (65) from Hol village has recently begun sitting in a wheelchair with the help of her daughter. She has been bedridden for over a decade now.

“Last year, when my husband died, the villagers began to call me a witch and blamed me for his death. I am asked to leave as they believe my state of paralysis will kill more men here,” says Nagarbai, who struggles to receive her monthly disability pension.

“I can’t move much even now, and my voice is feeble. Men and young boys take advantage of my condition,” she adds.

Poor access to government aid

The National Handicapped Finance and Development Corporation (NHFDC) was set up by the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, Government of India, on January 24, 1997. It offers financial assistance in the form of concessional loans on convenient terms to those with 40 per cent or more disability and aged above 18 years.

Twenty years ago, Ravindra Bharat Patekar, who has polio in his lower body, obtained his Unique Disability ID (UDID) and registered under the Disability Pension Scheme. “Pension is never on time. It comes either after six months or a year. I visit the Block Development Office in Beed every month, along with my wife and mother, to enquire about my pension status. The official in charge sends us back citing lack of funds. The same is the case with my father’s pension too,” he says.

His wife and mother take up sugarcane-cutting work to sustain the family. Patekar, on his part, had tried to get a bank loan in the hope of starting a wholesale snack business that would not require him to move around much.

“When I went to the bank, I was termed ‘unfit’ for a loan and the in-charge said the ‘disabled’ were unreliable. Left with no option, I opened a paan (betel leaf) shop outside our home two years ago. But nobody buys from me because of my disability. I had to shut down the shop,” Patekar adds.

School education a challenge

The data provided by the District Social Welfare (DSW) Department, Beed, show the district has around 10,000 disabled people, with 1,181 UDIDs issued so far. Officials claim the district has 38 residential special schools catering to the disabled.

“These schools are 20 years old and have 1,200 students currently. They are in Beed, Ambajogai, Parli, Patoda, Majalgaon and Kaij. The visually challenged, hard of hearing and mute and mentally challenged children study here. We have been facing issues in finding occupational therapists in all these categories for years now,” a DSW official informs 101Reporters.

A District Disability Rehabilitation Centre (DDRC) will be inaugurated soon in Ambajogai. “It will serve as a nodal agency to identify the people with disabilities and facilitate their access to government schemes,” explains DSW official Ankush Nakhate.

The team will distribute aid and assistive devices such as artificial limbs, physiotherapy, occupational therapy, speech therapy, besides arrangement of loans for self-employment and conduct of free counselling for the family members of the disabled.

Nakhate claims the disabled get a pension of Rs 1,000 (Rs 600 from the Maharashtra government and the rest from the Centre), which is transferred directly to the beneficiary bank accounts. But he acknowledges that no district-specific data are available now.

However, families of the disabled state otherwise. “We don’t get any pension under the scheme, though it has been many years since we applied for it,” claims Shantubai. She is more occupied with the daily struggles; every time Shantubai takes her son for a general check-up at the Kaij government hospital, the doctors just hand her some pills and ask them to leave without doing any thorough examination. There are no opportunities for things to get better.

(The author is a Cooch Bihar-based freelance journalist and a member of 101Reporters, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.)

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