The Transformation of a Survivor: Manju Khatik's Journey from a Child Bride to a Catalyst for Change

Manju's efforts for women empowerment have been recognized by several organizations.
Manju's efforts for women empowerment have been recognized by several organizations.

In her youth, she was wedded as a mere adolescent, and from that moment on, her existence was naught but a nightmare - a never-ending cycle of abuse and violence at the hands of her husband. But Manju Khatik, a survivor of child marriage, marital rape, abuse, and domestic violence, has since dedicated her life to fighting for women's rights, combating issues such as child marriage, and all kind of gender discrimination and violence. Through her hard work, Manju has had an enormous impact on the lives of hundreds of women, transforming them for the better. She has impacted over 25,000 women and girls regarding their rights, and over 20,000 women regarding maternal and sexual health. On the eve of International Women's Day, The Mooknayak approached Manju and learned about the hard battles she fought as a child bride, as a survivor of marital rape and as an activist defending and demanding dignity and equal opportunities for the fairer sex.

Struggle for survival

In a conversation with The Moonayak, Manju recounted how she was wedded at the tender age of 13 to a family in Rajsamand's Kuraj village, despite hailing from a wealthy, affluent family in Bhilwara's Gangapur city. Her father, a woolen garments businessman, was a well-to-do individual, and her father-in-law, a lawyer, was equally supportive. However, Manju's husband was a lazy man, doing nothing with his time and bringing in no financial support for the family. She became a mother when she was merely 16 and subsequently delivered three more children by her mid-twenties. Following her father-in-law's demise, Manju struggled to raise her four children, three daughters and a son, as her husband continued his irresponsible mannerism doing nothing. Manju worked as farm labourer , digging works, learned stitching and handicrafts, bag making to earn a living and even mend clothes for 1 or 2 rupees per piece in order to make ends meet.

For Manju, it was not just the physical struggles that made her existence so difficult, but the pain she endured as a result of her husband's constant physical abuse, particularly in the form of marital rape. " The days passed by with work, but what I couldn't bear were the torturous nights, being forced by my husband which was unbearable. No one understood my pain, as my mother and mother-in-law considered it natural for any man to demand sex. I suffered four abortions due to this beastly treatment."Manju told The Mooknayak. Despite her attempts to bring her situation to the attention of her mother-in-law and family in Bhilwara, nobody seemed to comprehend her plight. This, she notes, is a common issue in Indian society, where it is often believed that a husband has every right over his wife.

Manju believes education is the most effective tool to establish gender quality in the society.
Manju believes education is the most effective tool to establish gender quality in the society.

Transformation from a coy bride to activist

In 1992, driven by a passion for learning and the desire to speak out against the rights of women, Manju entered the social service sector. Her aim was to create an organization that could combat any type of violence, including child marriage, rape, marital rape, and physical abuse against women. She came in contact with Aastha, an Udaipur based NGO working for women empowerment specially for the economically weaker and marginalized communities. Manju learned about the power of organisations in creating awareness and defending rights.

In 1997, Manju established her own group called "Mahila Manch," which eventually grew to include over 13,000 female activists. The organization's primary focus iwas on empowering local government officials, particularly the sarpanch, to take a stand and prevent child marriages, domestic abuse, and violence against women at the grassroots level. Through her unwavering commitment to women's rights, Manju made a significant impact on the lives of countless individuals, proving that true change can be brought about through hard work, dedication, and a fierce desire to make a difference.

Violence against women a grave concern

Gradually, Manju's fame spread in the adjoining areas and people started calling her for interventional support. Manju recounts a harrowing incident, where in a woman was subjected to brutal violence by her family members for being unable to meet their expectations of bearing children. "The perpetrators of this heinous act subjected the woman to such extreme torture that they inserted a stick into her private parts, causing her to bleed profusely."

Despite her condition, she was left lying on the road for four to five hours, while villagers who were afraid of the affluent family, could do nothing to help her" Manju said. Someone called on her phone and asked to help and Manju travelled 60 kilometers from her home to reach the ailing woman who was rushed to Udaipur hospital. Manju and her team reported the case to the police and stood undeterred even after facing life threats from the woman's family to step back. Despite facing immense threats from the accused family, Manju refused to be intimidated and stood firm in her quest for justice. In 2009, Manju joined Jatan Sansthan, another determined organisation working for women empowerment in many rural blocks of Rajasthan.

Child marriage, a scourge on Rajasthan

According to Manju, child marriage is a scourge on Rajasthan and the root cause of many of the problems faced by women. She believes that if girls are educated and given the opportunity to lead self-sufficient lives, they can protect themselves from the violence and abuse perpetuated by others. "Child marriage not only robs young girls of their childhood but also leads to a host of health and social problems, perpetuating the cycle of poverty and gender-based discrimination. By empowering girls with education and life skills, we aim to break this cycle and pave the way for a more equitable and just society" Manju asserted.

She presently serves as the district coordinator of the Sahada block in Bhilwara district. Manju shares that Sahada had once topped the list of districts with the highest number of child marriages in Rajasthan. However, with the increasing awareness among women, particularly adolescent girls, the instances of child marriages have reduced. More girls are now attending school, and while there were no colleges in the block a few years ago, due to the persistent efforts of local activists, including Janpratinidhi, and the MLA, two colleges have now been established, one for girls and one for boys.

Sensitizing rural women on various government schemes
Sensitizing rural women on various government schemes

350 child marriages averted in recent years

Manju notes that in 2015, only two girls had received higher education, but the current number has surged to over 150, which is a promising sign for the future. In addition, Manju and her team are actively sensitizing adolescent girls and women in the area about life skills, the importance of education, the disadvantages of child marriages, speaking up against gender-based violence, and the legal provisions available to women seeking help. The efforts have started showing results as Manju puta in that Sahada, which was once infamous for its high number of child marriages, has seen a significant drop in such cases due to increasing awareness. In the past five to six years, more than 350 girls have successfully prevented their own child marriages or received court orders to annul the marriage. Manju and her team have been connecting women with the various welfare schemes by the government for economic upliftment through means of training and skill development projects.

Manju's efforts for women empowerment have been recognized by several organizations.
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Caste discrimination not rampant

Manju also sheds light on the prevalent caste discrimination in rural areas of Rajasthan. She shares that she has faced instances where she has been humiliated and subjected to casteist remarks for standing up for the rights of Dalit women. However, Manju does not let these hurtful comments affect her, as she believes that fighting for justice requires persevering through any obstacle.

Fortunately, Manju claims, with the growing influence of social media, caste discrimination has started to take a backseat in recent years. People are becoming more aware of such incidents and are reporting them immediately. This, coupled with authorities taking action, has resulted in a decline in caste discrimination. Technology has also played a vital role in curbing caste discrimination in rural areas. "I remember a case where people didn't let a Dalit Mahila Pradhan sit on her chair in the office but we fought for her and eventually people had to relinquish."

Manju emphasizes that she has always been a staunch advocate for women's rights, regardless of their caste or religion. She believes that it is wrong to stereotype women based on these factors and that women's empowerment is an issue that affects all women, regardless of their background.

Even today, after 30 years in social service, 52-year old Manju's day begins at the crack of dawn, at 4:30 in the morning, when she prepares breakfast and meals for her family and elderly mother-in-law for the day. She leaves her home at 8:30, taking a bus to travel 36 kilometers every day to reach her office in Bhilwara, where she works towards empowering women on gender issues as part of the Sahada team. Despite the long and tiring commute, Manju Khatik stays committed to her cause and pours her heart and soul into her work. She returns home in the evening at around 7 o'clock and jumps right back into her household chores, showcasing her unwavering dedication to her family and community.

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