|Rekha Devi in front of her hut
Accused of being a witch and eating her husband and daughter alive, Rekha Devi (37) lives in her small hut with one daughter and two sons.
Married at the age of 14, Rekha had 7 children. Last year, Rekha lost her husband due to kidney problems. “My relatives accused me of having eaten my husband,” said Rekha with tears in her eyes. Two months later, Rekha’s six-year-old daughter fell unconscious and died instantly. “The villagers then beat me up brutally and left me to die in my house,” said Rekha.
“Her own people started calling her a witch first and then we the villagers,” said Baso Devi, one of the women from the village. Rekha is a member of a Self Help Group, (SHG) in the village but other members refused to help for fear of being eaten by her.
Rekha lives in Rajgir, Bihar, located in the eastern state of India. “Prevalence of witchcraft practices are commonly found among the villagers,” said Ganesh Kumar, Coordinator of the Chetanalaya Social Centre, Rajgir.
Out of the 2,000 target families we work with, there are more than 200 cases of women suffering from witchcraft accusations, added Ganesh. “We have been able to do advocacy work among certain SHGs to change their mind set and in fact succeeded in Rekha’s case,” said Ganesh.
Rekha is a landless daily wage earner. “When I visit the Block Office to avail the government benefits entitled for a widow, the villagers accuse me of being a prostitute now,” said Rekha with a choked voice.
When asked why she married off her daughters at very young age she said I did not know otherwise and it’s not safe to keep grown up girls in the house. Now I know better and she said, “I will educate my two sons and the daughter as much as I can. I will not marry my daughter off when she reaches 16 and not at the age of 13 or 14”.
Rekha said I have been attending the ‘International Women’s Day’ celebrations every year since I joined the SHG. They tell us many things about how to improve our situation in the villages. Yet, I am poor and a widow, what can I do for myself or for anyone, retorted Rekha with hopelessness on her face.
Munni Devi, supervisor of the SHG in Rekha’s village said, “There is gradual positive change in the mind-set of the SHG women and it will not take long to reflect that change among the villagers.” Will year after year of celebrations of ‘International Women’s Day’ redeem the lives of these poor walking ‘witches’, in our remote villages of India?
The Sisters of Charity of Nazareth has been ministering with the women through Self Help Groups to empower women and to enhance their livelihood in Rajgir for the last 15 years. Sr. Rose Plathottathil, SCN, coordinates the social empowerment work in 60 villages in two blocks – Rajgir and Silao, along with caring for and educating 110 physically handicapped female children.