If you have a look at Google today, you must’ve noticed a portrait of a gentle-looking lady with a stethoscope around her neck, surrounded by hospital beds with women patients and nurses looking after them. The lady is none other than Dr Rukhmabai Raut also known as Rakhmabai Raut or simply Rukhmabai. Rukhmabai Raut was one of British India’s earliest practicing women doctors. This, during a time when rights for women, especially Indian women, were rarely given any kind of importance. Rukhmabai’s life in colonial India is significant, especially when it comes to learning about consent, a term that dominates discourse everywhere.
Rukhmabai Raut was born in Mumbai, then Bombay, on November 22, 1864. She was a child bride, married off at the age of 11, to Dadaji Bhikaji, 19. Child marriage was a common practice among Indians then.
Rukhmabai’s mother endured child marriage as well, having been married when she was 14, giving birth to Rukhmabai at 15 and then becoming a widow at just 17 years of age.
Rukhmabai did not live with her husband after her marriage though, but stayed in her parents’ home and educated herself, following instructions laid down by her stepfather.
Rukhmabai, in contrast to her husband, found out that he was averse to her being educated. Rukhmabai soon took the bold decision that she did not want to remain married to Dadaji.
In March 1884, Dadaji petitioned the Bombay High Court to restore conjugal rights of the husband over his wife, that is, make Rukhmabai come and live with him. The court told Rukhmabai to comply or to go to prison. Rukhmabai, naturally, refused.
This petition was thus, the start of a landmark case, which led to the passing of the Age of Consent Act in 1891.
Rukhmabai argued that she could not be forced to remain married, since she was married at an age when she was unable to give her consent. This argument had never been heard of before in any court of law.
Rukhmabai was successful, through her arguments, to let the case receive a significant amount of attention in the press during the 1880s.
The case thus came to the notice of many social reformers, including Ramabai Ranade and Behramji Malabari.
Ultimately, Dadaji chose to accept monetary compensation as an exchange to dissolve the marriage. Because of this compromise, Rukhmabai was saved from going to jail.
It was after this case that Rukhmabai chose to train as a doctor, resulting in a successful 35-year-old career in medicine.
She did not stop with medicine, choosing to become a social reformer as well, by writing against child marriage and women’s seclusion (purdah).
Rukhmabai was an active social reformer until her death at the age of 91, in September 25, 1955.