A staunch advocate for women’s rights, Rukhmabai Raut was one of India’s first female physicians. She also played an integral role in the enactment of the Age of Consent Act in 1891.
Rukhmabai was born in Bombay on 22 November 1864 to Janardhan Pandurang and Jayantibai. Rukhmabai’s mother was a child bride; she married to Rukhmabai’s father when she was only 14, was mother by 15 and a widow by 17. Given that child marriage was so common in India during this time, Rukhmabai too became a child bride. When she was only 11 years old, she was to marry a 19 year old man, Dadaji Bhikaji.
Rukhmabai’s step-father Sakharam Arjun requested that Dadaji live at their home, be provided for, take education and become “a good man” before taking Rukhmabai to live with him. During this time, and contrary to her country’s customs, Rukhmabai was encouraged to educate herself by her step-father. Sakharam Arjun was an acclaimed physician and botanist. Rukhmabai was eager to follow in his footsteps.
However, when Rukhmabai reached puberty, her husband felt it time to live with her, and to embark on the ritual consummation of marriage. In a shockingly brave move, Rukhmabai refused – with the support of Sakharam Arjun, who had strong reformist tendencies.
Unwilling to accept her refusal, in 1884, her husband took her to court, suing her for “restoration of conjugal rights.” Still, Rukhmabai resisted. In a case that lasted three years and garnered a great deal of national and international attention, the court sided with her husband, ruling that Rukhmabai must either consent to living in her husband’s home or serve time in prison. Rukhmabai reportedly said she would rather be imprisoned than forced into a marriage she did not want.
This was at the height of the British Empire, and Rukhmabai decided to appeal directly to Queen Victoria. Unwilling to let Rukhmabai go to prison, Queen Victoria opted to overrule the court and dissolve Rukhmabai’s marriage. In order to prevent such things from happening in the future, the Age of Consent Act was passed in 1891, though it was met with dissenters from the conservative Indian community.
Finally free from the marriage she did not choose, Rukhmabai traveled to England to study medicine. She returned to India in 1894 as one of the country’s first female physicians and spent 35 years serving as a chief medical officer. She also continued serving as an advocate for the abolition of child marriage, writing extensively on the subject.
She died in 1955 at the age of 91.