By Shruti Arora:
As part of its Know Your Body, Know Your Rights programme, YP Foundation conducts community-based comprehensive sexuality education (CSE) sessions with girls and young women in partnership with field-based organisations.
At the end of this year’s phase of work, girls from one of the centres (Samarpan organisation, Kishangarh, Delhi) ran a facilitated campaign on sexual harassment in public spaces to engage with their mothers and other community members. During the CSE sessions, at different junctures, many of them narrated their experiences of sexual harassment and the difficulty in talking about it with their mothers. They also shared their experiences of fighting with their parents to come to the centre, as they weren’t being allowed to attend the sessions for various reasons – it being unsafe for them to go out, ‘would they want to know about these things at such a young age’, and ‘school education is more important than all of this’.
Discussions around these experiences in the centre led to a facilitated process of social action. It involved the parents and the local organisation staff members – and helped the girls to collectively mobilise their mothers, raise their concerns and engage with them on ched-chad or ‘eve-teasing’ (as it was called).
As part of the social action, the girls presented a role-play, based on their experiences of sexual harassment. The mothers were encouraged to engage with it, intervene and change the situation.
As it turned out, one of the mothers came up and intervened by encouraging her daughter to find a ‘support group’ in her friends when she went out. We thought that this was valuable for the girls – as opposed to parents blaming the girls for sexual harassment and then expressing the need for increased control over their physical mobility.
The entire event proceeded comfortably. This despite the time when I argued that terming sexual harassment and violence as ched-chad or eve-teasing trivialises the everyday violence that all women face inside or outside their homes, during the day or night.
Later, we spoke individually to a few mothers on why they think girls are blamed for sexual harassment and why it should restrict their mobility. They said, “Ladkiyon ko doshi mat thehrao, poori baat pata hona zaruri hai. Agar ladki ki galti hai, agar wo bigad gayi to hi wo doshi hai (Don’t blame the girls, it is important to know the complete story. If it is the girl’s fault, if she’s become a rebel, only then she should be blamed).” I did not ask what they meant by ‘ladki ki galti’.
Parents’ fears of girls and young women willingly getting into relationships is often articulated as galti. But what also attracted my attention was the statement which reflected the patriarchal norm that decides who deserves protection in cases of sexual violence. As Nivedita Menon in her book, “Seeing Like a feminist”, puts it, “Sexual violence is only the most visible aspect of a general climate of misogyny in which all women are always under the scanner for signs of immoral behaviour.”
She continues her line of argument (on ‘immoral behaviour’) by saying that women live in ‘constant knowledge’ to not behave like ‘bad women’/bazaaru aurat/whores in public spaces in order to ‘deserve protection’ from sexual harassment. While the mothers we spoke to expressed their anxiety of girls getting involved with boys, the ‘immoral behaviour’ in this context does mean an awareness in the girls to not be seen with a boy on streets and be understood as galat (being at fault). In fact, in one of the sessions, the girls added that if they are seen with boys, they are not likely to be believed by parents if they ever faced sexual harassment. They may not even be allowed to go out to study to the school or the centre.
Therefore, it wasn’t surprising that the girls themselves expressed experiencing closer scrutiny by parents, family and the community – especially after they started menstruating. The onset of menstruation denotes girls entering the ‘reproductive age’ – and consequently, greater control over their sexuality by parents till they get married.
All these suggest that the fulfilment of sexual, educational rights and the right to freedom for girls and women is often ‘conditional’ – as it depends upon coming out and being seen as a ‘good woman’ in society. Deconstructing these statements also reveal ways in which public spaces and institutions are socially constructed – based on hegemonic ideas of gender, sexuality, morality and who deserves education and protection (and who doesn’t).
The author is the programme coordinator (Delhi) for the Know Your Body, Know Your Rights programme.