COVID- 19 among its myriad impacts has led to an increase in gender-based violence. There has been a rise in sexual violence against women. United Nations recognizing the violence launched the campaign “The Shadow Pandemic- Violence against Women during COVID-19”. Even before the pandemic, one in three women has experienced physical or sexual violence by their intimate partner. National Crime Bureau of India shows that in India 26% of women have experienced physical violence from their partners (this average rises to 45% in the State of Uttar Pradesh).
Given the context of rising reported cases of violence and the gendered impact of COVID- 19, IMPRI Impact and Policy Research Institute, New Delhi hosted a webinar on Gender-based Violence & Safety: Orchestrating the Role of Men, Women, Communities, and Spaces with Priya Varadarajan, Founder of DURGA and part of Womens’ and Disabilities Cluster at Azim Premji University as part of its series The State of Gender Equality – #Gender Gaps.
Dr. Vibhuti Patel, Former Professor, TATA Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Mumbai chaired the event by successfully locating the context and importance of the conversation on Gender-based Violence. Pointing to the increase in the reported cases of domestic physical and sexual abuse experienced by women during the pandemic.
Victims of gender-based violence suffer from various problems- neurological gastro-intestinal reproductive, complications from unsafe abortions, mental health problems (depression, suicidal tendencies, PTSD), etc. They require social support networks for rebuilding their lives. Migrant women are the most vulnerable.
Ripple effects of gender-based violence can strain community and social bonds. Dr Patel traced the genealogy of feminist interventions and their interaction with the state in resulting in desired empowering laws for women. Speaking of the White Ribbon Campaign, Civil society organizations, Women’s Rights are Human Rights. She recollected the 15 days campaign that had been undertaken for the same. Gender-based violence needs to be seen as a wider social problem. Accountability spaces need to be created in the public space.
Usually, the raw act of gender-based violence is seen as the consequence of deviant behaviour by the victim, Priya Varadarajan points to this flawed understanding. There is a community responsibility to ensure the security of any individual. With this motive in mind, she founded the organization DURGA, Dare to Understand behaviour Respond appropriately, and Guards ourselves ably.
Gender-based violence is not the result of individual acts, it is a systemic issue that results from the patriarchal rubric of society. Priya Varadarajan locates this to be “Womb to Tomb Violence”. Violence is both physical, mental, social, and denial of opportunities from birth to within the family.
Violence is not only physical and social, it can result in any form of marginalization. Any form of denial of opportunity or access to space in itself is violence. Women are discriminated against from the time of their birth till their death, they are constantly competing for scarce resources where they control neither ownership of capital or property.
Girls struggle for attaining quality education. Even with the presence of laws the disempowering, discrimination, and oppression women experience is because of the lack of implementation, articulation, and sensitivity. Violence consumes the survivor, physically and mentally. The normative burden of surviving gender violence is steeped in patriarchy. Any intervention so needed to be designed must locate within the community and space. DURGA as an organization designs all its interventions at the intersection of four variables.
We need to accept that it is never a girl’s mistake when she is abused in the public space. The parents need to create a safe space for their children to share their failures with them. Schools should also provide judgment-free spaces for the children to share their experiences. Awareness needs to be created by the system which includes all of us. The onus lies on the community and family to normalize conversations about the body, self, and the individual.
The engagement needs to evolve sex education towards questions about sexuality, consent, and dignity, Police should also have sensitivity while listening to issues of sexual harassment. Collective responsibility is the need of the hour. We all have a role to play by being active in our approach towards gender-based violence. Active citizenship can play a vital role. Change in the thinking process and an urge to initiate change should be cultivated in every mind! The mindset needs to be corrected. Sexual education needs to be part of the schools and colleges curriculum.
This citizenship organization has operated for 10 years, now pan India, and has a right-based and feminist thinking approach. The organization aims to ensure woman’s safety is not a woman’s safety problem. It is a collective problem and aims at building strong, resilient, and responsible communities.
There are ripple effects of sexual harassment. Positive energy needs to be cultivated in public spaces. The organization through the course of its years has successfully created a safe physical and mental space for women in the community.
Lauding the work of the organization, Dr Vibhuti Patel, narrated the power of community feeling within the demands for rape law reform in the 1970s where the community feeling was celebrated through the collective chant “Nari sharir par hum atyachar nahi sahenge (We won’t bear violence on women’s bodies)”. She mentioned that we have come a long way especially since 2013 as people are now more aware related to sexual harassment. The need is to replicate and emulate similar models all over the country which would incorporate the citizens, the community, and space.
The organization focuses on working with spaces that encapsulate both the physical space and mental space. The community as a whole must ensure through practice that safety becomes a character of the space of the community.
DURGA has attempted to do this by expanding the locus of the agency to the woman herself. This shift in transition happens through these successful workshops designed on the idea of Safety which is more than mere security. These safety workshops tackle concerns beyond self-defence where they try to transition patterns of oppression and fear that women grow in. Women are made to feel in control by realizing that they have the power to engage and prevent situations and even after the event they will have support.
DURGA wants to drive in the being feminist doesn’t mean we are anti-men. Men should recognize that they are historically privileged. Men should try to create equity in their families by recognizing historical injustices against women. Unconscious bias and active bystander engagement are the main agendas of DURGA as women need a space to be themselves and should not feel intimidated by others’ demeanours.
Gender, respect, and identity are interconnected. DURGA works in impact engagement, it has also installed alarms in buses. In colleges, they are interacting with the youth to make them more aware of how crucial it is to raise our voices and have an opinion.
One of the key interventions that Priya Varadarajan spoke of, was the need to expand the understanding of the individual woman from her body. Shame induced by the violence against the body through the trial and state response needs to be actively responded to. The body of the individual and the identity of the survivor has to be separated. This happens with successful community intervention.
The locus of the agency has to be returned to the survivor. This location of return of agency through community support and action results in engaging with the memory of violence more healthily, wherein, the identity is not reduced to that of violence. Consent is not taken and it is very important at each stage. One should look beyond the body. There needs to be a change in the narrative at the community level.
Dr. Tanvir Aeijaz, Professor Ramjas College spoke on how feminist discourse has urgent concerns that need to be responded to. We need more activism in our society as our society needs changes. He pointed out that while there are problems with the rights-based approach, how the language of rights in itself shifts the locus of agency from the individual to the state. The paternalism of right based approach has its failures. Yet, Feminism needs to move past normative concerns to tackle issues of collective violence more urgently.
The trauma of collective violence where certain bodies become more rape-able and gang raper needs to have a severe response. Women need to take a strong position. There is a difference in inequality as more women need to own means of production. The answer to this collective violence can only be located in community solutions which remain the characteristic of organizational intervention by DURGA. Ms Priya responded by saying that everyone should be a feminist. A larger role needs to be played by the system. The prime responsibility of community programs is to create a support system that would prevent secondary victimization.
Prof Vibhuti Patel concluded by asserting that we need to create our own support systems by building community resilience. We have to use our power of pen and voice to raise issues in the public space. Public spaces need to be more inclusive! Priya ma’am added that Conversations around gender are held in the long term through workshops to create gender sensitivity in DURGA. DURGA is a symbol of power. A parent needs to disseminate information related to sex equally to both sexes. A value-based system needs to be inculcated. Open conversations are really important.
Acknowledgement: Sakshi Sharda is pursuing MPhil from Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi, and Research Intern at IMPRI.
Dr Simi Mehta, Anshula Mehta, IMPRI Impact and Policy Research Institue