Do no harm: 8 don’ts for the fight against gender violence

(This article first appeared on the DNA website on November 25, 2016, on the first day of the 2016 Prajnya 16 Days Campaign against Gender Violence. It is reposted here as an option for those who find the original image-heavy page hard to access.)

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Do no harm: 8 don’ts for the fight against gender violence

Swarna Rajagopalan

We appear to be on the cusp of an age where it is not acceptable to endorse gender-based violence in public. This is not our destination—the elimination of gender-based violence—but it is a few steps down the path from a few decades ago when a column on the subject may have used genteel euphemisms and lamented the loss of virtue of our sisters and daughters. This unprecedented promise of a consensus must be celebrated and International Day for the Elimination of All Forms of Violence against Women (November 25) presents a great opportunity.

This year, I would like to offer a list of “Don’ts” (or rather, “Let’s nots”) in the struggle to end sexual and gender-based violence.

1. Let’s not protect women

“How can we keep women safe?” or “Can you give some tips to women to stay safe?” may be the most common questions we get asked in the course of our gender violence awareness work in Chennai. Fair enough, we are all concerned about the safety of those we love. However, the protectionist approach is problematic. First, it robs women of their own agency— that is, their ability to think and decide for themselves what they want to do. Second, it equates them (us) with other things we want to keep safe— our keys, our papers, our money or our address books! Third, it ends up limiting their freedom in ways that have terrible consequences for their lives. From being draped in so much cloth that you cannot run or swim to safety to not being able to go to school or to work, all because you may not be safe, thinking that something might happen along the way— the impulse to protect is experienced as the will to stifle. Fourth, protection presumes there are safe places in the world. A girl is safe because she is home. A woman is safe because she only sees the men of her family. In an age when even the womb is not a safe place for female offspring, this is a dangerous illusion. Finally, protectionism is a form of denial. The problem is not with those who are vulnerable to violence—regardless of gender—but with those inclined to use violence as a means of demonstrating control or even a normal language of human interaction. The problem is social inequality, in this case caused by patriarchy. By focusing on protection, we choose not to address the real problem at all.

2. Let’s not talk about women being our mothers, sisters and daughters

Women are human beings.When an incident of violence happens, well-meaning individuals speak up against it, and one of the most common responses in India relates the victim to family: “She was someone’s daughter” or “We all have mothers, sisters and daughters at home” or “The government needs to explain why our sisters and daughters are not safe.” Family is very important to most Indians. However, violence is something to condemn regardless of who experiences violence and whether or not she is a mother, daughter or sister. Sometimes, people say of a rape victim, “She should have addressed him/them as ‘brother,’ he/they would have left her alone.” What we know about child abuse and incestuous rape belies that hope. An attack on a family member—anyone’s family member—is read as an attack on their honour. This view makes sexual violence during conflict situations (including communal violence) seem perfectly logical—attack a woman’s body and you actually attack the collective honour of a community. The point is that an incident of violence is not unequivocally wrong because it hurts somebody’s relative or someone’s notion of their honour but because it hurts a human being.

3. Let’s not talk about hanging and shooting people

Something in us hankers for the old ways of justice. “An eye for an eye,” as the Bible phrases it, suggests that reciprocity is justice. It sounds immediate, decisive and punitive in a way that Indian courts have not been. Filing a complaint takes a long time and justice sometimes remains a dream. In such a context, we vacillate between wanting instant, summary and harsh justice and a frightening indulgence, especially when the accused is powerful. The indulgence is unconscionable because we know that if a person is able to get away with sexual harassment or violence once, they are likely to try it again. Silence and indulgence create a trail of victim/survivors where there should be none. On the other hand, calls for castration, public execution or a shooting gallery are also red flags. When I was very young and attending one of India’s first feminist conferences with older cousins, I remember hearing this argument against mandating very harsh punishments— that judges would hesitate to convict someone. There was, we were told, a better chance of getting a conviction with a moderate sentence. A greater likelihood of conviction might serve as a better deterrent than a rare conviction with a very harsh sentence. After all, summary and violent justice in centuries past has not cured us of our will to dominate through violence.

4. Let’s not underestimate men

Patriarchy gives men very little credit, molly-coddling them in a million ways. All the advantages they are meant to enjoy also end up limiting their potential as human beings. Time and again, in conversations about legal protections against gender violence, women worry about how they will make men vulnerable to false accusations. We tend to respond by explaining that the percentage of false cases is relatively low. The argument we should be making is this: Men can and should be trusted to think that gender-based violence or sexual harassment are serious enough violations to create redressal processes and guarantees of justice. We should give them credit, as thinking and caring human beings, for understanding that every law or regulation comes with the potential for misuse but that is not an argument against trying to deliver justice. Traffic and taxation are classic examples, and yet we have not abandoned traffic regulations or tax.

Patriarchy trains us to have unrealistic expectations of each other, regardless of gender. Thus it happens that the resistance to transforming gender relations comes as much from women as it does from men. The resistance comes from the habit of protecting men and it also comes from women’s own comfort level with patriarchy, having grown up in its shade. This sometimes leads us to invite men into our struggles not as partners but to lend it the authority patriarchy invests in them. Men can be partners and apprentices too; their commitment to change need not be contingent on leadership roles.

5. Let’s not be limited by patriarchy in the solutions we seek

We are all products of a patriarchal society, even when we reject it. It shapes our self-images, our relationships and our ways of being more than we would like to admit. Nowhere is the stranglehold of this iniquitous system greater than in the way we imagine justice. For many of us, the most outrageous instance is the idea that when a rapist marries his survivor, justice has been done. There is a rationale for this judgement—which is that the survivor has to go back to live in a society for which the damage to family honour and her marriage prospects outweigh her own trauma. The hardship caused by stigma is assessed as being greater than the trauma caused by violence. This is admittedly a realistic understanding of the world, but do we want to understand such a world so well that we are unable to change it? Instead, if people in positions of authority could speak up against such views and if judges would temper a different judgement with a reasoned argument, perhaps we would inch towards different social outcomes. In short, if patriarchy is going to dictate to us what is right and what is feasible, we will never be able to escape its clutches. We need to be able to ignore its very loud ‘voice of reason’ that booms at us with great conviction and free our imagination of justice.

6. Let’s not forget that gender violence is part of a larger social complex of injustice

The fight against gender violence is one part of the campaign for gender equality which in turn is a part of our on-going quest for social justice— so that all our iniquities are implicated in perpetuating each other. Moreover, all of us have more than one identity at a time— among other things, I am a woman, a Bombayite, a person who enjoys great class and caste privilege, presently resident in Chennai, an academic, a Tamil-speaker, an Elphinstonian, an NGO person, a South Asian, an Indian, a middle-aged person, and, of course, a human being. All my identities intersect as much as all forms of injustice reinforce each other. This is what younger feminists call intersectionality, a new word for an old idea. Previous generations learnt this idea as a key Marxist contribution to thinking about society. Look at structures, we learned; they impact each other and transform how people live and work and interact across their various identities. Fix the structures, we were told, to fix the injustice. Therefore, while concern about women may be immediate and most important to someone, women’s rights cannot be won in isolation of other people’s rights, and gender justice is incomplete without other forms of social justice. It’s just arithmetic: no one is equal unless everyone is.

7. Let’s not adjust to violence for any reason

Indians love the word ‘adjust;’ we urge each other to adjust to anything— no change, wrong size, less salt, bad toilets, no water, abusive speech, demonetization and interpersonal violence, to name a few things to which we are best advised to adjust. We teach young girls to adjust their personalities so that they do not outshine the men in the room. We adjust to discrimination because that is just our karma. We have proverbs that justify anger in men— an angry man is a just man, for instance. “If she took better care of her house, he would not beat her.” “You should understand that men face frustrations at work.” “It must be so hard for him to have to ask for help all the time.” Understand. Adjust. “Things will be alright once you have children.” Adjust, until then. If we are serious about ending gender violence, we should stop adjusting to it. There is no justification—absolutely no justification—for violent behaviour. Violence is not an acceptable language in human (or any) relationships.

8. Let’s not delegate responsibility for eliminating gender violence

“If we had better laws, we would not have so much violence.” Or, “laws are the problem; we have lousy laws.”

“On the other hand, our laws are excellent, but they are not implemented.”

“Law enforcement in India is terrible.”

“The police are corrupt, the police are insensitive, the police are brutal, the police are hand-in-glove with politicians, the police are retrogressive.”

“Don’t blame policemen, they are paid so badly. What about our courts?”

“Such a backlog, such delay— justice delayed, justice denied. What do lawyers care?”

“And those politicians! The statements they make!”

“Media, my god, the media are so irresponsible!”

“What are you NGOs doing? You should be out there fighting for all the poor victims!”

There may be more than a kernel of truth in all these statements but there is one truth that never gets listed— we are the problem. We have laws and rights but we do not bother to learn about them. We do not educate ourselves to recognise or understand the problem. When faced with the reality of gender violence, we pick platitudes and denial. We do not want to know too much about bystander intervention because, my god, would you actually want to get involved? If we do not recognise that we have a problem, we cannot invoke the laws that will get us justice. So where we sit, we are still far from the police, the lawyers and the courts we dismiss. We do not care enough to learn about support services nor to volunteer with them or raise funds for them. Content to adjust to and ignore a problem, we are complicit every time someone suffers physical, emotional or any other kind of abuse. And this makes US a problem without a solution. And so I will end with my first ‘do’ in this article: Let’s take responsibility.

If we are aware of these ‘don’ts’ as we commit to this important cause, we make a constructive beginning. Let’s take responsibility and let’s do this right!

Swarna Rajagopalan is a political scientist by training. She founded Prajnya which organises the Prajnya 16 Days Campaign against Gender Violence, a public education initiative on sexual and gender-based violence, from November 25-December 10 every year.

 

Redrawing Resistance: Expressions of young women on sexual harassment in public

by Mangalam Sridhar

A painting, dark and grim on one side, bright and happy on the other. Depicting the ideal picture of happy women on the left, and the everyday reality of women, because of the violence they face, on the right. This was among the 50 works of art on display at the Lalit Kala Akademi between April 15 and 17, 2016. The works were a part of the ‘Redrawing Resistance’ exhibition, which showcased the expressions of young women on sexual harassment in public places. The exhibition was organised by PCVC, in collaboration with the US Consulate and WCC.

The art exhibition, and the events around it, were the result of a workshop on gender sensitization and sexual harassment with students of Women’s Christian College(WCC) conducted by PCVC at WCC. The participants were city students, and survivors of domestic violence associated with PCVC. As an exercise in art therapy, the participants were asked to express street sexual harassment, and the violence that they face as they navigate the world around them. The end products stood testimony to the fact that every woman experiences violence differently, and expresses it in her own way. 

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One of the participants made a pot art which showed the different goals and dreams of a woman and how they are restricted once she is married. One showed how women are judged based on their outfits and another displayed how women show one face to the world and have another face inside them that they are not confident enough to reveal.

What was most striking perhaps was the work of the survivors. They told their stories through art, giving the world a small idea of the struggles they have faced, and continue to face. One of the survivors, had depicted her story in two sections. One section is red and the other is green. Both are covered with flowers and beads, but the red section shows fading flowers and the larger green one is full of color showing hope. This represented her life- the attack, after which she faced a lot of discrimination in the society. The art exhibition gave her the confidence and strength to portray her story and her face to the world with her head held high.

 The focus, through the three days, was on sexual harassment that women face on an everyday basis in public spaces, and the need to bring an end to it. And everything from the decor to the discussion reflected this. Apart from the art-work, the walls of the room were adorned with posters of women with slogans about reclaiming public spaces (#oorusuthify): stop objectifying us, stop treating our bodies as public spaces, and stop dictating to us about what to wear or where to go. 

The exhibition was inaugurated by Ariel Pollock, Public Affairs Officer, US Consulate. According to a study conducted in 2012, 7 out of 10 girls are subjected to harassment, she stressed. She also said that, Sexual Harassment is not just an Indian issue, it’s a global issue. Prasanna Gettu, Founder and CEO of International Foundation for Crime Prevention and Victim Care, said, we all are moving forward to resilient, resourceful, violent-free lives.

The inaugural session was dominated by poetry. Sharada and Michelle wrote the work and it was performed by Sharada, Michelle and Pooja, setting the tone for the weekend. “I am not the light. I am not the darkness. I am not good. I am not evil. I am not a doormat. I am not the temple bell. I am not your mother. I am not your sister. I don’t need to be. I refuse to be in the hierarchy of this patriarchy. I refuse to be held responsible for being who I need to be,” the poets exclaimed. 

On Day 2, Paromita Vohra’s “Unlimited Girls” was screened, followed by a discussion on dealing with sexual harassment. The participants raised concerns about why reacting to sexual harassment is not easy, and discussed ways in which they could act in future, including being legally literate. 

The organisers are planning to take the exhibition to other places in the city, in order to create more awareness about sexual harassment. 

Workplace Sexual Harassment: SHEROES series on ‘what to do’

SHEROES has been publishing a series of posts on workplace sexual harassment that are a useful resource on the subject. We are posting links to the series here as a way of extending their reach.

The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace Act – Introduction
March 26th, 2014

What To Do Before Approaching Complaints Committee – The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace Law
April 4th, 2014

Steps To Be Taken In Case Of Sexual Harassment At Work
April 10th, 2014

Procedure After Filing Complain with ICC – The Sexual Harassment at Workplace Law,2013
April 17th, 2014

What can a woman do if the employer has not constituted the ICC – The Sexual Harassment at Workplace Law,2013
April 25th, 2014

 

What the numbers mean: Data on Violence against Women

There’s been a lot of discussion in the print media over the last couple of weeks about data and statistics on different forms of gender and sexual violence. What numbers are there in India? What do they mean? How can we interpret them? What do they tell us and what do they hide?

In 2011, we organised a seminar to discuss exactly this, inviting representatives from the police, service provider organisations, lawyers, journalists, academics and students, among others. Much has changed in the two years since in terms of public awareness and attitudes towards violence – however, it does appear that little has changed in terms of data-related challenges.

Do read the excerpt from the seminar report below. You can access the full report here.

Making numbers count: The gender violence tally
16 September 2011: Seminar Report
The lack of accurate, accessible, updated and relevant data on gender violence remains a real stumbling block for the many non-profit organisations and governments that grapple with this issue. Why is it so important to have this data, to understand it and to use itproperly? Given that gender and sexual violence get little attention, numbers become essential for ‘flag-waving’, for holding up as evidence, proof, to backup anecdotal evidence. Most of all, good data conveys the urgency of the problem in ways that nothing else can.
For these and other reasons, data on gender violence was the focus of Prajnya’s first full-day research seminar.‘Making numbers count: The gender violence tally” was organised on 16 September 2011 to discuss four dimensions of data collection on gender violence: What are the available sources of data on gender violence in Tamil Nadu? Is all available data good data; indeed, what is good data? What challenges do we face in collecting data on certain specific forms of violence? How can we, through our work as activists, researchers or service providers, help gather high quality data on gender violence?
Also read:
Albeena Shakil in EPW on what the most recent data on rape and honour crimes in India tells us. Rape and Honour Crimes: The NCRB Report 2012, 3 August 2013, EPW.
A comprehensive and accessible infographic on NCRB data from The Hindu. Data busts some myths on sexual violence, 3 September 2013, The Hindu.
Rukmini S in The Hindu on how and why the NCRB undercounts crimes against women. India officially undercounts all crimes including rape, 13 September 2013, The Hindu.
Dilip D’Souza in Livemint on the many questions that official data on sexual violence raises. Report a rape today, 12 September 2013, Livemint.
And finally, Meena Menon in The Hindu on similar data-related challenges that Pakistan faces, in terms of violence against women. Women grapple with violence in Pakistan, 16 September 2013, The Hindu.

From Hollaback! Chennai: Staying Safe on Facebook

In a guest post, a student who attended a Hollaback! Chennai workshop on street sexual harassment shares her tips on staying safe from online harassment while using Facebook. Read the entire post here.

What do you do if you have been raped?

Nisha Susan takes a ‘comprehensive look at how Indian women can navigate the first few days after rape’. Read the excerpt below and the full story here (Yahoo India, 2 July 2013).

What do you do if you have been raped?

Despite being warned to expect it all your life, despite all the chatter of the last few months, you probably still don’t know how to deal with sexual assault. A comprehensive look at how Indian women can navigate the first few days after rape.

For many women there comes that odd, jolting moment when you realize you have structured your life around avoiding being raped.

That moment sneaks up on you. Perhaps it’s because you caught yourself thinking twice about sitting down on the footpath. You were tired while waiting for the bus but you thought twice and continued standing, holding your heavy bag. And suddenly it occurred to you that you didn’t want to sit on the footpath because you didn’t want to attract attention, and you didn’t want to attract attention because you didn’t want to be raped. And in that moment the absurdity hit you. It’s as if you had been a man and every sentient particle of your life had been arranged around avoiding being mugged or murdered.

That moment sneaks up on you. The moment passes and you go back to unconsciously arranging your life around avoiding this one crime. Every time you hear footsteps behind you, every time you open your front door, every time you walk through a basement parking lot, every time you turn into a dark street, you wonder – Is this the one? Is this how it’s going to happen? As comedian Ever Mainard says, “The problem is that every woman has that one moment when you think, here’s my rape! This is it. OK, 11:47 pm, how old am I? 25? All right, here’s my rape! It’s like we wait for it, like, what took you so long?”

For some of us – for at least 24,923 documented Indian women in 2012 alone – there has come that other unfortunate, jolting moment when you have been raped.

Three out of four times, you are likely to have been raped by someone familiar, someone familial: your uncle comes to drop off a tiffin box and stays to chase you round the house, breaking everything you try to hide behind, pulling the landline wire out of the wall. Your brother-in-law tries to rape you when you are five months pregnant. Your former husband decides that divorce isn’t quite enough. The sarpanch of your village. Your nephew. Your brother’s friend. Your brother. Your father.

Here is your rape. It has come. And here comes that epiphany. The realization that you have been warned about this moment your whole life but still don’t know what you are supposed to do afterwards.

After December 16, after the gang rape in Delhi, parents across India have clutched harder at their restless daughters. Well-meaning men and women have recited the gruesome details of that gang rape to each other, asking, “Can you imagine anything worse?” Women talk to their friends about how much more scared they are of strangers. A warm fug of paranoia has enveloped us, binding us closer to the homes and neighbourhoods where we apparently need not fear anything.

But here is that moment in that familiar place. You have been raped. Six months of paranoia later – are you kidding me, a lifetime of paranoia later – you still don’t know what you are supposed to do.If you are the kind of person who thinks buying insurance is inviting death or illness, you may not want to read any further. Crippling your life with the fear of rape – you’ve got plenty of that already.

You may choose not to seek justice, to never report the crime, to not discuss it. But if you wish to make a recovery, if you intend to seek justice, if you want to punish the man or men who have raped you, the first 24 hours are the most crucial. Coping with that first day’s procedures will shape the way rape affects your life.

Join our Fight against Street Sexual Harassment

From our Hollaback! Chennai website:

Earlier this month, thousands of people from around the world, including activists against sexual harassment, campaigners for gender justice and ordinary citizens, came together to celebrate International Anti-Street Harassment Week (7-13 April 2013). This annual global movement, spearheaded by the advocacy group Stop Street Harassment, seeks to end the silence around street sexual harassment, and to make public places safer for women, for sexual minorities, and for anyone who has felt unwelcome and excluded in these spaces.

In keeping with the spirit of this campaign, we would like to reacquaint you with our work at Hollaback! Chennai, and to outline our plan of action for the future. Hollaback! Chennai was launched in December 2011 (part of the global Hollaback! movement to end street harassment) by Prajnya, a Chennai-based non-profit working towards peace, justice and security. Our aim is to end the pervasive silence surrounding street sexual harassment, by providing a platform for victims to speak out. We do this through our website, where those who have been targetted can write about their experiences, and where they can find support from a community of non-judgmental individuals. In the long-term, we hope that this initiative, and others like it, will allow everyone to make an equal claim to public spaces.

This has not been an easy task; of the plethora of crimes that fall under the scope of ‘gender violence’, street harassment continues to be one of the most underreported. This is because the perpetrators of these acts are often strangers, because they can usually escape with relative ease, because women are socially conditioned to stay silent about this abuse and because there is a general distrust towards the institutions that are meant to deliver justice. Yet, street sexual harassment, which includes catcalling, lewd remarks, deliberately brushing against someone, or touching them, or groping them, flashing private parts, stalking, or outright sexual assault in a public place, is a terrible offence, which leaves victims traumatised, despondent, and worst of all, ashamed. The prevalence of these crimes, which are euphemistically referred to as ‘eve-teasing’ (for more on the importance of language in reporting and discussing gender violence, read Nilanjana Roy’s thoughtful 2009 blog post), is infuriating and disturbing, and we cannot afford to stay silent any longer.

Over the next few months, we hope to expand the scale and reach of Hollaback! Chennai. We will be more active on our social media platforms, so do follow us on Facebook and Twitter for regular updates. We are also planning to launch our website in Tamil, and to publicise the Hollaback! mobile app for smartphones that will allow those who experience harassment, as well as witnesses, to immediately document and record these incidents, thereby placing them in the public domain. We will continue to conduct workshops at local colleges, which we have been doing since our launch, and talk to young women (and men) about street harassment, about their legal rights (Tamil Nadu being the only state in India with specific legislation on street sexual harassment, the Prohibition of Harassment of Women Act, 2002, which was passed in response to the murder of Sarika Shah) and about ‘bystander intervention’, or responding as a witness to these offences.

It is important to remember that sexual harassment, in any form, has nothing to do with sex, or lust, or attraction; it has everything to do with power and control. By staying silent, by not calling out our abusers on their actions, we are letting them continue to control us. We are letting them get away with it. We are letting them win.

So be brave. Stand up. And HOLLA BACK!

Responses to Sexual Assault in Chennai: A Roundtable Discussion

This month’s roundtable discussion featured Prajnya’s first Shakti Fellow, Divya Bhat, who shared her findings from her research on responses to sexual assault in Chennai from a medico-legal perspective. Read the report on our PSW Weblog here.

Female Infanticide: A Ray of Hope

An inspiring report in The New York Times documents the work of the Indian Council for Child Welfare towards eradicating female infanticide in a region of Tamil Nadu that had become notorious for it. The council adopted several methods for ensuring the immediate safety of newborn girls, such as creating a centre where unwanted children could be dropped off, and finding local volunteers who could assist in the prevention of this cruel practice. In combination with measures to improve awareness and the status of women, the council’s efforts over the last 20 years have been remarkably successful in bringing about social change.

Read the full article here.

Not Silence but Verse

Thank you, Gayathri, for sharing your poetry with us!

சீதை நினைத்தாள் :இலங்கையில் இருந்ததற்கே இந்த ராமன் நம்மை தீயில் இட்டானேநல்ல நேரம் நாம் டெல்லி-யில் இல்லாமற் போனோம் !!————————-

மாதர் தம்மை இழிவு செய்யும் மடமையை கொளுத்திடவும்பெண் பித்து பிடித்த துஷ்டர்களை சம்ஹாரம் செய்யவும்மஹிஷாசுர மர்தினி ‘Chalo Delhi ‘ என்று பூமி ஏகினாளாம்

தன் கற்பையும் இழந்து பரலோகம் திரும்பினாளாம்