Introducing the 2013 Campaign Coordinator

The search for a Campaign Coordinator was unusually tough this year because we had such a large set of really great candidates. After much deliberation, we invited Nithila Kanagasabai to join our team. Nithila, who takes charge today, comes to us after years in journalism and graduate work at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences.

With this, the 2013 Campaign season begins in full earnest at Prajnya! We enter it with the usual nervous excitement.

Our Lives… To Live: Panel Discussion Report: Making Violence Visible, February 23, 2013

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Featuring: Geetha Ramaseshan, Tishani Doshi (moderator) and Anita Ratnam

Rapporteur: Archana Venkatesh

Ms Doshi opened the discussion by introducing the topics of female genital mutilation (FGM) and acid attacks; and asked how the arts could be a platform for social transformation. She also raised a question about what kind of legal structure is required in order to facilitate the process of reporting and addressing violence against women.

Ms Ratnam responded that dance (as an art form) is the least equipped to address violence against women, since traditional Indian dance forms focus on beauty and the aesthetics of the dance. She did point out that in all the stories told by dance, sex is never addressed directly. Only the pre and post-coital scenes are depicted. Even then, there is no mention of sex as being pleasurable for women. Ms Ratnam felt that theatre, music and poetry could channel rage better than Indian dance forms. A dance may not always be interrupted by who the dancer is as a woman. When it comes of addressing violence against women, dance theatre is probably the most effective tool; especially when performed by those artists who can intersperse reality with beauty.

Addressing the second part of Ms Doshi’s question, Ms Ramaseshan spoke of the clamor for harsher punishments for rapists and perpetrators of acid attacks. While acid attacks have recently come into the purview of the Indian Penal Code, there is a gap between legislation and execution. Laws by themselves are of no use unless the application of the law addresses the inequalities in society. The judicial system’s understanding of gender and sexuality is skewed, as we can see from various cases in which the victim is said to have “provoked” the harasser or rapist; and the way the victim’s “character” is the first thing to come up in a rape case. Cases of gender violence are often seen as crimes of passion rather than crimes of violence.

Ms Doshi then addressed the issue of violence within the family. She noted that it seems to be on the rise, and pointed out that there must be something inherently wrong in today’s family structure; and in the way we raise our sons and daughters.

Ms Ramaseshan said that there is no law which addresses violence within families, except for crimes against children. Feminists who point this out are accused of breaking up homes and attacking tradition. Women in abusive marriages always find it extremely difficult to escape these relationships, and more often than not, get pulled back into an abusive situation.

Ms Ratnam spoke about domestic abuse faced by South Asian women from affluent homes in America. Many of them don’t leave because they have nowhere to go. Ms Ratnam spoke of her own experiences in sheltering victims of domestic abuse, and the fear that the abuser would take revenge. Today, there are a few safe houses for women who have experiences abuse, but many women return to a violent situation. The two most common reasons are the fact that they are used to an affluent lifestyle, and find it hard to adjust; and also for the sake of the children of the marriage.

Ms Doshi added that it is important to remember that violence is not restricted to one class or community, but is a widespread phenomenon in society. She also added that the media does seem to influence discourse on violence against women.

Alluding to the Delhi rape case, Ms Ramaseshan felt that the demands for the death penalty for the rapists stemmed from an emotional reaction to the horror. She felt that certainty of conviction is more essential than harsh retribution. Also, legally speaking, the Delhi case is an open-and-shut one. There are witnesses and medical evidence available. In other cases, this might not be so clear. Especially in cases of date rape, the waters a murky and much seems to depend on the way the cross-examination is conducted and the public reaction.

An audience member brought the discussion back to domestic violence, stating that there is enormous social pressure on the victim to go back to an abusive partner, since the conjugal bond is seen as sacred. A woman who leaves her partner, however abusive he may be, is usually stigmatized by society.

Dr Rajagopalan (from the audience) responded to this by saying that we, as society, raise our daughters to be uncomfortable on their own – and this is where the root of the problem lies.

Ms Ratnam drew our attention to a small minority of urban Indian women who are economically independent and are beginning to assert their choices and express their sexuality. While this is a (very) small minority, it is important to acknowledge their existence.

A member of the audience stressed the need to look beyond the laws for a remedy to gender violence. Societal mindsets need to be changed to prevent replication of stereotypes.

Returning to the topic of art and activism, Ms Doshi said that the role of an activist is a heavy burden for an artist. Activism may be a part of her art, but is not its primary purpose. It is also not fair to expect an artist to address only contemporary problems, since her art may be interpreted differently by future generations of artists and activists.

An audience member suggested that if we are exposed to more ‘good’ news on TV and in newspapers, society might become less violent. Ms Doshi responded by pointing out that even if we only see good news, it doesn’t mean that the events which comprise ‘bad news’ are not happening. Ms Ramaseshan added that misogyny on TV should be discussed and not unilaterally banned. Another member of the audience added that instead of insisting that we see only ‘good news’, society should focus on teaching children to show good judgment. We need to shake off our apathy to stories about gender violence.

Another audience member felt that parents of girls need to take the initiative and educate their daughters about the consequences of their actions. Ms Doshi pointed out that it is not the responsibility of women to ensure their own safety, but the State’s responsibility.

Ms Ratnam emphasized the importance of information. With the advent of the internet, we have more opportunities to access information that we ever did before. It is clear that gender violence is a worldwide phenomenon.

Ms Doshi ended on an optimistic note, saying that it was heartening to watch stories of women speaking out about violence.

Our Lives… To Live: Panel Discussion Report: Gender, Sexuality and Violence, February 22, 2013

Rapporteur: Archana Venkatesh

Featuring Revathi Radhakrishnan, Aniruddhan Vasudevan and L Ramakrishnan (Moderator).

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Ms Radhakrishnan opened the panel discussion on Day 1 of the film festival with a comment clarifying that all sexual violence is, in fact, violence, and that society often fails to recognize this. For example, rape by the armed forces is still violence, and should be seen as such. Similarly, violence faced by sex workers is often ignored or shrugged off as being an occupational hazard.

Mr Vasudevan joined the discussion by observing that recent conversations and discussions about Gender Violence have been reduced to “firefighting”, i.e., addressing only the question of what we can do/change in terms of legal reform. What activists, mediapersons and people in the public sphere should be focusing on is the underlying cause for gender violence: a predominantly patriarchal society. He cited the recent case in Delhi as an example of this: all the activists immediately sought to change the law rather than societal mindsets. The question we should be asking ourselves is how violence has become the norm in society, and how we can change this. We need to move from an attitude of crisis management, and start a discourse on how to address the root cause of such a society. Mr Vasudevan added that the “crisis mode” approach to gender violence actually works in favor of the State, since no real societal change is called for, and activists are usually appeased with a few legal reforms.

Mr Ramakrishnan added that while talking about gender violence, most people seem to only include violence against women, and ignore violence faced by those who are LGBT.

Ms Radhakrishnan responded by saying that when we fight violence, we should fight all violence. Activists have a tendency to shut themselves into “constituencies of protest”; where women protest against violence against women, LGBT activists protest against violence against the LGBT community, and so on. This kind of division between groups who are ultimately fighting for the same cause needs to stop. Violence is violence, and all violence is the same. Dividing ourselves into constituencies of protest ensures that any dialogue about violence becomes pointless and fragmented. Activists should focus on the points that connect their causes.

Mr Ramakrishnan pointed out that there are “hierarchies” of violence. Even a certain kind of patronizing humor can be seen as violence.

Coming back to Ms Radhakrishnan’s argument, Mr Vasudevan asserted that the connecting point between violence against women and violence against sexual minorities is patriarchy. People who act in ways that don’t conform to roles prescribed by the patriarchal definition of what is masculine/feminine are seen as a threat to society, and targeted as such.

Responding to Mr Ramakrishnan’s statement about hierarchies of violence, Mr Vasudevan suggested that society conditions us to imagine rape as the only form of gender violence or brutality that exists. We rarely (if ever) acknowledge emotional violence for what it is.

Mr Vasudevan was of the opinion that as long as the law doesn’t recognize violence and discrimination within the natal family, there is no point in having a law for workplaces, schools and other institutions. The law glorifies the family as an institution and the prevailing attitude of the legal system (and society at large) is that the parents are always right, and know what is best for their child. Mr Vasudevan felt that this stemmed from and resulted in a bizarre understanding of the concept of love. Do our parents have the right to correct us because they love us, irrespective of what they choose to ‘correct’ in us? The State needs to realize that the intervention needs to happen within the family itself in order to successfully address gender violence.

Ms Radhakrishnan pointed out that in the aftermath of the Delhi rape case, much of the discourse about rape has revolved around ‘honour’ and ‘chastity’. The perception that a woman’s (or a community’s) honour is violated through rape is counter-productive in any dialogue about gender violence.

Mr Vasudevan added that based on this perception of honour, there is retributive violence on women. Thus, violence against women (as differentiated from gender violence) needs to be addressed in a separate category.

Mr Ramakrishnan clarified that rape is not about sexual frustration, but rather an attempt to establish power and control over the victim.

The discussion was then thrown open to audience members, and the first questions and comments related to the manner in which gender violence is reported. It was noted that the media seems to focus only on metropolitan cities while reporting gender violence. Ms Radhakrishnan responded in tune with her earlier statement about constituencies of protest. It is fruitless to compartmentalize gender violence in this way. If the current topic of discourse is rape, this does not mean that acid attacks are not a part of our consciousness. An audience member pointed out that discussion brings these topics into the public forum, and pressurizes the State to take notice. Ms Radhakrishnan replied that setting up our own hierarchies of violence (as activists) is as counterproductive as when the same is done by the media. Mr Vasudevan added that while it is important to talk about why certain things don’t get talked about, it is important not to attack each other and turn reporting gender violence into a blame game. There has to be a better way to bring important issues out of the silence which surrounds them today.

The idea that violence against sexual minorities is not seen in the honour-shame paradigm was also brought up. Mr Vasudevan suggested that this was because those of the LGBT community are viewed as having turned their backs on reproduction – which, according to society, is the only purpose of sex. However, being lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender is seen as violating the family honour rather than the honour of the community.

The final topic of discussion was love – an audience member suggested that our perception of love is skewed, and Mr Vasudevan concurred that our exposure to discourses of love at home and in the media serve to create a bizarre understanding of the concept. Ms Radhakrishnan concluded the discussion, saying that love is a deglamourized version of friendship – which doesn’t need to be taught!

 

 

 

 

Photo album: IAWRT Film Festival in Chennai, February 22-23, 2013

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For a review of the festival, see Samidha’s article in OyeChennai.com.

Press Statement on reported Ordinance on Criminal Law Amendments relating to Sexual Violence, February 2, 2013

Press Statement on reported Ordinance on Criminal Law Amendments relating to Sexual Violence

Chennai, 2 Feb 2013:  Prajnya joins representatives of women’s organizations, civil society groups, and activists committed to women’s rights around India, in conveying our strong disapproval of the Government’s decision to move an Ordinance on the criminal law amendments related to sexual violence. We call upon the President of India to not sign such an Ordinance.  

Media sources have suggested that an Ordinance on amendments to sexual assault law was cleared by the Cabinet yesterday, on February 1, 2013, about 20 days before the next parliamentary session. We are appalled by the lack of transparency and the unseemly haste of this action. Parliament meets in three weeks, and in our view, the proposed changes in law should be debated there, openly along with an inclusive, consultative process in the Standing Committee. We read the stealth and haste of this Ordinance as a sign that the government in fact considers this too trifling an issue to debate on the floor of Parliament.

The sidelining of the Justice Verma Committee report also worries us. The report took on board the views and considered suggestions of many individuals and organizations with many years of experience as advocates, support service providers and social workers working with survivors of the whole spectrum of sexual and gender-based violence. We are particularly concerned to hear that the following recommendations made by the Justice Verma Committee have been ignored:

  • recognition in law of marital rape;
  • bringing sexual violence by members of the armed forces under the purview of criminal law; and
  • change in definition of consent to any sexual act.

Prajnya is very concerned to hear that the Ordinance introduces the death penalty as a punishment for sexual assault. In principle, Prajnya is opposed to capital punishment.

Women’s groups have been demanding comprehensive amendments in criminal law related to sexual violence for over two decades, and have expressed our endorsement of the Justice Verma Committee Report. We have made oral and written submissions to the Justice Verma Committee and our voices and concerns were reflected in the Committee’s report. We congratulate the Justice Verma Committee for completing the report in record time without compromising on consultations, dialogue, due process and transparency. Along with other groups, we reiterate the call to the Government of India to implement the recommendations of the report comprehensively, in letter and spirit—but with due process and open, thoughtful and inclusive debate in Parliament and other public fora.  

Seminar report: Making Numbers Count

Very belatedly, here’s a brief report on the seminar we organised late last year – Making Numbers Count: The Gender Violence Tally. This seminar was special for many reasons – as a milestone, since it was our first full day research seminar but more importantly, because it discussed an issue that had been – and continues to – bother us. As people who work on gender violence, we often wonder about the data that exists, the data we need and the data we lack. This seminar was a first attempt at beginning a conversation around this and we are very grateful to all those who took the time to be there!

You can read the report here

Podcast on gender violence research

We’re delighted to share with you a podcast on the state of gender violence research in South Asia, based on my paper for the Global Consortium on Security Transformation.

The Pod Academy is, in their own words, ” an independent, not-for-profit platform for podcasts on academic research.  Set up by a group of academics, techies and journalists, it aims to inform public debate and uncover intriguing and challenging new ideas. Pod Academy is a showcase for new research and a resource for business, NGOs and the public sector nationally and internationally – keeping them up to date with research findings.”

In this podcast, I talk to Rachael Jolley from the Pod Academy about some key themes and questions that emerged from my work on the state of research on gender violence in the South Asian region.

You can listen to the podcast here.

 

A lesser known violence: female genital cutting

Nicholas Kristof, a senior journalist and New York Times columnist writes this week about what he calls ‘a rite of torture for young girls’ – female genital mutilation or cutting. To understand what exactly this involves, read Kristof’s description here.

Widely practised across Africa and some countries in Asia, this form of gender violence has been particularly insidious and difficult to dislodge, in large part because it is a deep rooted cultural, social and/or religious practice. Not surprisingly, efforts by ‘western organisations’ to abolish this practce have been dismissed as ‘cultural imperialism’ as Kristof points out.

I first read about female genital mutiliation when I randomly picked up a book called ‘Do they hear you when you cry?’ by Fauziya Kassindja, an African woman who had fled her home to escape this form of violence. At that point, I was 20. Her descriptions terrified me and I distinctly recall coming close to tears. I also decided to make the book my ‘project’ for my Feminist reading class.  I still remember standing in front of my classmates – all girls – and trying to explain to them what female genital mutilation actually involved. It wasn’t easy. I was squirming, most of my friends were. But I persisted and even managed to read out some particularly difficult passages in the book.

Looking back, I now realise how hard it was for a group of 20 year old girls to discussed their bodies, their female genital organs. The words were unfamiliar – we had maybe read them but rarely uttered them aloud. Just saying ‘clitoris’ or ‘labia’ was difficult.

I’ve digressed but the point I’m trying to make – in a somewhat round about manner – is that we need to find ways to talk about our bodies openly. Kristof argues that one reason it has been so hard to prevent female genital cutting is that it involves private parts, which no one wants to talk about. I agree. And it makes me appreciate all the more how difficult it must have been for Fauziya Kassindja to talk about her experience, to strangers, both men and women, from another country altogether.

You can read more about Kassindja’s book here and about female genital mutilation here

PS –  Female genital mutilation is not widely practiced in India – probably the only form of gender violence that isn’t.

What a walk can (unexpectedly) reveal

I just got back from a walk/run on the beach (that I badly need to get some regular exercise is a long story that belongs elsewhere!). It is 9:20pm and if my grandmother knew, I’m sure she would berate me for going out alone at night.

To get to the beach, I have to walk along a very busy main road. At this time of the night, traffic is particularly heavy. It also happens to be fairly well lit, with several shops lining one side of the road. Not surprisingly, the side with the shops is also marginally better lit.

On my way out, I instinctively crossed over to the better-lit side and walked towards the beach. Outside one of the shops, a group of men semi-leered at me, not in a particularly threatening way. It was one of those halfhearted ‘oh hey you are a woman walking alone so we might as well say something mildly offensive. But we can’t actually be bothered to say/do anything more’ . I of course just ignored them and continued on. Half an hour later, coming back home, I walked on the less-crowded, less-lit side.

Here’s my point. Over the last few months, I’ve been reading, writing and thinking about safety audits quite a bit. I first participated in a workshop by Jagori last year; Prajnya then piloted an audit during the 2010 16 Days Campaign. For those who aren’t familiar with these, a women’s safety audit is a research tool used to understand how safe a particular space ‘feels’. Usually, the audit is carried out by a group of local residents and assesses several factors that all contribute to how safe or unsafe a woman feels – lighting, the condition of pavements, how wide/narrow roads are, whether there are shops, whether it is a busy or isolated road, etc. You can read about Prajnya’s audit here: http://www.prajnya.in/16d10report.pdf

Somehow and entirely unconsciously, while walking back from the beach this evening, I found myself mentally doing an audit. I was looking at lamp posts to see if they were working, at the location of tea shops to see if men were gathered outside, at gates to see if they were open or shut.

And I remembered one of the Jagori team members telling me, ‘once you do an audit, it is very hard to not go on auditing every single place you go to’. She described how could she could no longer enter a mall without going over the safety audit checklist in her mind.

I can’t think of a better reason to do more audits, to get more groups of local residents together. Audits force us to stop and think about the spaces we use every day. And no, we don’t have to become paranoid about these spaces but it surely can’t hurt to become  more conscious of the roads and streets that we tend to assume complete familiarity with.

GRIT@Prajnya: the Why, How and What

At Prajnya, we like to say that we have an unusual talent for creating more work for ourselves. We have an idea, no not even an idea – a thought; and before we know it, its a full-fledged project! Often we grapple with the chicken and egg question: does the work actually exist or are we creating more than we can actually take on and manage?

In the case of the Gender Violence Research and Information Taskforce, or GRIT as we now fondly call it (!), I can confidently say that there are no such doubts. Our work on gender violence originally began as a corollary to the work we hope to do on women in politics and public life – as a way to acknowledge the limitations that violence imposes on women’s daily lives. Our plan was to organise the 16 Days Campaign against Gender Violence every year as an awareness raising exercise. But in the way of many other non-profits who’ve no doubt traveled the same route, we soon found out that we couldn’t get away with an annual September to December appearance.

The fact is this: even in a city considered to be one of the safest in India, Chennai, there is a lot of work to be done. In a sense, Chennai offers a different kind of challenge: that of conservatism, unlike say, a Delhi that carries the baggage of being an unsafe city for women.

Our mandate then is three-fold, as is the case with any Prajnya initiative: GRIT will carry out research on gender violence in India and eventually South Asia; we will look to network and facilitate conversations between different groups of people for whom violence is a reality; and finally, we hope to put in place a full-fledged year-round programming calender that will include workshops, seminars, round tables and other public events.

There are of course several obstacles: finding entry points into places where we want to hold these conversations and of course, the funding to support our work.

We intend this blog to become one of many platforms we will create and sustain over the years, a place to document and record narratives of violence and an opportunity to have conversations about how we can deal with this violence .

I cannot promise you that this will be a fun blog to read, but I can say that we do hope to talk about issues that are relevant to every one of us.  Welcome to GRIT @ Prajnya and do write to us if you’d like to join or support our work in anyway!