WHRD and Social Media: A Complex Relationship

Exploring the Complex Relationship Between Women Human Rights Defenders and Social Media

A guest post by Ashvini Rae

When I started thinking about possible dissertation topics, I knew that I wanted to do research on women’s rights in India. I thought this was a great topic but, as my supervisor correctly pointed out, it’s a huge one. There are, after all, so many different aspects to the topic of “women’s rights in India”. When I started doing preliminary reading, I found that the 2012 Delhi protests were a common theme and that there are plenty of brilliant papers on them and particularly on their unique use of social media (e.g. Ahmed and Jaidka, 2013 and Poell and Rajagopalan, 2015). However, I found that there is almost no research on the wider effects of social media on women’s rights activism in post-2012 India or its effects on Women Human Rights Defenders (WHRDs) more generally. In fact, there is almost no literature on WHRDs and social media anywhere in the world.

From there I decided to read up on WHRDs, particularly the risks they face, and also on social media activism and I thought about how I could pull these two themes together and also somehow also bring in the lived experiences of WHRDs in India into this. (And how to do all of this in 10,000 words!) I had to think very carefully about how I could take theoretical arguments about WHRDs generally and social media and apply them to India specifically. For instance, the literature says that the experiences of WHRDs should be considered in a gender-sensitive and intersectional way because different WHRDs experience things like risk differently. AWID (2013), for instance, argues that “beyond gender, other factors, such as class, religion, age, language, gender identity and sexual orientation, location of residence, race and ethnicity, affect how WHRDs experience a violation”. 

But what does this mean for WHRDs in India? As my research shows, there are several factors that can affect how a WHRD faces risk online. Some of these are more universal – such as age and sexual orientation. Some of these are more specific to India. For instance, WHRDs in India might be vulnerable to discrimination online due to their caste, which might not be a factor affecting WHRDs in other countries. For instance, Kiruba Munusamy, a Supreme Court lawyer and anti-caste activist, described this saying, “when you are a Dalit, a woman and dark in colour, many do not even come forward to raise their voices for you like they would have if you didn’t belong to a marginalised community” (Salim, 2018). Another important factor affecting WHRDs in India is religion. As the trolling of Rana Ayyub shows, non-Hindu WHRDs are susceptible to trolling not only because of their gender but also their religion.

In order to properly answer the question – “what does this mean for WHRDs in India?” – I decided to try and speak to some. I was very keen to understand and hopefully amplify the lived experiences of WHRDs in India. I was lucky enough to interview some absolutely incredible women who have dedicated themselves to defending human rights and women’s rights to understand their experiences of using social media. The main finding of these interviews is that social media has brought WHRDs in India new opportunities and benefits but also a great amount of risk.

In terms of the benefits of social media, one thing that many of my interviewees mentioned is that they’ve been able to use social media to recruit and mobilise potential activists and to gain support for their organisations. One interviewee told me that social media has also helped her to connect with other WHRDs across India. By connecting WHRDs, social media enables and encourages working collaboratively as well as the sharing of resources and support. One key benefit of this is that WHRDs can experience solidarity online and can use social media to create their own support systems, which can play an important role in their self-care. The WHRDs I interviewed mentioned the need for self-care as well as the importance of the solidarity that they have been able to experience via social media.

Another key theme from my interviews is that social media can help WHRDs to access the media and other key stakeholders in society, as well as the wider public. One interviewee, for instance, said that she uses Facebook as a platform mainly because it helps her to have her voice heard and to connect with the media. Being able to amplify their voices helps WHRDs not only to publicise their work but also to help foster more conversations on issues of women’s rights in wider society. The use of social media in the aftermath of the 2012 Delhi rape case, for example, shows how social media can lead to greater discourse around the topic of Violence of Women and Girls as it helped to put women’s rights issues back on the political agenda. This has been reinforced by the recent impact of the #MeToo movement on Indian society.

Social media can be a really powerful tool for WHRDs in India. But it can also be an incredibly dangerous one. While the increased visibility that social media brings WHRDs can help them, it can also open them up to threats and risks, such as trolling. I asked my interviewees about their experiences of trolling and found their answers illuminating but also very distressing. One interviewee told me that social media makes trolling women worryingly easy, while another told me that its anonymous nature enables an outpouring of misogynistic hate for these WHRDs which we might not see otherwise. This was reflected by the experiences of my interviewees, which I found particularly shocking. One interviewee told me that she’d faced death threats and has seen female friends and colleagues being bullied off social media, while another told me that she’d faced rape threats online. It is also important to consider how easily these online threats can translate into offline risks. The murder of Gauri Lankesh in 2017, for instance, is a pertinent reminder that WHRDs are vulnerable to violence not only online but also offline.

Similarly, an interviewee told me that she believes her online presence has made her more vulnerable to violence in the real world and has opened her up to more abuse. The threats that WHRDs face online and the risks that they might face offline are gender-specific and motivated predominantly by misogyny. One thing that most of my interviewees picked up on is that trolling is fuelled by a desire to silence women and to prevent them from speaking up though, as previously mentioned, other forms of discrimination (e.g. caste-based) might also play into this.

Social media, as I found, is a double-edged sword for WHRDs in India. It can help them to garner support and experience solidarity but it can also lead to them attracting misogynistic and vitriolic trolling. We must ensure that we amplify the voices of WHRDs, rather than silence them. We must also make sure we do our part to address trolling. In short, we must do better.

References:

Ahmed, S. and Jaidka, K. (2013). Protests against #delhigangrape on Twitter: Analyzing India’s Arab Spring. JeDEM – eJournal of eDemocracy and Open Government, 5(1), pp.28-58.

AWID. (2013). Recommendations to Enhance the Protection and Security of Women Human Rights Defenders. [Online] Available at: https://www.awid.org/sites/default/files/atoms/files/Recommendations%20To%20Enhance%20The%20Protection%20And%20Security%20Of%20WHRDs.pdf.

Salim, M. (2018). Online Trolling of Indian Women Is Only an Extension of the Everyday Harassment They Face. [Online] The Wire. Available at: https://thewire.in/women/online-trolling-of-indian- women-is-only-an-extension-of-the-everyday-harassment-they-face

Poell, T. and Rajagopalan, S. (2015). Connecting Activists and Journalists. Journalism Studies, 16(5), pp.719-733.

 

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Not That Bad: Review and reflection

The week after I watched Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony on television, I purchased an anthology of essays edited by Roxane Gay, Not That Bad (Harper 2018). The subtitle of this book is ‘Dispatches from Rape Culture,’ and I thought I would find more ideas, insights and words that I could then bring to the everyday work I get to do with Prajnya on gender-based violence.

It has taken me more than two months to make my way through this powerful book. In small part, this is a function of my life, but largely, it is because the essays are so powerful, so disturbing, so heart-breaking that you really cannot binge-read. They are also inspiring in their courage and exactly as I hoped, have left me with insights and words that I think will find their way to things I say and do in training sessions and workshops.

The essays–and I am using this word to describe what are mostly first-person testimonies, because they are written in the spectrum of styles that ‘essay’ covers–are almost all by survivors, of all genders, and include a couple of essays where the writers reflect on whether or not they gave consent. Through almost all the essays, the deeply internalised stigma attached to the experience of violence is expressed and sometimes rejected.

I am going to share some excerpts here, for several reasons. First, I don’t think I can summarise. Second, I want you to experience the power of the words, and maybe go read this book. Third, there are people out there who cannot afford this book and will not have a library from where they can borrow it. This is not meant to undermine copyright or sales, and I do hope lots of people will read this. Women should read this because it will resonate so strongly, as most of us live with the experience and all of us with the fear of sexual violence. Men should read it to know what that really means in our heads and in our days. And yes, the book is full of potential triggers, so if you think you will be sensitive to them, tread cautiously (these excerpts are for you too).

The idea that what happens to us, is not so bad, is so deeply ingrained that it stops survivors from seeking help. If you survived, that’s already not so bad, is it?

At least you weren’t killed. At least you have access to medical care. At least you have insurance. At least you have wonderful friends. Because the ones who tell me this are my friends and my teachers and the social worker and the doctor, I hold their words and outstretched hands even though my anger is mounting and I want not to be touched.

These days, I speak few words, and I certainly don’t have the vocabulary to dismantle what’s been forced on me by people called safe. I don’t have the breath to say: No, I will not be grateful for my rights. I will stand with two feet on this earth and I will always say thank you when somoene does something kind and sorrt when I’ve done something wrong and never outside of that. And, yes, I am furious that I am pulled between poles of gratitude and apology–both of which are violent erasures.

Thank goodness I wasn’t killed.

I’m sorry I’m so inarticulate.

I can’t name it then, but I feel the words at least eroding my voice. I sense that “at least” marks an end to the story I’m supposed to tell, that I’m supposed to say something gracious in response–“thank goodness”–or else nothing more at all. “At least” curbs my telling too much truth. It’s a blunt instrument wielded to club a reckless retelling into submission. The story ends here. But the truth is, I have no story–nothing I can corral into a coherent narrative.” (Claire Schwartz, pages 35-36)

I found this extremely powerful: “pulled between poles of gratitude and apology–both of which are violent erasures.” The week I bought this book and even when I picked it up to read in December 2018, in India we were witnessing a cascade of #MeToo revelations, that began with women in media and then spread to some other fields. Most of the women encountered the stock responses: Why now? Why not earlier? Why did you continue to work with this person? Many of the experience reported were not rape as traditionally defined (vaginal penetration without consent), so really, they should have been grateful, people seemed to be saying. Gratitude for that, and apology for upsetting the apple-cart.

Ally Sheedy in her essay mentions Hollywood’s #MeToo moment in 2017. She writes:

“This isn’t about naming names. I don’t have enough for a lawsuit, but I do have enough for a broken heart/ spirit. Nothing will change in Hollywood. Some men will get careful. Some men will pretend they never behaved like predators and wait this out. What’s so disheartening is knowing Harvey Weinstein’s sick actions will be addressed (finally) and yet the entire culture and context for his sick shit will remain in place.” (pages 112-113)

Just four months after India’s season of revelations, hardly anyone has been punished, and some are already being gently rehabilitated into public life. The defamation cases filed against the women who made the charges–those remain.

How commonplace sexual violence is, is something women at least know intuitively. This exchange in Stacey May Fowles’ essay underlines that, but also makes me wish we could so sensitize doctors, counsellors and nurses in India so that they would respond to survivors with sensitivity.

“When I finally managed to splutter out “something bad happened to me,” she just knew.

Without saying a word, she slipped a small square of yellow paper across the desk toward me. It was printed with information about the rape-counseling clinic.

I was struck by the ease with which she provided me with the contact, as if she’d done it hundreds of times before.” (page 279-280)

A counselor says to Fowles, “Every one believes there is suffering worse than her own, that they should be strong enough to cope without me.” It’s not that bad, why seek help? And if it were that bad, how come you are alive to seek help? How many Indian, Southasian girls can go to a doctor or a hospital and get help, leave alone expect sensitivity? We have tried in a small way to change this, but there is such a long way to go.

So Mayer writes about words, enjoyed and deployed as weapons of control (page 136). She titles her chapter Floccinaucinihilipilification and quotes the Oxford English Dictionary definition: “The action or habit of estimating something as worthless.” Gaslighting, sealioning, lollipopping, Cordelia-ing and mansplaining–she gathers all these words into this suitably long one (page 137).

So Mayer’s essay compares rape to colonialism, calls them “kin” (page 140). She writes:

“…I learned the blazing insight that rape was not an act between an individual and an individual, hidden in a dark room… Rape was and is a cultural and political act: it attempts to remove a person with agency, autonomy, and belonging from their community, to secrete them and separate them, to depoliticize their body by rendering it detachable, violable, nothing. (page 140)

…When we talk about sexual violnce as feminists, we are–we have to be–talking about its use to subjugate entire peoples and cultures, the annihilation that is its empty heart. Rape is that bad because it is an ideological weapon. Rape is that bad because it is a structure: not an excess, not monstrous, but the logical conclusion of heteropatriarchal capitalism. It is what that ugly polysyllabic euphemism for state power does.” (pages 140-141)

Michelle Chen also writes about the politics of sexual violence in her essay on the violence experienced by women who are displaced or in flight. “The place where sexual violence is most readily weaponized is the one where other social instruments have become unhinged: the interface between two societies. Sexual domination, a familiar pillar of every nation-state’s culture, fills the liminal spaces opened by mass displacement.” (page 191) As Warsan Shire wrote in her poem, Home: “and one prison guard/ in the night/ is better than a truckload/ of men who look like your father.”

In the final essay in the book, Elissa Bassist lists all the reasons why she stayed in a violent relationship and did not think of it as ‘violence.’ This is one of the most heart-breaking essays in the book.  She says, in more powerful words than I could summarise that she stayed because she and her boyfriend were both a product of their milieu, which is misogynistic and violent. She closes the book by saying:

“Because worst-case scenario is murder.

Oh, because it wasn’t that bad.” (page 339)

We become accustomed to the language of violence, the culture of rape. It is us, as we know ourselves. 

“Violence in a family comes down through generations: long before my father (finally) left my mother, her father left her mother, and her father’s father left my great-grandmother…

Sometimes by mother tells me stories about her father, or stories about my father. They are not mine to repeat. “I want you to know,” she tells me, as if she feels guilty for explaining our history to me. I am amazed at how much violence we can contain–internalize, suppress, hold on to, narrate. How much we can swallow and still survive.” (So Mayer, pages 132-133)

Women who speak about the violence they experience, who name their assailants or harassers and who express anger are accused of making trouble. Speaking about their experience of violence, several of the survivors writing in this book talk about how this feels.

“Forgive the abuser. The only solution for female anger is for her to stop being angry.

And yet, when Jesus flipped tables in the temple, his rage was lauded. King David railing to the heavens to rain fire on his enemies is lauded as a man after God’s own heart. An angry man in cinema is Batman. An angry male musician is a member of Metallica. An angry male writer is Chekhov. An angry male politician is passionate, a revolutionary. He is a Donald Trump or a Bernie Sanders. The anger of men is a powerful enough tide to swing an election. But the anger of women? That has no place in government, so it has to flood the streets.” (Lyz Lenz, page 164)

Amy Jo Burns writes: “The truth no one told you is that, in order for a good girl to survive, she must make some things disappear.” (page 167)

This includes the memory of violence, the name of your harasser, the resultant trauma and every one of those inconsequential details from that consequential moment–what you were wearing, the colour of that vase, the food on the table, the light in the room. As Dr. Ford said“Indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter. The uproarious laughter between the two, and their having fun at my expense.” We never forget, but we must. It wasn’t that bad, after all.

(Cross-posted from here.) 

Reflections on a walk in the park

In December last year, I took a walk in the park.

Many hundreds of people traverse that path every day, a short stretch running through a quiet corner of the sleepy British city I live in. Yet, at the age of 28, this marked my very first attempt at moving through a public park at night, on foot, and completely alone. It was pitch-black and deserted, and I kept looking over my shoulder, my heart pounding in my ears as I scurried along, hoping to reach the bright lights of the main road at the other end without incident.

In my endless (and not always successful) quest for self-reflexivity, I must confront the unvarnished truth: that I have, no doubt, almost always had the luxury of a more comfortable alternative over the unlit and lonely path, and that the story I have recounted might, perhaps, say more about my own privilege, and far less about the frightening nature of deserted parks. Indeed, I have no intention of making any claim of the universality of my experience.

Yet, as my social media feeds were flooded with stories of gender violence a few weeks ago as part of the #metoo campaign, I was reminded of my brief, solitary expedition through the park last year; it became apparent that the magnitude of those revelations pointed to a deeper, more pervasive culture of violence. Our myriad experiences, in spite of being qualitatively different, collectively highlight the ubiquity of this culture of violence, which appears to transcend regional and socio-cultural boundaries.

In my university town, forceful reports and soft murmurs of sexual harassment and violent assault in college rooms, on the street, in the elevator of a university building, at the local grocery store, through Facebook messages, abound. Each of these instances of violence forces us to reassess what our potential ‘safe’ spaces are, until we are eventually painted into a very lonely corner. The culture of violence thus goes beyond single acts of physical assault, verbal harassment or emotional abuse, and imbues real and imagined threats of danger with a material force that inhabits our daily lived experience.

Every day, on my walk home from my office, I arrive at a tiny lane, sheltered by trees and covered with fallen leaves, sometimes wet and muddy underfoot, and dimly lit even on the brightest of days. During these autumnal evenings, when nightfall creeps up quickly and stealthily, this little track is shrouded in darkness well before my arrival.

The number of calculations that subconsciously filter through my brain as I near this path include: should I take the longer route along the main road instead? Would my handbag and umbrella be sufficient as defensive weapons if I have to protect myself? The lights are on in the houses near the front of the lane, so perhaps someone will hear me if I need to scream? The soles of my boots seem to be wearing down – will I be able to run without falling?

While grappling with this thick, suffocating fog of confusion, I sometimes have a single moment of clarity, when I think to myself, what would it feel like to walk down this path, without thinking about this path? Will I ever experience the freedom of thinking about something, anything, besides the potential for bodily violation? When, if ever, will I cease to be haunted by this spectre of violence, and simply enjoy the singular pleasure of meandering through the city at any and all hours of the day?

That night last December, when I finally arrived at the other end of the park, the sense of relief that followed did not wash over me all at once, but seeped out slowly and deliberately, until I eventually realised I was smiling to myself.

Because, of course, #metoo.

Sexual harassment at the workplace: Lessons learned about how to do things right

This week, everyone’s talking about workplace sexual harassment. And we’re also talking about compliance with the law—both the Vishaka guidelines and the new April 2013 law, which are similar but quite different from each other.

We have had the privilege of working with organizations in the private and the public sector on this question and while we have a very realistic sense of the levels of awareness about this issue and the law, and how rare compliance is, we are also able to be very optimistic because of the people we work with.

About a year ago, the HR person at a firm that does aeronautical design got in touch with us to inquire about gender sensitization workshops. We were drowning in campaign work and as we tried to coordinate schedules more than six months slipped away. When we had all but forgotten about this exchange, the MD of the company got in touch. From there, things moved quickly because the timing was much better for all concerned.

We were in for a wonderful surprise. The team we were working with had a much bigger vision than just writing a policy, forming a committee and checking off the compliance box. As the MD kept saying, they wanted to make the committee redundant and the way to do this was to create and sustain a work culture based on equality and mutual respect.

Together, we created an action plan. We would start with short training workshops on workplace sexual harassment—what it is, how the law defines it, how to respond to it and responsibilities at the corporate and individual level. We would help the company put together a policy in conformity with Indian law and to constitute an Internal Complaints Committee. We would also work with a self-selected group of employees who wanted to do awareness work on gender issues. But that was not enough—they also asked us to facilitate the beginnings of a conversation on interpersonal relations in a time of diversity and rapid change. Moreover, the company plans on refresher activities and ways to get everyone to rededicate themselves to these values every year.

We really admire the commitment this company is making to creating a more gender-equitable workplace. Their efforts pre-dated the new law; even pre-dated the Delhi gang-rape which for so many was the first time they had given gender violence any thought. Their efforts excluded no one—the MD and the newest employee attended training on an equal footing. And every single person in the company was required to attend. There is active interest in going further and following up, and willingness to take ownership of the ideas and the process.

The good news is that just as we were working with this company, another one from a completely different industry called us to talk about the same things. When we mentioned the kinds of work we were doing here, they became more expansive and talked about broader issues. Most people think it is enough to train the HR people in a company, but what the management teams in both these companies understand instinctively is that for an idea, a new value system, to take root and be shared, everyone–every single person–needs to be a part of (and party to) the change.

When organizations invite NGOs in, they graciously keep referring to our domain expertise. The truth is, and we try to say it as much as we can, that we are all learning and learning from each other. No one enters into any work with domain expertise, just with a will to do one’s best and a promise to learn as much as one can towards that end. We have reflected on what we have learned before, but if I were now to update this list it would include the following.

  1. It is not enough to set up a policy and committee, although setting them up is a vast improvement on not setting them up.
  2. While the law mandates a policy, a committee and awareness training now, that training has to go beyond a perfunctory session with HR people and it has to be ongoing.
  3. The most important component might well be the management and owners’ commitment to the issue—which becomes evident in their willingness to put time and resources into this work; which becomes evident in their willingness to cooperate with and support the work of the Internal Complaints Committee without diminishing their autonomy. This commitment and support should also extend to situations where the Committee and/or its members are personally attacked for their work.

In many ways, the new law is harder to implement than the Vishaka Guidelines, whose clarity and simplicity meant that compliance was first and foremost about the spirit of their provisions rather than their letter. It becomes all the more important that those working on workplace sexual harassment approach the process of change holistically—looking at attitudes, manners and relationships as much as anything else. Given our work experience in the last year, we now believe this is actually a feasible action plan. For this learning and the hope that it gives us, we are very grateful to the partners that we have in this work.

Sexual harassment at the workplace: Lessons learned about the way things work

For about a year now, we have been working in the area of workplace sexual harassment. This has taken three forms: participating in the complaints committee process; running short workshops upon request and organizing larger campaign-time programmes to raise awareness. As usual, we stumbled into this work, responding to a need, and have been learning as we’ve gone along.

The complaints committee work has taught me a lot of things I hadn’t really thought about or read or come across before. Given how little people have written about this issue and the process of complaints and redressal, I have wanted to share my learning in some form. Please note, these are just my observations, open to further learning or correction. I share these in the spirit of a journal entry.

When organizations set up WSH committees, they start out by saying there are no cases (we are so special, so lucky!). Well, there are no cases because there is no known redressal process. But the Vishakha guidelines and the new law require companies to make known their policy, their process and the composition of their complaints committee. Cases first come sporadically. Then, as word gets out that a committee is serious and people hear of completed enquiries and action taken, more cases come in. In this phase, several are patently false complaints or cases where the nature of the committee’s work is not understood. This is an important phase for the organization and the employees to learn more about the issue and the committee’s report could be instructive in spelling out the definition of this form of workplace violence.

What is very clear, in case after case, is that no one seems to know exactly what constitutes sexual harassment at the workplace. Is it a particular kind of harassment, harassment directed at women or harassment of any sort experienced by a woman? Sometimes complainants are ignorant, and we learn that while their actual complaint may not fit the legal definition, other experiences do. In that case, we can at best flag those other experiences in some way. Sometimes, the accused and co-workers do not know what kind of behaviour constitutes sexual harassment. We have also seen this lack of clarity on the part of the organisation which might forward all complaints by women to the sexual harassment complaints committee. I am beginning to think training to introduce what sexual harassment is, should be mandatory for any working person.

It’s not just the legal definition that matters in sexual harassment cases; knowing where lines are to be drawn also matters in a time of rapid change in the workplace and in society. Having often grown up in virtual segregation, young men and women have to learn ways to interact with each other in college and the workplace. What is acceptable behaviour and what is not, is something that both sides have to learn. For men, this might involve learning how to respect physical space (you cannot move your chair close to hers without it feeling like harassment), or that when you discuss a woman (client or colleague) sexually in front of other women, they read it (rightly) not as your opinion but as misogynistic violence. For women, it is learning what their rights are in a workplace, and it is also learning to rightly code a reprimand for poor performance as different from a sexual proposition or insult. The rarity of good working environments for women (starting from the absence of decent, safe women’s toilets) express gender discrimination in so many ways that it is hard not to read everything as sexual harassment or harassment based on gender discrimination. But it is important to learn the difference in order that the gravity of the offence of workplace sexual harassment is not undermined by misfiled charges. Moreover, where it is hard for complainants to continue in the same office once they have filed charges, it is that much more difficult if the committee finds the complaint unfounded or frivolous.

In each and every case, the hearing process reveals office skeletons. Ledgers misplaced, accounts that have been cooked, attendance that has been faked, informal working arrangements that violate the rules, mishandled procedures… the whole gamut of workplace improprieties are revealed as each person speaks to the committee. These are beyond the scope of a sexual harassment committee and we can only flag these discoveries as a postscript. The larger point is that just as poor governance in a state creates a climate where women and sexual minorities are more vulnerable to violence; a poorly run organization where other systems are malfunctioning creates a facilitating environment for sexual harassment. This is an important point for senior management people to note: the incident may be in a very small team of your large organization but when the other skeletons tumble out, the buck stops at the top. Not all the gender diversity and equality consultants can fix the rot in the system at this stage.

One thing that should have been obvious but that I did not really think about is the role that internal politics can play. I don’t mean interpersonal politics, which are obviously the heart of any such case, but the politics of trade unions and communal and caste relations in small places or the patron-client networks that run up and down an organization’s hierarchy. In small towns, work relationships are also embedded in familial, local and communal interactions and listening to testimonies, sooner or later, everything seems to be grist to the mill. This makes for very painful listening but also for stories where what happened in the context of work is only a small part of a much larger saga—most of which is germane to the complaint but outside the purview of the committee’s work.

One consequence of delays in hearing cases is that more ledgers are misplaced, of course! Another practical consequence is that given a committee of three-five individuals of whom one is an outsider (by law), it is possible that any one of them has moved away. It is always desirable to have the same committee members through the hearings of a single case. Delay also allows for frantic networking across the organizational hierarchy, lobbying for sympathy and support. Solidarities fray; for instance, those who signed on in support of the complainant start to “forget” details or even to deny knowledge of their signatures being on a certain document. Or they might genuinely start to forget. In the regrouping that can follow—after all both complainant and accused are colleagues—it can get very hard to get at what actually happened. While complaints committees are not courts, a delay even in their work also results in justice not being done.

I want to write about the role that the NGO/outside member plays in the complaints process. It is an essential one in that the committee cannot be constituted without such a member; however, it is really hard for people to find such persons who will serve. First, this is because most NGOs (including us) are microscopically small teams for whom finding a suitable person who can also spare the time is really hard. If the hearing is out of town, it is not just the day of the hearing that is lost but also time lost in travel. And if like us, everyone volunteers, then they also have to make the time in their livelihood schedule. Second, there is a sense that maybe one is not competent to serve on such a technical committee. After all, there is no training on how to be an NGO/outside member, and everyone is not a lawyer. Third, reimbursements apart, there is always some cost incurred by the NGO—and with scarce resources, another organization’s compliance with legal directives is not a high priority.  One way around this is to empanel several NGOs so in each geographical area, you have a local person, but this is easier said than done.

Finally, I have begun to wonder why so much of the discussion around workplace sexual harassment centres around white collar, corporate workplaces when it was a rural social worker’s complaint that laid the foundation for the law and when most of India still works in non-white collar, urban settings. Are we thinking about and training enough in those spaces? I think not.

Comment: Should a child rapist get a reduced sentence…

…because he was living away from home and therefore ‘lost control’ as his lawyer argues. Should we look kindly on him for losing control due to these extenuating circumstances and overlook the fact that he has sodomised a 10 month old baby?

Read what Indian Homemaker writes and sign the petition if you feel this reduced sentence is ridiculous.

We need stronger laws against Child Sexual Assault, not this random leniency.

We need a website which tells us exactly where convicted child sexual offenders are living after their release from imprisonment so we, as parents, can watch out for our kids.

We need a lot of awareness on the part of parents to get serious about Child Sexual Abuse.

We need a strong refusal to accept such ridiculous arguments and we need to protest against this.

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!