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February 15, 2013

And now that we’ve risen, what?

On violence against women, it is time now for all of us to deepen our ‘awareness’ from information to preparation.

This week, women’s groups from across the world marked Valentine’s Day as a day of ‘rising’ in protest against all forms of violence against women. “One Billion Rising” has been underway world-over with rallies, flash mobs, special camps for girl children, and film festivals. Thousands of men and women will have participated in its various programmes by the end of February. In India, since December 2012, there has been unprecedented mobilisation to protest pervasive violence against women. The result, as we know, is the Justice Verma Committee report and the new Ordinance that amends the existing law.

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After centuries of indifference and apathy towards the violence that women and girls experience from the moment of their conception (if you consider sex-selective abortion) people everywhere, especially in India and Nepal (where “Occupy Baluwatar” is calling for a change in the law based on five recent rape cases) are finally saying, “This is unconscionable, fix it!” Or better, “Let us fix it!” Now that we’ve risen, what next? While we have listed the next steps for the government, what’s the next step for all of us?

The first hurdle in spreading awareness has been crossed. We now acknowledge the problem and most of us have read enough to simulate a politically correct vocabulary on what happens and why. But there is more to learn.

Do colleges prepare their graduating students for the challenges of sexist workplaces? Are students on internships prepared to recognise sexual harassment? Are induction programmes teaching new employees their role in ensuring a safe workplace? Are teenagers and their parents learning about safety in cyberspace? When marriage alliances are sought, does anyone think of domestic violence and notice the small signs of violent behaviour in early interactions? Are we refusing alliances when the first demand for a ‘gift’ is made? Most of all, if we know of someone experiencing violence, do we know how to intervene? It is time now for all of us to deepen our ‘awareness’ from information to preparation.

For decades, Indian women’s organisations have addressed violence against women. Of a practical bent, many have set up helplines and victim services in their own cities. The second thing that all of us can do is to find out where and what these services are in our locations. In the aftermath of the December gang-rape, there were attempts on social media to compile such lists but they were limited in scope. A commitment that we can now make is to locate and make known such services.

Make helpline numbers and services known to all. Save them on your phone to share discreetly. Post them on the lavatory doors of your office so people can find them. The police sometimes have senior female officers who unofficially serve as point persons for sensitive cases of violence or stalking. If you have the social access to find out who these people are, make a note and share the information with women’s organisations and with people who will not abuse it.What are the services available to survivors of sexual and gender-based violence? Crisis lines (or helplines) for that first call made in distress; phone counseling; legal aid; psychological counseling and psychiatric support; emotional support; medical care; logistical help, including transportation networks and shelters (including short-stay homes and safe houses). One doesn’t have to be a victim to access these services. It is also possible to call their offices to see what an appropriate response would be to help someone in distress.

But you might ask: What is the quality of these victim services? Most are well intentioned, but over-stretched. All resources (especially human resources) are over-committed. Social sector salaries do not anchor people in the long-term to any job and it  is important to have a rich pool of committed, experienced social workers and counselors at the service of those who have already been through trauma. You might want to make the time to ask those who run victim care centres about their needs. Do they need salary support? Space and vehicle? Do their clients need job training? And it is important to remember that this area of philanthropy and charity calls for great discretion.

The same holds true for hospitals. How well equipped are their burns units? Are their nurses and doctors trained to handle cases of sexual and other violence?  What are the small ways in which we can help?

And since we’ve raised the question of quality: Can we help organisations evaluate their performance? Many may want it done but not have the people to spare or the skills. And let us not stop at discovery and denunciation but help improve this quality. Let us help organisations to scale up: set up a second centre, a third safe-house, add extra lines to their helpline. Identify the need and help meet it, not just with money but in kind and with your time.

Volunteering is crucial. The gift of our time and talent sustains and carries through the process of change. Many aspects of victim care (like counseling) require training that most of us lack. But it is possible to spend time teaching someone how to use a computer, to write resumes if entering the workplace for the first time or to help with book-keeping. It is possible to help raise funds for a victim care centre. Look around, some task has your name on it.

Now that we’ve risen and we’ve spoken and written in protest, let us take ownership of the change we want by starting with the small tasks in front of us. The next frontier: to take One Billion Rising against violence and make it Seven Billion (Plus) working to end violence.

Photo: hermesmarana


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