There is a need to acknowledge that sexual harassment is a reality that all women face irrespective of where they come from and what they wear

Who can forget that shocking incident, forever etched in our conscience, when a young woman succumbed to the most horrific sexual attack on this very date, 16 December 2012, six years ago? The 23-year-old paramedic student was gang-raped and tortured in the most inhuman manner inside a private bus in South Delhi.

Eleven days after the assault, she was transferred to a hospital in Singapore for emergency treatment but died two days later. It shook up the nation and generated widespread outrage with demonstrations across the country. Water cannons and tear gas had to be deployed to turn away angry crowds, numbering into thousands, as they flooded Delhi’s streets demanding severe punishment to the culprits.

And on that note I begin. Are women safe in our city, Kolkata, also known as the ‘cultural capital’ of India? One would assume that the famed ‘bhadralok’ tag on the men who were known for their chivalrous demeanour, who would spring up to defend any woman in trouble, should have read in the affirmative. Unfortunately, the reality is quite the opposite. Even more shocking is that girls as young as six years of age have been molested, that too, in their school.

What ails the men of our society? What stringent measures need to be imposed to deter such aberrant behaviour in future? How can women protect themselves; who can they turn to for justice, are pertinent questions that plague the mind. That’s where Swayam comes into the picture with their commitment to making the world a safer place for women.

A feminist organisation based in Kolkata, it has been working for many years to advancing women’s rights and ending inequality and violence against women and their children. It provides Direct Support Services to women survivors of violence such as counselling, legal aid and advice, support at court and police stations, career counselling, referrals for vocational, employment and shelter and a variety of group activities to promote creativity and positive mental health.

Their Initiatives for Social Action and Change Programme includes public education and awareness building, producing creative resources, disseminating information and sharing expertise, training and capacity building, networking with like-minded individuals and organisations for systemic change and intervening in rural and urban communities to build a violence-free and gender-just society.

Swayam has two community centres at Diamond Harbour and Metiabruz to empower community women to assert and advocate for their rights. It engages with men and boys to make them aware about women’s rights and violence against women and explain the adverse effects of patriarchy and traditional notions of masculinity on their lives and the potential benefits of gender equality in their families and relationships, and consequently their mental health and well-being.

And they have made an impact in many lives. Several survivors have been able to stand up for their rights and move out of the situation of violence. They exude self-confidence, ability to make decisions independently, maintain better relationships and an overall better well-being. Several have become change makers in their own capacities. Swayam intervenes in cases of violence, and encourages women to participate in campaigns to end violence against women and to stand up for their rights.

The good part is that change makers have also emerged from among the men and boys. Many have shown a remarkable change in their behaviour and way of thinking. They have realised that their behaviour patterns are detrimental to the rights and freedom of women. For instance, several reported they have stopped eve teasing and indulging in lewd behaviour. They are trying to change their attitude to women in their families.

Every year Swayam observes International Campaign to Stop Violence against Women and Girls. The focus of Swayam’s campaign this year was to spread awareness about ‘Sexual Harassment’ which impacts women from different walks of life in different spheres in their lives (public spaces, educational institutions, workspaces). Women in India face rampant sexual harassment on the streets, in public transport, in public spaces, in workplaces, educational institutions, at home, everywhere —irrespective of their caste, creed, race, religion and age.

We read about these incidents in the newspapers daily, but not all the incidents make it to the news. West Bengal clocked the 4th highest number of cases of sexual harassment in India in 2016 (NCRB, 2016). Besides women, transgenders and young men and boys are also targets of sexual harassment.

As part of the organisation’s move for a safer city, a ‘Safety Audit’ was launched in parts of Kolkata by using ‘My Safetipin’ (Personal Safety & Women’s Safety) a mobile application to conduct safety audits at various public places in Kolkata and nearby areas to record how safe and easily accessible the areas are for women and other marginalized communities.

Swayam also conducted several awareness programmes across the city and in their two community centres to educate the general public about the issue of sexual harassment and generate discussion on possible solutions to deal with this.

A mobile van travels to different spots where staff interacts with the people and music and theatre groups have given performances to engage with the audience about sexual harassment and its impact on women.

Swayam hosted “#MeToo and South Asia: Film Screening & Panel Discussion” on 30th November at Rotary Sadan. The programme comprised screening of short films/documentaries on sexual harassment and its impact from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Nepal and Sri Lanka.

The panellists spoke about the diverse reactions to #MeToo that they had witnessed, ranging from solidarity with the women who have spoken up to allegations that the campaign is being misused. What emerged from the discussion, however, was that there is a need to acknowledge that sexual harassment is a reality that all women face irrespective of where they come from and what they wear.

Ways forward from this campaign include bringing about a change in the way we bring up our boys so as to teach them to respect women and understand the importance of consent.

On the flip side, we also need to bring up our girls to be clear when they say ‘no’, to acknowledge the legitimacy of their needs and be courageous when they say ‘yes’, so that boys are not confused whether or not they are crossing boundaries.

On 6 December, the 26th anniversary of the demolition of Babri Masjid, Swayam in collaboration with ‘Know Your Neighbour’ organised a public awareness programme at Hazra crossing. The importance of living together in peace and harmony were emphasised through music, poetry and oratory pieces.

Examples of successful coexistence of different communities were shared which encouraged the audience to reflect on their own role in promoting friendship, cooperation and unity. Highlights from the campaign in Metiabruz included a film screening and discussion on 26th November which is observed as Anti-Dowry Day. Over 300 men and women from Metiabruz, Maheshtala and Kidderpore participated in this. A big encouragement was the large number of young men and women taking an oath to not take dowry in their own marriages.

On 5 December, a large rally from Garden Reach Police Station to Maheshtala took place where 450 men and women came together to raise their voice against the rampant sexual harassment women face in the area. The rally ended with an original rap performance by the young women, “No means No”.

At Diamond Harbour, the campaign took the form of public engagement with community men and women at kiosks placed along strategic locations. There were discussions on sexual harassment and the impact that it has on women such as discontinuation of education, curb on mobility and even early marriage. A rally culminating in an awareness programme also took place.

The campaign concluded with an initiative taken up by survivors in moving beyond their struggles when they spoke about their dreams and aspirations through the medium of a mural.

The mural was created after a series of workshops where survivors were guided through a process of self-reflection and which were collated to form an evocative mural. It is now a lasting testament to their dreams and achievements and a tribute to their courage and indomitable spirit.

Swayam helpline numbers: 9830204322,033-24863367,033-24863368 Email: [email protected]