November 25 was International Day for Elimination of All Forms of Violence against Women. Around the world, organisations use this day to start 16 days of activism towards this end, culminating on Human Rights Day (December 10). In Chennai, Prajnya’s eighth campaign has just concluded.
Initially, we were almost always in groups where people believed that gender-based violence was a rare occurrence, a thing of the past, and certainly unknown in the middle class. In 2012, a week after we closed our campaign, a young woman was gang-raped in a bus in New Delhi, and that myth conclusively shattered. We took our work one step further and began to talk more about resources to help, bystander intervention and the relationship between rights and freedom from violence.
Recent events seem to offer another turning point: It is impossible to pretend now that gender violence spares any class of person, and in fact, the #MeToo posts, underscore the relationship between power and violence.
In the Indian women’s movement journey to end sexual and gender-based violence, the first frontier was law. Getting new laws and improving existing ones were the work of the first generations of the women’s movement and social reformers, in general. Demanding better implementation of the laws and creating awareness of what constitutes violence so that the laws can be invoked has followed as a corollary. And now, we have an opportunity to take this work a little deeper.
While recent incidents and discussions have centred around the question of consent, there are still countless real-life conversations waiting to be had. The Delhi High Court ruling in the Farooqui case alluded to a ‘feeble’ no. In discussion groups, men say they do not learn how to read signals—yes or no—and work with popular culture clichés like ‘No really means yes.’
The conversations—in canteens, in clubs, in workplaces and elsewhere—are about how women try to communicate both yes and no, respecting their answer either way, how to read signals and how to clarify when there is a doubt. We do not talk about how to relate to other genders or how to navigate sexual or romantic interests. Therefore, we do not talk about consent at all. Now is the time to change that.
Most Indian schools have no sex education programme.
In some measure, this is due to the misconception that sex education classes promote sexual activity. But young people are curious about sexuality and inclined to explore and experiment, and they do so without the benefit of learning about their bodies, about protecting themselves from both pregnancy and disease. Nobody talks about these things at home either—not least because most parents also move through life quite ignorant. Seeing a doctor to learn is not an option in a culture where most doctors are more likely to dispense moral advice.
Parents lament that children now know everything due to the Internet. But what do we know about what they know? This is why sex education programmes tied in with Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights awareness are critical, and this moment, when we are talking about consent and abuse of power, is the right time to push this work.
The 16 days of activism bring together gender violence and human rights, underscoring violence as being a rights violation. The longer we do this awareness work, the clearer it is that rights education is most important. For a woman or sexually vulnerable person to understand that it is their right to be safe is to give them the confidence to fight back. Beyond an assault situation, this means that when a young man stalks them and says his attraction must be reciprocated, they have the confidence to say no, to report and protect themselves.
It means having the confidence to ask for a better workplace as an entitlement. Violence is enabled by hierarchies, but seeing oneself as an equal citizen and human breaks hierarchies in the most fundamental way—at the level of ideas.
Our rights are also undermined by this moment of extraordinary militarisation around the world: the proliferation of conflicts and small arms; the evocation of military attitudes, language and thinking into everyday life; the essentialisation of social norms and their enforcement; and the shrinking of freedom in the public sphere. Feminists have always seen violence as a spectrum that takes in both sexist abuse and sexual violence in conflict.
This dismal moment allows us to draw clear lines to illustrate these connections and show that the tolerance for violence at one level creates the conditions for its persistence at another. For instance, dismissing street sexual harassment as ‘eve-teasing’ and the youthful manner of boys allows them, as men, to expect impunity for harassment, rape and domestic abuse. A society inured to household violence can entertain the idea of ethnic cleansing and custodial violence—they also establish a kind of domestic order.
This works in the other direction too—protracted military engagement or violent conflict teach us that the language of violence is how we communicate with each other. Guns are available, so we use them to communicate anger, frustration, grief and a host of other uncomfortable emotions.
This is a teachable moment to make the connection between militarisation, guns and everyday violence against women. The point of social activism is to make oneself redundant. Many years ago, someone asked me, “You’ve been doing this for a few years. Has violence ended?” Alas, the road to ending the ubiquitous culture of rape and impunity for sexual and gender-based violence seems endless. We work like ants and caterpillars, one step, one grain, one conversation at a time. The change that follows (and it does) is lasting and sustainable.
has been part of the Prajnya 16 Days Campaign against Gender Violence since 2008