Despite progressive legislation on women’s rights the reality in rural communities in India is far different. Jim Clarken, Executive Director of Oxfam Ireland, visited Hyderabad and met some inspirational women from Oxfam partners combating the exploitation and abuse of women.
Hyderabad, not unlike the rest of India, is a place of great contradictions. Many of the global IT and communications giants such as Google have decided to base some of their major operations there with highly paid, highly qualified staff. At the same time, throughout the city one encounters the ‘other India’ of the millions of people who are living below the poverty line.
I had specifically chosen the Gender Based Violence field visit as I chair the Irish Joint Consortium on Gender Based Violence. We visited three partners in Hyderabad city:
Bhumika Women’s Collective is a center run by the charismatic Kondaveeti Satyavati, the kind of woman who could persuade you to do anything for her organization (for free!).
She has secured very committed and qualified volunteers to manage the support program they run, including a very well subscribed free phone helpline from which women are offered confidential support and counseling. Volunteers will also call to the homes of women who have been abused and offer support in ensuring that women can access refuge facilities, legal support etc. when it is required. Bhumika has a panel of volunteer solicitors who will take pro-bono cases on behalf of the women.
Saveeti has an international reputation as a campaigner and practitioner and has been asked to present courses at training colleges for magistrates and solicitors to be better equipped as young qualified practitioners to handle these cases when the commence their careers. At Bhumika, there was a real sense of looking at the problem in a holistic manner and of leveraging new opportunities for influence through the reputation the organization has earned.
SWARD runs a center for women which is quite unique in that it has managed to base its women’s center within the grounds of a police station. Following long negotiations and originally only being allowed a chair outside the toilets in the main building, it now has a purpose-built center of its own in the police compound.
The deputy commissioner has been very supportive for years. But in a meeting with the new commissioner, he stated that “SWARD have a fairly good success rate – they manage to keep 75% of marriages together.” The fact that this is his most important criteria shows they clearly still have some work to do in changing attitudes of those in positions of power.
I met with some of the women SWARD have worked with and they obviously have a strong impact in helping women to have the confidence to come forward, to understand their rights and to know that they have choices in situations of domestic violence.
Shaheen is an organization running a refuge and an outreach center in the poorer Muslim district of Hyderabad. The levels of violence and abuse of women is very high among this group. Shaheen is run by some extraordinary women, many of whom have been victims of violence, including the leader who was subjected to an acid attack which left her face disfigured. It was a great privilege (as a northern man particularly) to be allowed to sit amongst these women as they told their stories of their lives. One could really get a palpable sense of how much it meant to these extremely vulnerable women to feel the support in each other and the practical impact of the Shaheen center.
It takes a lot of courage to engage in this issue in this environment: at any time they could be subjected to threats and violence for raising their voices. One woman nonchalantly told of how she had gone under-cover to work in a beautician training center which was actually a front for a criminal ring selling young women into slavery in Arab countries. She had managed to secretly film some of the activities and get copies of the papers which ultimately led to a police raid and to the ring being closed down. One shudders to think what may have happened to her had she been exposed.
One of the strong impressions I have following this short field visit is how embedded the acceptance of gender based violence is throughout India, affecting all social strata. Violence towards women and within marriage is largely accepted as the norm by both women and men.
Much of the problem seems to be rooted in the dowry tradition in India which causes disputes on an ongoing basis (in my naïveté, I assumed it was over when the wedding was over but further dowry demands can go on for years). This practice is supposed to be illegal but is in reality widespread.
Legislation is not enough
India appears to have some very progressive legislation in regard to the protection of women and has prided itself internationally on this fact. But the reality is that there is a complete lack of acceptance of these laws across the country, and the lack of implementation of these laws means that they are worth little more than the paper they are written on. It will take so much more than strong legislation to resolve these issues. Legislators at all levels will have to show ongoing commitment, and civil society will have to actively pressurize all arms of national and local government to bring about the behavioral change which is so desperately needed.
It will take education and the ongoing roll-out of programs such as the ‘We Can’ campaign, targeting men and women as change makers for the cultural shift that is required in Indian society to take hold. The work that Oxfam India and its partners are doing in this regard is invaluable and clearly has a real and positive impact – not just on the lives of women that it directly touches, but also as part of this great cultural change that has to take place.