Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Gender Sensitization Workshops in Shantiniketan by Chandana Dey

Gender Sensitization Workshops 
for Manab Jamin team members
Shantiniketan, West Bengal, India 
March 2019

By Chandana Dey
I recently returned to Shantiniketan and was given a chance to interact with my former team members in Ahimsa. In April 2017, when I retired from full-time NGO activity, six Ahimsa team members joined Srikanta Mondal’s team at Bolpur Manab Jamin. (BMJ) Both Ahimsa and BMJ have focused on livelihood promotion and food security measures in the villages around Shantiniketan, in the district of Birbhum, West Bengal. Currently, the twelve member team- six men and six women have undertaken a program of asset building through livestock development in predominantly Santhal (tribal) and Hindu villages. This program is now entering its third year, and has also reaped rich dividends in terms of women’s assets and empowerment.

One area that still remains out of the aegis of the program is a focus on violence, specifically the issue of violence on women. My thoughts on the need to focus on this aspect of women’s empowerment crystallized further in the course of 2018-2019 when we were bombarded by reports on the burgeoning Me Too movement. Speaking to the younger generation of women activists, including my daughter and her friends and colleagues, has influenced much of my current thinking. Recent path-breaking legislation as well as the Visakha guidelines[1] and the Verma Committee[2] have made me pause and think about how much more dissemination is needed especially with women and men in rural Bengal- the little corner of India I call home.

Chandana Dey speaking to Bolpur Manab Jamin team
(photo taken by Debasish, team member, BMJ)

I wanted to start talking on gender and rights to the BMJ team. This is a young group with the majority of people under the age of 30. Education levels vary, although most are literate and all stay in villages close to Bolpur. Some are Adivasis (known as Scheduled Tribes); some are from Scheduled Caste households, and a few belong to upper caste households. Generally, they come from joint families. Consequently they are all aware of hierarchical structures, both at the family level, as well as the broader social frameworks they all belong to. My ability to return to Shantiniketan more frequently thus gave me a chance to interact with them on an informal footing, and hopefully, on successive visits, I will be able to take along ‘experts’ in the field of ‘gender sensitization’. From my previous experience with grassroots work, I have learnt the pitfalls of preaching; rather, it is when people are able to relate and recognize inequality in one’s own life, that makes the leap possible to understand and then perhaps begin on transformation- first oneself (always the toughest) and then taking this same message to others. 

The first session took place in the Manab Jamin office on 18 March 2019. When I entered, the room (about 10 by 10 feet) had been set up in the usual style of blackboard, and screen and the speaker chair in front (a typical classroom situation), and the audience in two rows. I attempted to change the hierarchy embodied in this seating arrangement, and instead requested that we could all sit in a circle- and I should be part of the circle. I also asked everyone to put away their notebooks, saying that there would be no need for notes- that this was just an informal conversation, a way of our getting to know each other, and for me to get to know each person. 

I started the discussion with the Asset Building though Livestock Development Project that Manab Jamin has been involved in for the past two years, asking them about goals and outcomes. Here, everyone was very vocal. Then I went on and asked each person what they thought Bengal’s biggest social problem was- answers ranged from superstition, and belief in witch doctors, to child marriage and the farmers’ crisis. No one was allowed to repeat a problem once stated. Not surprisingly, violence or domestic violence was not brought up as a pressing issue. 

I then spoke about the origins of the Me Too movement and the attention people are paying to gender relations within workspaces. I mentioned a few cases that have caught the headlines- but soon realized that the case of Tehelka[3] or Justice Ganguly[4] must seem very remote to the people in the room. I touched on the topic of violence, especially that directed towards women, and also mentioned the Domestic Violence Act- though briefly[5]. I gave a personal account of how I had been impacted by the Me Too- and the need to speak up when harassment (in its many forms) happens. Interestingly, some of the young women did comment on harassment and said that people would generally not believe the victim. 

Chandana Dey listening to speakers in
Workshop on Gender Sensitization
(photo taken by Debasish, Team member, BMJ)
My original idea had been to show a short film on violence on women- and then break into groups for discussion. However, with the slow internet- it was just about possible to see the bare bones of the film. While trawling YouTube, I found that a fair number of films have been made in Bengali- much of this comes from immigrant communities in Canada or the US. The films made in India tend to be in English and focus on middle class and upper class women and men This was a useful juncture to point out that domestic violence is prevalent in all societies, and straddles all classes.

Before the session ended, I repeated that this workshop was just one of several sessions- and I would appreciate it if it could stay as an inter-team exercise, rather than being taken out to the wider community. My discussions with gender sensitization facilitators focused on the need to build support networks before one launches on community awareness programs. At present, Bolpur Manab Jamin is in conversation with human rights lawyers on a number of issues- including domestic violence. However, we need to be prepared and able to take action, once domestic violence survivors start speaking out. Till these links can be forged, possibly with women’s groups based in Kolkata, it would be sensible to limit these sensitive discussions to a smaller group, and try and build stronger bridges within this close-knit group of people. The gender sensitization program will need the help of various experts, who can come and explain things simply to people. And it will also be necessary to face up to one’s own inner demons. This will take time, empathy and tolerance. As I had stated in the beginning of the discussion: understanding the issue of violence on women is critically linked to the question of women’s empowerment. A battered, frightened woman cannot reap the fruits of development, however targeted the efforts might be. Nor can organizations flourish unless they build a truly inclusive workplace, where each member of the team feels appreciated and respected.

[1] The Vishakha Guidelines were a set of procedural guidelines for use in India in cases of sexual harassment. They were promulgated by the Indian Supreme Court in 1997 and were superseded in 2013 by the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013.

[2] Justice Verma held that each incident of sexual harassment constitutes a violation of the fundamental rights of 'gender equality', 'right to life and liberty' and the right to practice any profession or to carry out any occupation, trade or business under Article 19 (1) (g) of the Constitution of India which depends on a safe working environment.

[3] Tarun Tejpal (born 15 March 1963) is an Indian journalist, publisher, novelist and former editor-in-chief of Tehelka magazine. In November 2013, he stepped down as editor for six months after a female colleague accused him of sexual assault. He was arrested on 30 November 2013 and is currently on bail since 1 July 2014.

[4] A woman intern had alleged a recently retired Supreme Court judge had sexually harassed her.[9] The Supreme Court, then appointed a three-member committee to probe the allegations and identified A K Ganguly was the one who harassed her.[10] He repeatedly denied all charges. He was indicted on 6 December 2013 by the committee, which agreed with the intern's allegation that he had subjected her to "unwelcome sexual behaviour" in December 2012.[11] He resigned from the West Bengal Human Rights Commission on 6 January 2014 after the Union Cabinet decided to make a Presidential Reference on 2 January 2014 to the Supreme Court for his removal.[12]

He was acquitted of all charges after the intern refused to record her statement before the police.[13] 

[5] The Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act 2005 is an Act of the Parliament of India enacted to protect women from domestic violence. It was brought into force by the Indian government from 26 October 2006.