"Whose help can I ask? If I talk to another woman in the village, she can't help. She faces the same thing at her home. I haven't told anyone that he abuses me, but everyone sees it-people in my family and villagers also. They ask me why are you fighting -why is he hitting you? Then they all say it is the fault of the wife.. "
These words of a village woman during a survey in Bihar, highlight the extreme vulnerability of women to violence in their marital homes. It is widely accepted that this arises from gender disparities and deeply entrenched patriarchal attitudes that denies women - their voice and agency.
Prevention of Violence Against Women and Girls (VAWG) is a concern that has informed developmental agendas reflected in policy and legislation. However there remains a gap. Evidence on what works and what does not work to change notions of masculinity and femininity, reverse the widespread acceptability of marital violence by communities and reduce women's experience of violence - is limited in India.
The intervention 'Do Kadam Barabari Ki Ore' (Two Steps Towards Equality') is premised to fill this gap. Undertaken as a partnership led by Population Council with the Centre for Catalyzing Change (C3), the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and UKaid-it sought to build evidence to prevent, address and reduce VAWG.
Leading the intervention KG Santhya, Senior Associate, Population Council said that situating the five projects in the state was significant. There is a widespread justification of marital violence and the level of VAWG in the state is the highest in the country. Every two out of five women has experienced violence. A majority of both men and women recognise wife-beating as the husband's right.
Five independent projects were launched in Patna and Nawada districts, Bihar that addressed all three dimensions of prevention of VAWG. Each project was implemented for a period of six months to a year. Each of the five projects worked with different groups.
The project with adolescent boys from Nehru Yuvak Kendra Sangathan (NYKS) was based on a life skills curriculum and sports.
Through the prism of current notions of masculinity, gender discrimination, it turned the focus of this group to address VAWG.
Another project worked with married women who were part of SHGs. Their husbands were also included in the project. Through gender transformative group learning sessions this group gained clarity on the issue. A third project involved Panchayati Raj Institution (PRI) members. It sought to bring about a change in gender role attitudes that reflect as VAWG. Yet another project was undertaken to assess the effectiveness of state government-run helpline.
However, addressing those who had experienced violence in any form -physical, sexual, emotional demanded a more hands-on approach.
This was done through a project that engaged Frontline Workers (FLWs) of the public health system - the Accredited Social Health Activist (ASHAs), Anganwadi Workers (AWWs) and to a lesser extent, Auxiliary Nurse-Midwives (ANMs). Undertaken from August 2015 to January 2016, the project leveraged the close, even intimate access that ASHAs and AWWs) had with community members.
A total of 38 ASHAs and AWWs were taken through a three-day training at the PHC in Phulwarisharif. They were trained to screen married women in the community for their experience of violence, share information on options available, counsel them and give referrals. The selected community women were in the child-bearing age (39 years) and/or with children in ages 0-5 years. The group was seen as most vulnerable to violence as compared to older women married for longer periods.
Subsequent to the training, the ASHA and AWWs were oriented towards the larger support framework for prevention of VAWG. Linkages were established with criminal justice sector, domestic violence advocates and NGOs working on the issue. They were informed on how the woman helpline can be accessed. Linkages at the local level were fostered with community leaders including PRIs and members of Panchayat Samitis.
The training and orientation was an eye-opener for the ASHA and AWWs. For the first time, they became conscious of their own patriarchal mindsets - one that denied women an equal space and voice. They also had justified VAWG earlier. Now they saw it as reflection of deep-rooted gender disparities; a violation of women's rights. From being part of the problem, they were now part of the solution.
These experiences are reflected in the narratives at the project's Endline in March- April 2016. According to one ASHA, "We began to observe these things in our own homes and outside also." Another statement, ""Our training was about the violence women face. Earlier we may have faced all these things but didn't know what to do about it. Everyone would keep their mouth shut and continue to bear it. " .
They were made to understand what constituted violence and the action to be taken. "We were told about four types of violence. That if a woman has experienced physical violence, if she has bruises on her body-she should get help immediately. "Examples from daily life cemented this understanding. "If the husband throws something at his wife in order to hurt her, then that's also marital violence."
They learned about the laws in place. "I understood that there are legal issues if a woman faces violence. I got to know about the Domestic Violence Act and its provisions." Information regarding the helpline was given to the ASHAs and AWWs. . "We didn't even know what the women helpline was. But now we've become aware. We've also understood that if a husband hits his wife -she can call the helpline and he can be charged for assaulting her."
Turning to village leaders in the event of marital violence was unheard of. This was also a new learning for them, "We came to know that a women facing violence at home can approach the village headman and ward member for help."
Sensitive issues such as forcible sex within marriage as well as women being hit by their husbands during pregnancy -came to fore.
The ASHAs and AWWs did not shy away from confronting the problems, counseling the women as also the men. In fact many of them had enlisted the support of their husbands to counsel the husbands of women facing violence. Their efforts did not go in vain. They led to abatement in violence. And that happened because women who had suffered in silence earlier, were now emboldened. They could share their experiences, seek help and access the options that the ASHAs and AWWs had opened out for them. These form a chunk of the narratives that the Endline captured.
"ASHA didi came and I told her that my husband comes home drunk , abuses and beats me. I also used to abuse sometimes..but she made him understand that it was wrong to beat me. He was taken aback and asked ASHA didi what she will do. She said she'll make a complaint and he'll be arrested. He changed his attitude after that."
Another women shared " ASHA didi told me that I could get help by calling the women's helpline. Or I could go to the panchayat, let the sarpanch know that I was facing violence at home". Counselling on options depended on the specific situation "The AWW didi said that I could call the helpline or even go to the police for help.", said one woman.
The experiences of these village women signified a refreshing openness about an issue that had been shrouded in silence and secrecy earlier. They had suffered alone knowing that the violence inflicted on them was condoned by society. Now they could speak out based on the knowledge that they could get protection.
The project recognized the vital role of the ASHAs and AWWs in this change. It recommended a strengthening of their capacities to enable them to counsel village women with empathy and correct information. VAWG needs a more intensive focus in the training package of ASHAs and AWWs so that along with their regular responsibilities in public health, they can effectively help to mitigate violence.
The project also indicated that prevention of VAWG needs to be embedded within the public health system. While the current focus on reproductive health, nutrition and family planning can inform its service delivery - the aspect of reducing violence needs to be integrated.
Gender inequities that continue to pervade our collective consciousness must be weeded out both at the societal as well as policy level. It is this concept of gender equity that the intervention, "Do Kadam Barabari Ki Ore' seeks to promote within communities and situate within the policy framework. And indeed it is this concept of ' Barabari' that can bring in the desired change as is evocatively put into words by a woman during the Endline" I have learnt a lot.. Violence against women should not take place and a woman should not be forced to sleep with her husband. I learnt that we shouldn't differentiate between girls and boys. Both should be given equal amounts of love. Both should be treated equally."
The views expressed in the above article are that of Charkha Features writer Sujata Raghavan.