Between Contexts and Continents

This article originally appeared in T&S Issue 37, Summer 1998.

Feminist activists in South Asia are involved in a huge range of projects tackling all aspects of violence against women. Liz Kelly reports back from Calcutta and offers UK feminists some food for thought.

Earlier this year I was invited to attend a regional workshop on violence against women by the British Council in Calcutta. Participants attended from Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Sri Lanka, with themes covering state violence, violence in conflict situations, rape, domestic violence, sexual harassment and trafficking in women and girls. As part of the visit I also visited four projects in Calcutta. Many of the women and girls I met were an inspiration and a challenge to some of the ways we in the UK have responded to violence against women. What I heard, saw and thought confirmed to me that activist feminists need to become more adept at working with difference and similarity at the same time. I became acutely aware of how contexts make critical differences in what is possible and useful in supporting women and girls; yet at the same time I participated in lengthy discussions about common tensions and dilemmas in feminist organising. Some things do, and others do not, transcend context and continents.

Women’s groups in action

The only word which describes my response to the projects I visited is humbling; it was salutary to see how much organisations achieved with extremely limited resources, and to listen to their plans and aspirations. How many women’s organisations in the west would be prepared to work in a tiny room in a slum with a stinking canal outside it?

It is difficult to communicate the scale of difference projects in India work within. I understood for the first time what ‘teeming’ streets meant; in the city centre this included large numbers of pavement dwellers and street children. The women’s groups I visited (including the women’s studies centre in the university) were housed in dilapidated buildings, their work and meeting rooms sparsely furnished. The most important furnishings were the mats which everyone sat on and some sort of table which was invariably used for block printing. Yet the atmosphere was one in which care, laughter and affection between girls and women seemed to thrive.

There is a strong focus on the girl child in Indian activism and service provision, both to improve the valuation of girls within families and to expand opportunities for girls. CINI ASHA, for example, was set up in 1989 to work with street and working children. They provide education classes and other services to many children, and have a sponsorship scheme for full-time education and the new project which is described below (see box for details). Like many Indian NGOs (Non Governmental Organisations — similar to our voluntary sector, many are funded through development funders, including large international charities) CINI ASHA discovered an issue, and then established a project to address it. I visited a new project based in a slum area which provides education and training for the eldest girl in Muslim families. The eldest daughters in these families were being removed from school at an early age and became domestic workers, either inside or outside their household. The project pays a small stipend to families to allow girls to continue their education; they have classes in the mornings, and in the afternoon training sessions in marketable skills, especially traditional crafts such as embroidery and fabric printing. The project is now having to extend into work placements, as the oldest girls have reached school leaving age.

Saanlap (which means dialogue) is a larger, possibly better funded, group which defines itself as a women’s rights project. It has two main focuses: working in the red light areas of Calcutta and a rural programme building women’s co-operatives. Initially the work on prostitution concentrated on trafficking — rescuing (this term is not unproblematic in India, but they, like me when writing this, have not been able to find an alternative which better describes the activity) girls who had been trafficked from rural India, Bangladesh and Nepal, and providing them with safety, education and other opportunities. The youngest child they have identified so far was nine, but the optimum age for trafficking appears to be 14. Many trafficked girls tell stories of being shown pornography as instruction, and report that they are ‘educated’ through sitting alongside as older women service customers. The Saanlap workers refer to this as ‘normalising’ sexual exploitation. They run a residential home outside the city which can accommodate about 30 girls who have been rescued, and have developed strong networks with groups in other countries, so that girls who wish to return home can do so.

As the work on trafficking developed, connections with adult women in the sex industry grew; in fact the women are often the source of information on recently trafficked girls, and they work with Saanlap and the police to rescue them (this is one of the principles of the Calcutta sex workers’ Union). These emerging links led to discussions about the women’s needs; initially these centred on their own children, but rapidly extended to exchanges about the status of prostitutes, and wider political issues. This is yet another example of how Indian women’s organisations expand organically, widening their remit to address the issues women they work with raise. (A week after I returned home an article in The Guardian reported on an exchange between community groups in the UK and India working on local regeneration; what the English community workers noticed most about the Indian approach was that it was ‘holistic’, seeking to encompass all of the areas’ difficulties and needs.)

Visiting one of the (many) red light areas in Calcutta made clear why women were concerned about their children. Knowing we were going to a slum area with many brothels conjured up an image in my mind which bore no relation to the reality. In this small area close to 2,000 women, their children and some men lived and worked. The brothels were women’s own houses, which were tiny — the size of the original kitchens in terraced houses. The beds in the houses were tall, and children sleep underneath them. When women are working, therefore, children either have to be out in the street or under the bed.

Saanlap have developed two forms of provision for children, both directly linked to what women said they wanted. They have 14 drop-in centres which operate as ‘night creches’; children can do their homework, participate in games and creative activities, whilst their mothers work. Currently about 1,800 children use these facilities. The room I referred to at the beginning of this piece was one such centre, and during the day it functions as an informal women’s centre. The other strand of work involves taking older girls, who their mothers reported were frequently sexually harassed and encouraged to enter prostitution, away from the area.

Sneha (which means affection) is on the outskirts of the city, it houses 35 young women, all of whom attend school and receive vocational skills training. I spent an afternoon I will remember forever at Sneha, part of which involved having a dance performed for me. During an exchange (all of which was conducted through interpreters) with a large group of young women. I asked what their hopes for the future were. The staff member told me that they all probably wanted to get married. The girls themselves, however, had other ideas and gradually it emerged that most of them said they wanted a job and to be independent. When I gestured ‘me too’, cheering and shouting ensued. I was told that many of the young women were asking if they could come to the UK.

The most recent element of Saanlap’s work is an advocacy project Salah (advice) which both addresses the individual needs of women for legal and health advice and acts as a lobby group with government and the police about both trafficking and the sex industry more broadly. A journal Jonaki (glow-worms) documents the sexual exploitation of women and children. At the same time as the British Council workshop, Saanlap was hosting a conference on trafficking and prostitution, where the issue of legalisation was debated. Some of the organised sex workers had proposed this as a way forward, but few of the women’s organisations supported it (some of the HIV/AIDS organisations do). They did, however, take the brave decision to openly debate the different positions. Through many conversations it became clear that the question of choice, as it is understood in the west, was simply not an issue. Few, if any, South Asian women working in prostitution say anything other than that they were forced into the industry at some point. What is more difficult to address are the basic survival issues, since hundreds of thousands of women support themselves and their children through prostitution in India. Visualising, let alone creating, alternative means of subsistence in a country where large proportions of the population live in abject poverty seemed unimaginable.

Other issues raised by women in prostitution at this conference had a familiar ring to them: harassment by police; corruption in the police; and the stigmatisation of prostitutes. The corruption issues, however, extend into both the legal profession and government bureaucracies; police officers throughout South Asia can only earn a living wage if they take some bribes. This reality has extensive implications, not just in relation to trafficking, but also for women reporting rape and domestic violence, since complaints and evidence can ‘mysteriously’ disappear or alternatively it can take up to ten years for a domestic violence case to come to court.

Swayam (oneself) was the most explicitly feminist (in terms of published literature) of the groups I visited; it defines itself as ‘committed to fighting violence against women’, the word patriarchy appears several times in their leaflet, and connections are made with issues like communalism. [1] They use a wide definition of violence against women and provide a range of services, including counselling (one to one, group and telephone); legal advice and medical help; advocacy in relation to the police; a drop-in centre; support groups; vocational training; employment opportunities; and public education and awareness. They have recently published a book of writing by project users, and one of the support groups has transformed into a theatre group which put together a performance for March 8.

How Swayam is structured is reminiscent of UK women’s organisations in the 1970’s, with many volunteers, including professionals who offer their skills for free. They also make demands on everyone:

Each family/community of which men and women are members can:

i) challenge violence against women, not condone it

ii) recognise it as an issue, not ignore it

iii) support women who are abused.

Re-reading their material confirmed an impression I had formed on my return, that within a longstanding tradition of protest, and radical politics, few if any Indian women’s groups name men explicitly as the perpetrators of violence against women; rather belatedly I realised I was the only one of eleven speakers at the workshop to do so. Swayam’s leaflet is a good illustration:

Violence is perpetrated by ‘respectable’ institutions like the family, the community, the education system, the job market, the state, the law enforcing agencies and religion.

Since this arena of difference emerged in retrospect I missed the opportunity to discuss whether it reflected a strategic decision, or a political emphasis (many Indian feminists emphasise structural analysis, including issues of state violence).

Breadth of vision

Coming from a context where service provision and campaigning have become increasingly limited to specific forms of violence against women, yet working personally from a perspective which stresses connections, it was extraordinarily exciting to see integrated projects and to hear about the range of groups which existed in a single city. Whilst there were undoubtedly political differences between groups and individuals, there was also a strong sense of connections, of working together towards common goals, and a profound grasp of the power and importance of collective action.

Two other groups in Calcutta illustrate this sense of collectivity, and both arise out of expressed needs of existing groups. Sanhita is a documentation (resource) centre on gender issues, which places a high priority on materials about violence against women (they would welcome materials, especially those which describe how women’s groups work, their campaigns and the way they provide support to women and girls). They are used as a library by most of the Calcutta network, both in terms of depositing materials there and seeking information. Obtaining and distributing knowledge is defined as ‘information activism’, since they argue that unequal access strengthens gender inequality. Sanhita claims to empower women by: creating space for information within the women’s movement; producing advocacy materials; gender training for grass roots activists; collecting, processing and disseminating information through action research programmes; publishing; campaigning; and providing referral services. Sanhita print most of the leaflets for local groups (they produced beautiful folders and notebooks for all workshop participants) — anyone remember when we used to be able to use women printers in the UK?

Maitree is a networking organisation for groups in Calcutta working on violence against women. It facilitates meetings, and organises campaigns. Maitree is intended to provide both a strong political voice and an opportunity to explore contentious issues, which may subsequently result in a united position. Maitree co-ordinates much of the activity in what they call Violence Fortnight — beginning on November 25 (International Day of Action Against Violence Against Women) and ending on December 10 (Human Rights Day). Activities in 1997 included a Reclaim the Night March.

The feminist organisation which works most from a recognisable radical feminist framework is Sakshi based in Delhi. They were one of the first organisations to use the term sexual violence, and to address physical and sexual assault of women and girls in the home. They use a wide definition of violence, and the interconnections between various forms:

Sakshi is a small effort to make a difference, to open a few doors for speech, expression, protest and even outrage. We wish to know, to witness, and therefore we will use every possible methodology of leaning and recording this pervasive assault.

The work of Sakshi covers training, research, counselling and publications. Their guide on sexual assault is printed in 12 regional languages and is intended to simplify the law (no mean feat, given the complexity of the Indian legal system). Some of the most radical feminist lawyers are members of Sakshi; they have recently presented a new draft of the law on sexual abuse of children to government, and achieved a significant victory in having a version of a set of guidelines on sexual harassment at work endorsed by the Supreme Court in August 1997.

This piece of work began following a case in a village in Rajasthan, in which a woman working for the Government Women’s Development Program was repeatedly sexually harassed for attempting to prevent a child marriage in a high caste household. Her complaint resulted in no action, and she was subsequently gang raped. Activists supported her in the criminal case and also filed a writ petitioning the Supreme Court to issue guidelines. Within the new framework sexual harassment is defined as

Any unwelcome:

1.    Physical contact and advances

2.    Demand or request for sexual favours

3.    Sexually coloured remarks

4.    Display of pornography

5.    Any other unwelcome physical, verbal or non-verbal conduct of a sexual nature.

All employers are required to set up procedures through which women can make complaints, and all complaints committees must be headed by a woman and have 50% female membership. In addition all such committees should have a third party member from an NGO or other body which understands sexual harassment. Employers are also expected to take steps to prevent sexual harassment and raise awareness in the workplace. Unlike many other approaches to sexual harassment, the guidelines outline the connections to criminal law, and the responsibility of employers to file a complaint. Whilst not statute law, the guidelines are mandatory, so women can demand that their workplace acts in accordance with them, and take them to court if they fail to do so. As far as Sakshi are aware this is the first example of this kind of approach in the world; it is undoubtedly amongst the most thoughtful and comprehensive approaches to sexual harassment, connecting criminal and civil legal remedies with institutional policy and prevention. Another fascinating piece of work completed in 1996 is Gender and Judges, a research project exploring judicial attitudes to violence against women which combines surveys of judges, women lawyers and court observation.

One recent development in West Bengal deserves mention, which is the adaptation of the Brazilian model of women’s police stations (similar provisions have also been recently introduced in Pakistan). One compelling reason for their development must be the continuing reports of what is termed custodial rape — rape of women by police officers and other state officials. The framework is simple — police stations in local areas staffed by women officers to which women can report crimes against them, especially sexual violence. In the West Bengal model there is also a ‘cell’ (room) attached where a civilian worker offers counselling, advice and advocacy. An evaluation of the model is currently taking place, and first indications suggest that the combination provides access to some form of remedy.

Maiti Nepal

One of the women attending the workshop was Anuradha Koirala, who is the inspiration behind Maiti Nepal (maiti means mother). In four years this organisation has become known throughout the world for its work on trafficking, and was recently visited by Prince Charles. Anuradha is one of those women who does not recognise distinctions between types of victimisation, so women who have been raped, abandoned children and women escaping domestic violence are all welcomed and supported by the organisation. Their official leaflet gives the impression of a traditional development project, but this is only part of the story. Anuradha talked of how they use funding intended to cover a limited number of children to work with as many as they are able: ‘never limit yourself… My heart will ache for the whole night if I refuse one woman’.

The current best estimates are that 5-7,000 Nepali girls are trafficked to India alone each year; other destinations include Pakistan, Sri Lanka and a route to Saudi Arabia has just been uncovered. In the last 12 months the project has rescued 25 eight year olds, and a six year old was recently found in Bombay.

Maiti Nepal is yet another example of the kind of holistic approach which seems common in South Asia; the project’s genesis was small scale, but it has evolved into a multi-layered, integrated approach to trafficking. The various elements are outlined below.

The shelter home

Based in Kathmandu, this was the first part of the project to be established. It offers accommodation to girls who have been trafficked, medical treatment (some of them are sent back to Nepal because they are injured or sick), space to talk about what has happened to them, and legal advocacy. Girls who cannot or do not want to return to their family home receive education (at the best local school, which is private) and vocational training. A micro credit union has been founded to enable women to generate income — an increasing number have successfully created their own businesses, one has joined the police and another is considering running for political office. Alongside the routes outlined above Maiti Nepal tracks reports of where Nepali girls are trafficked to. Contacts are then established with groups in those areas to ensure efforts are made to identify the girls. Staff members also always visit red light areas when they travel outside of Nepal, and frequently return home with groups of girls they have rescued; Anuradha herself planned to return from Calcutta with about 20.

Transit homes

Four transit homes now exist on the borders between Nepal and neighbouring countries. They serve two functions — to prevent trafficking by checking the papers and circumstances of any young women crossing the border, and to house young women who have been rescued from neighbouring countries. The latter is necessary because official red tape often means that it can take weeks and months to ‘repatriate’ girls, and in the intervening time if they remain in the country they have been trafficked into, no-one is responsible for their care, and state officials can be bribed by traffickers to release them. The border checks were originally the responsibility of the police, but stories from young women about harassment, rape and bribery led Maiti Nepal to establish their own houses, staffed by women who had themselves been trafficked. Anuradha gleefully told stories of two groups of girls who were raped by Nepali police. The project enabled them to make an official report, and during this process the young women showed the police chief their papers which confirmed their HIV status. Both she and the young women regarded this as a form of unofficial justice.

A hospice

This is located in the low land area of Nepal, which has a gentler climate. It was recently established to care for the increasing number of women and girls who were arriving back in Nepal with HIV/AIDS, hepatitis, TB and/or serious injuries. Anuradha told the story of five Nepali girls who were trafficked into India; they jumped out of a window rather than submit to prostitution. They are all back in Nepal, but three have serious injuries and one will never walk again. The hospice ensures that good health care, subsistence and support are available for the most vulnerable and the most damaged. Damage is not just physical, I was told of young women who, in Anaradha’s words were ‘gone — she is not there’. I got the impression that considerable care is provided to this group, in the hope that some form of connection and can be made; sometimes communication and a wish to survive results.

Public education

When the project was founded much of the trafficking was from the hill villages. Maiti Nepal conducted public education in hundreds of villages. Anuradha questioned the western presumption that parents knowingly sell their daughters into prostitution ‘ask yourself, what mother would do that’; most believe the children are going to work in the carpet factories in Kathmandu, or similar forms of child labour. The model of education was to take police officers and health workers to provide accurate information. The police officers, however, aroused much suspicion and few of the villagers participated. Not to be deterred, the next trip included a police band who began playing in the centre of the villages; the music proved an enticement to many villagers and has become a core part of the strategy. They have been so successful in educating the hill villages that the traffickers have shifted their concentration to the low land areas.

There is now a network of 69 groups working against trafficking in Nepal who all undertake some form of public education.

Targeting traffickers

This is another arm of the prevention work Maiti Nepal undertakes. They now have agreement from the government that staff members can inspect every plane leaving Kathmandu airport. If there are any suspicions about girls and women, they, and anyone they are travelling with, can be removed from the plane and the situation investigated. The organisation is also strongly committed to tracking and prosecuting traffickers, and it works with women to enable them to identify and testify against their abusers. At the workshop a large sheet of paper entitled ‘Criminals we have put in jail in March 1998’ displayed about twenty photographs; they were mainly men but included some women. Amongst those convicted were the five people involved in trafficking the five girls who jumped out the window. Another recent case resulted in 50 people being charged. This aspect of Maiti Nepal’s work had involved lengthy and difficult negotiations and challenges to police and other officials. I have no doubt it is Anuradha’s passionate commitment, unflagging energy and her refusal to settle for less than visible change which has made a difference. Her international profile now acts as a powerful brake on the corruption which previously undermined attempts to bring traffickers to book.

In explaining trafficking, many workshop participants stressed both poverty and the current reliance of many families and businesses on child labour. Whilst not dismissing either of these as factors, Anuradha unhesitatingly stated that the fundamental issue was the status of the girl child.

In much of the literature I have read, considerable stress has been placed on the difficulty of ‘rehabilitating’ prostituted children. I raised this with Anuradha, who looked deeply perplexed. This appears never to have been an issue for Maiti Nepal. Part of the explanation may be connected to the efforts put into returning girls as soon as possible to their homes — both to Nepal and their families. Moving stories were told of the distress families express when they are told what has happened to their daughters, and many are welcomed home rather than rejected (another western myth?). But beyond this, two other factors which I suspect make a difference are the love and affection which Anuradha undoubtedly feels for all the girls and women she supports, and the holistic approach which Maiti Nepal takes. For this project, barriers are not in the first instance things to be written about, but practical problems for which solutions must be created. This orientation may be the most important thing which western aid agencies, and organisations like ECPAT could learn from. The same could be said about the refusal of indigenous organisations working on trafficking to make what they regard as unhelpful distinctions between children and women with respect to sexual exploitation. This drawing of discretionary lines — between children and adults, trafficking and prostitution — is rapidly becoming a major hindrance to a coherent perspective on this issue internationally.

Similarity across difference

A number of important differences between organising in South Asia and the UK emerged which warrant further attention. I became even more aware of how few UK organisations either address violence against women as a whole and provide a wide range of services, or work with the kind of organic/holistic development which pervades feminist organising in South Asia. We also have few, if any, of the resource centres and networking groups which acted as local focuses for action and protest. Having attempted, unsuccessfully, to create such a network in Manchester, I am left wondering why UK women’s groups find it easier (even preferable) to network with statutory agencies than each other. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why we have failed to sustain a culture of protest, whereas this still thrives in India.

The workshop and conversations with activists also revealed a number of ongoing debates, many of which echo unresolved issues in the west. The most obvious were: the different histories and perspectives of NGOS, women’s organisations and feminist academics; how we locate ourselves and women like us within the issue of violence against women and girls; how to combine service provision and accountability to funders with work for broader social change; how to engage with the state, including whether one’s focus for change should be government and organisations or the wider community; legal reform versus implementation of current law.

As in the west, some of the ways these issues arose posed them as if only an either/or position was possible — either we work with the state/government or we position ourselves outside it, either we provide services or we work within communities. If a both/and perspective can be explored then more complex strategies, interventions and connections can emerge. This can be true within an organisation or within a network. For example, one network I know of in Canada has an understanding between the women’s organisations that one of them holds the ‘radical’ outsider position, thus allowing others to build more co-operative strategies with the criminal justice system and other agencies. Rather than seeing this as a fundamental ideological difference, the groups use this ‘difference’ as strategic positioning in order to ensure that change and accountability continues to be at the centre of the network’s agenda.

Whilst academic feminism/women’s studies in India seems not to have moved into an isolationist position, reliant on high theory for its place in world, there clearly were tensions between academics and NGOs. I am fairly certain that I failed to grasp some of the significance of the differences, but one clear perception was that some of the newer groups had gained substantial development funding at the cost of radical politics. One example of this was women from the women’s studies department asking why so much of the income generation and training provided by NGOs concentrated on traditional areas of female employment, why were they not encouraging and enabling girls and women to develop manual trades. Tensions also emerged around a version of class and identity politics — which women were organisations working with and whether they worked in rural areas seemed to the touchstone here. It is interesting how many of the city-based NGOs had an ‘arm’ which worked in rural areas; I have pondered on whether this model is an Indian one, or if it is linked to the agenda and requirements of aid agencies. However, some of the younger Calcutta groups vigorously defended their focus on urban women, arguing that it was appropriate for them to work in the context which they themselves were located in.

An interesting challenge, connected to this, was made to workshop participants by Flavia Agnes, who was one of the first women to speak openly in India about domestic violence. She raised two contentious issues: where women located themselves and the contradictions of making demands on the state. In essence the first challenge was to privileged activists, who she suggested were not recognising and naming the abuse which occurred in their own homes and families. The second questioned the tendency of feminists in India to make demands on the state, which was itself implicated in violence against women. She also noted that the most common response to issues was to call and work for legal reform, whilst paying limited attention to either testing the laws which existed or looking at how procedures rather than statute were barriers to just and equitable outcomes.

What was termed ‘the politics of rescue’ came up frequently, as did discussions of what ‘empowerment’ actually meant. These issues in turn were linked to the agendas of funders, but extended beyond that. One fascinating exchange about child labour revealed that in South Asia there are issues where personal location and political principles collide. One speaker made an impassioned statement about the importance of feminists taking a principled position themselves by not using child labour, especially not employing children to do domestic work in their own homes. Considerable protest followed, with a number of participants arguing that by employing children they were both protecting them from exploitation on the street and ensuring that they received some education.

Between contexts and continents

I had expected to be challenged by this, my first visit to South Asia, and I was. I had hoped to be inspired by the continuing tradition of protest in Indian feminism, and I was. Much of what I learnt, however, was unexpected. Some of the differences from similar work in the UK were not ones I had anticipated, since they reflected the perspective I try to work from: making connections between forms of violence; working on violence against women as a whole, including resource centres and action networks; and having integrated provision. Especially exciting and validating were presentations and discussions which refused to make absolute distinctions between trafficking and prostitution of girls and women. The similarities in the tensions, debates and unanswered questions for feminists were also something of a revelation, and offered considerable space for discussions in which everyone had information and ideas to exchange. Attention to difference is vital if feminism is ever to achieve its best aspirations to be an inclusive movement. But a politics based only on difference will fail to identify and notice similarities. It was, in fact, similarity which proved to be the source of the most animated and rewarding of the exchanges between contexts and continents.



[1] This term refers to complex social relations which include religion, ethnicity, region and forms of fundamentalism, and have been the source of much internal conflict in countries in South Asia.


Interview: Creating a campaign

In this short interview Manjima, a young woman who describes herself as having become a feminist in the last 12 months describes how a campaign grew out of her own experience and began on March 8 1998. She was returning from a women’s conference with members of the group she belongs to (Jagori — Women Awake — a resource and training centre in Delhi). For days they shared a train carriage with several men from the military who had been drinking and who were obnoxious for much of the time.

Manjima: As I was going to leave the train I had to pass him, and I had my luggage in one hand and was helping the coolie with the other. He put his hand under my clothes and squeezed my leg. I was so shocked, I hit him. He then said ‘how dare you, a girl, hit me’ and hit me right back, my glasses went flying. I was near the door so I went out and told the others and said ‘let’s do something, we must do something, get the police’. I was dazed and just wanted them to do something while I recovered. One woman went and got a policeman who said he could not find the man. He had locked himself in the toilet, so all the women went back on the train and banged on the door. He came out, but all puffed up saying ‘I’m in the army, you can’t touch me, go on call my commander’. The police didn’t do anything, and said ‘come on it was an accident, just say sorry’. We refused and demanded that he take a take a statement. But the men got back on the train and it moved out of the station and they waved at us. We were furious there were women running after the train shouting, it was ridiculous.

It took us two and half hours to make a complaint because first we had to complain against the policeman who had not done anything, and then file an FIR [first instance report — similar to a statement in the UK]. It took so much determination for them to take us seriously, and we were a group of strong angry women. I think it was when we mentioned the press — that if they refused we would call a press conference the next day — that they began to take notice. The men were apprehended the next day, the police had not even taken their names, but we described them and had an idea of their berth numbers. The military police took them off the train, took their statements and let them go.

We then began writing letters to the RPF (Railway Protection Force) and the GRP (Government Railway Police); in the one to the RPF we complained about the policeman’s lack of action; he had said ‘madam we protect property not people’. We also reported it to the National Human Rights Commission and they have taken on the case. What was amazing was that the railway said this was the first complaint like this, but when we began talking about it women had stories of similar things that had happened to them.

The campaign was born then and things got a lot stranger. The army obviously took it seriously — their image was at stake. The three men were sent to Delhi on their own. They came to the project, asked for me by name, but I was not in that day. They haunted the project trying to get us to drop the case, saying they would lose their jobs, what about their wives and children, one that he he’d a sick mother — all this blackmail. We said we refused to communicate with them outside the court. I was called to identity them and they tried again. They tried to get my personal address and phone number. I think the case will get to court this month (March 1988) but there is a slight complication because all three of them were travelling under someone else’s name.

All sorts of stories then came out; women began talking. And there was a case three years ago where three tribal women were raped on exactly the same train by army givanis. Some horrifying cases came out, in one a mother and her daughter were travelling, sleeping in berths. The girl was ten and small so she took up only part of the berth; in the middle of the night this man got in next to her! She managed to squeeze out and told her mother, when the train officials came they said ‘oh well nothing happened, better not to make a fuss’. We thought OK there is a pattern here and we should campaign.

We wanted to communicate three things: that these things were crimes; what women could do about it; and to encourage other passengers to support women when it happens. There was very little time: this was mid-February and we decided on a poster campaign on making travel safe for women, because even thinking about travelling becomes a negotiated risk for women, before she ever goes anywhere, we wanted to say we had a fundamental right to move freely and safely. So we made the poster and wrote a leaflet and mobilised for 8 March, both of which we now want to revise because they were written very quickly.

We started off thinking ambitiously — that we should cover all trains nationally, but decided on a trial run in New Delhi Station. We were there all day on 8 March, giving out leaflets in Hindi and English, especially to women. We had a meeting place on Platform 5 with a banner and placards and slogans. One woman checked what trains were leaving and we worked in teams of six, because that’s how many it took to plaster a whole train, to glue the posters and leaflets outside the bathrooms in each carriage. Lots of women turned up, we all wore black and had bags to carry the posters and leaflets. We had planned to stay till 11.30 to do the night trains, but by 1 we had no glue left and by 4.30 we had no more posters. No one could move a muscle, we were so exhausted.

Our biggest help were the street children. There was a boy who has polio and walks on his knees, and he earns money by sweeping the platforms, he mixed the glue with us all day. Other children put the posters on local trains, tiny kids would rush off with the posters glued to plaster the trains and when we finished they said ‘tell us when you are doing it again and we will help’. The co-ordinator of Jagori asked the boy who stayed with us whether he wasn’t losing money, and he rolled up his sleeve and there was a piece of cloth round his arm and he touched it saying ‘it’s ok I have enough for today’s dinner’. She then talked to him about saving money and he said ‘save, what for, I can’t have a savings account because I haven’t got an address’, so she felt she learnt something that day too!

It really was a great success, we had worried that the RDF would come down hard on us, and the police. But I had talked the day before to the police and the railway union, and it was very good we did that. The union worked with us, and when we ran out of glue they made some from flour and water in their canteen. They also kept announcing what were doing on the public address system every hour or so, saying it was International Women’s Day and that harassment was illegal.

The next phase

That was phase one. We are now planning phase two. We are meeting next week to evaluate what happened, and think about how to expand the campaign. There are four stations in Delhi, so should we do all of then, should we do it every couple of weeks, or every month? Should we go from 5-8 to target the night trains? So what precise strategy are we going to use? We are doing it again on 28 March from 5-11 on the night trains.

It was truly amazing, it was my first campaign, so maybe I would feel that, but it was like delivering a baby. When my friend and I first saw women sitting reading our leaflets we looked at each other and I said ‘it’s really happening’! We are going to make it national by making copies of the new posters and leaflets and sending them to core women’s organisations in each state, suggesting they translate them into their own languages. Even if we only do it one day a month that will be great, because so many people use stations.

Liz: You mentioned Jagori did work on lesbian issues, is there any campaigning about this?

Manjima: A recent law, section 377, has been passed which says that women who run away with women are punishable, it is criminal to ‘have sex against the order of nature’. I don’t know very much about it, but some women’s organisations are organising a petition to oppose it.

The issue of lesbianism is very problematic here, there is far less visibility and lots of problems, even at the big women’s conference we went to. It was on the agenda because of this law, but the local groups cut out this section before any of the information was made public. It caused uproar at the conference, there was a lot of conflict about it, because the host group just didn’t want it talked about — they saw it as a very ‘Bombay, Delhi problem’

Liz: Well that’s slightly better than it’s only a western problem!

Note: Manjima talked about the railway campaign at the workshop and there was a lot of support for taking it to other cities. Anyone wanting more information about section 377 should contact Sakshi.

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