'Initially the men opposed. They thought we women were being disruptive.'

'Initially the men opposed. They thought we women were being disruptive.'

Oxfam India is working with non-profit organisation Vanangana in Chitrakoot and Banda district of Uttar Pradesh to create awareness on women's rights through Nigrani Samitis. These Samitis now comprise 2,500 women,mostly belong to the Dalit minority. While Dalits fare better on sex ratio than the national average, they are one of the worst victims of domestic violence. Nearly 46 per cent of Dalit women have reported domestic violence as against 40.1% nationally*. In the Samitis, women are trained to provide holistic support to survivors- from counselling to legal recourse.  

The women sat in a semi-circle in the front room of a house. Light flitted, through a couple of doors, into the brick room. The room with a cot and a couple of plastic chairs had a motorcycle parked in one corner. A few clothes hung on a line just above the cot. The loft at the other end of the room was packed with dried cow dung cakes; a cat sat snug in one corner of the loft. More women trickled in. They were there for a cluster meeting of the Nigrani Samiti at Chakla village.

The Samiti, one in each village, comprises of 15 to 30 women. It was easy to form women collectives as they were already formed into Self Help Groups (SHGs). “These SHGs were dissolved as they weren’t performing too well and it was restricted to a handful of them. These Samitis were formed to be more inclusive, empower, and provide a platform for Dalit women, who are at the lowest rung in the social ladder,” says Avadesh Gupta, one of the core team members of Vanangana.

The Samiti members are federated at cluster (groups of villages) and district levels. A couple of members from each Samiti represent at the federation level. The Samiti does not work exclusively for members; they help others from the village who approach them with cases of domestic violence.

The meeting began with a round of introductions and attendance. Most of them were veterans — associated with the Samiti for over 20 years. The membership and participation of women has increased over the years.

“Initially the men opposed. They thought we were being disruptive. The didis spoke to the men separately. Some have understood that this is for a better society; a few get angry even today. But we come anyways,” says Hiramani of Pachokhar village. She has been a member for the last 20 years.

Surajkali started the meeting by displaying posters on domestic violence — the types of domestic violence, its perpetrators, Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act (PWDVA) 2006, and the relevance of the Act. A project officer at Vanangana, Surajkali explains that this exercise was done at all meetings and was important to start discussions around domestic violence.

These posters broaden their understanding of domestic violence. Earlier domestic violence only meant physical abuse by the husband and in-laws. This helps women to understand and report incidents of domestic violence to the Samiti, both personal and from the community.

“Through these meetings we came to know that mental, economical and sexual abuse is also domestic violence and this needs to stop,” says Geeta, a Samiti member from Chalgafa village.

The Samiti members are trained in counselling; over the years they have gained access to police and legal aid cells. After an issue is brought to the notice of the Samiti, a consent letter is filled and signed by the victim or a family member in the presence of the victim. The members then initiate talks with victim and her family members. If after consultations the victim wants to go back to the in-laws, the Samiti members monitor her stay on a regular basis. This is to ensure her safety.

“Sometimes the woman wants to go back to her parents but they refuse to take her in. There lies the problem; even today parents are hesitant to take in their daughters for fear of the society. We hold several counselling sessions with parents and convince them to accept their daughters. There are some who understand but there are others who after a couple of months want to send back their daughters; they consider daughters a financial burden,” says Santosh, project officer, Vanangana.

When the victims are left with no support – either from in-laws or parents - Vanangna brings them to their Women Support Centres. The two Centres, providing food, shelter, and medical aid, is run from Vanangna’s premises at Karwi and Banda. The women are housed for a maximum of three months, during which they are counseled, families are met up with and joint counselling held, and economic options and legal recourse are explored. The Samitis are the link between the community and Support Centres; 233 cases were brought to the two Centres during 2014-16.

“If the victim opts for legal recourse we connect her to the district legal services authority. Sometimes, the Samiti also take suo motu cognizance of incidents. This is especially the case when the woman is being abused or beaten and she needs immediate help. If required the police is approached,” explains Sona, the secretary of the federation. Sona has been a member of the Samiti for the last 20 years.

“It is difficult to say for certain whether incidents of violence against women have increased but the reporting definitely has. In addition, more women are now willing to approach the police. The Samiti has given them a platform to freely speak out. While some women are open to discussing their problems in public, a few prefer to speak in private,” she says. During the meeting women had uninhibited discussions about their sexual experiences – a clear sign that women understood that sex without mutual consent is tantamount to sexual violence and it wasn’t ok. They had learnt to say ‘no’. Earlier, this was considered par for the course.

The village meetings are held every fortnight and cluster meetings every couple of months. All members of the federation meet once annually. Women participation in these meetings is very encouraging. Apart from the usual Samiti members, non-members and young girls are encouraged to attend these meetings. Young girls are also formed into groups. With the young girls, stress is laid on education, marriage after legal age, spacing between children, and non-acceptance of domestic violence.

Vanangana receives at least 10 to 15 cases a month and up to 250 cases a year, through the Samitis. Since 2008, when Oxfam India started working with Vanangana, nearly 1200 cases have been dealt with. The Samiti mostly receive cases related to the classic case of wife beating, dowry, violence due to inability to bear children or a male child, and injuries sustained due to sexual violence. While some cases have been solved through meticulous counselling and constant monitoring, a few women have chosen to take legal recourse and start afresh.

“Most victims of domestic violence end up going back to abusive relationships because they are economically dependent on either the husbands or their fathers. It is very important to make them economically independent so that they can start afresh and not be dependent on their families,” says Avadesh. Vanangana has supported women to become economically independent. 

Know more about Oxfam India's work on this isse here

*Source: National Family Health Survey (NFHS) Data-3 (2005-06) 

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