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Free The Night
‘Pledge for Parity’ is the theme for this year’s International Women’s Day. The World Economic Forum predicted in 2014 that it would take until 2095 to achieve global gender parity. Then a year later, in 2015, they estimated that a slowdown in the already glacial pace of progress meant the gender gap wouldn't close entirely until 2133. Thus, this year’s theme is a global call to each individual to take pledge to take one concrete step to contribute to enable gender parity more quickly. This reminds me of an initiative that Oxfam India took during 16 days of activism in Chhattisgarh.
At a time when women are fighting hard for their rights and their choices to be discussed and accepted, a quiet storm was raised through Raipur city on a chilly winter night, to show the society just how this is done. Though claimed to be a safe city, it is rare to find girls and women moving out of their homes beyond 10 p.m.. unless they are accompanied by men.
Freedom of movement for all citizens of India, is enshrined in Art 19 1(d) of the Fundamental Rights of the Indian Constitution. But this right doesn’t seem to be applicable to women whose mobility is restricted after dark. There is a constant fear of abuse and harassment that women and girls feel and experience. Though the country, its spaces, its city and streets belong to everyone, women cannot claim equal citizenship until and unless this threat is removed.
We demand this fundamental right as our civil and human rights. To voice these demands and reclaim the night, albeit one night, Oxfam India along with Chhattisgarh Mahila Adhikar Manch and Raipur Municipal Corporation (RMC) organised a Freedom Walk on December 5, 2015.
The Freedom Walk was attended by around 200 women, girls, men and transgender who came out of their homes, at 11 p.m., to march on the streets and challenge the social norm that women should not be out late in the night. The walk was attended by homemakers, single women, students, women working in offices and women street vendors. Men and boys attended this march in solidarity and in recognition of the fact that these stereotypes needed to be challenged and broken.
The Walk was remarkable as it blurred boundaries of social status, caste, religion and gender (as was evident in the presence of a large number of transgender). With adequate representation from the civil society, women’s rights organisation, media and elected women representatives from the Municipal Corporation the message was loud and clear – While Raipur was being celebrated as a safe city (as compared to many cities in the country), there was a need to introspect as to why more women were not seen moving freely at night.
Now that was some food for thought!
It was evident that apart from safety, the mindsets of families also needed to change. A change to enable women to live up to the expectations of the families, society and the nation, and at the same time, enable them to live up to their own aspirations.
Those present at the Freedom Walk were not just representing themselves but also thousands of women who have to go out every day to work and support their families and carve a niche for them in the long run. They were also representing all those women and girls who are based in the households but feel unsafe when move out.
For the participants of the Freedom Walk it wasn’t about competing with men. It was about the fast and ever-changing socio, economic and political context. It was about changing expectations from women in both within homes and outside at the workplace. The institutes that prepare the youth for competitive exams run late in the evening; so do banks, corporate houses, BPOs etc. Women hawkers and street vendors are on the streets from dawn to dusk, sometimes navigating through lonely and unsafe areas. Survival in the era of cutthroat competition cannot be limited by gender based restrictions. Hence, the after dark hours have to be made safer for women.
The Walk threw up some demands and suggestions that the RMC should take to ensure safety for Raipur women and girls. Some of the pressing demands were for more clean and well maintained lavatories across the city and relocating alcohol shops from public places. This was important to ensure comfortable and safe mobility of women and girls. Other demands included safe transportation systems - pink buses or pink auto (these are women and girls only buses/autos driven and assisted by women), especially during the wee hours. The Mayor of the RMC, who was present to support the rally, assured the participants on taking action on the safe mobility issues.
The Walk brought together a lively group. The excitement was palpable, the streets reverberated with songs of liberation, freedom and dignity; and sloganeering and cheering for the cause. Excitement, enthusiasm and hope were evident. One of the participants, a young journalist Rashmi Drolia working for a national daily said that she was thrilled to be part of a march that was held solely to address the cause of women.
Similarly, a homemaker from a middle class family Harshna, stated that she was “Excited to see so many women, from different backgrounds, out on the streets so late at night. . By participating in the march, I have broken several bastions personally! ” ‘I am thrilled to be rallying on the street. This is something I have never dreamt of doing. But this is for a very important cause. I have a young daughter and I am concerned of her safety when she goes out, so I am here’ said Mukul, a father and a corporate employee. And so the women and girls marched, not against men, but along with them singing songs, chanting slogans, holding placards and demanding for their rights, proudly.
Those at the Walk marched with the hope that the mindset of our families would change; hope that the society will not indulge in name calling if we are on the streets late in the evening; hope that the state will guarantee our safety; and hope that men will be more sensitive towards women; hope of being equal and free as we enter a new era.
Written by Anu Verma, Programme Officer – Gender Justice, in Chhattisgarh at Oxfam India
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