Why I joined the fight for Gender Equality

Why I joined the fight for Gender Equality

As an Engineering graduate making a shift in the development sector, the new found exposure has been a life-changing one for me to the extent even making me regret over not making this shift early in my life. Initially, my awareness about the social development sector was quite elementary-‘Group of people who are involved in social welfare related work’. I was oblivious about the whole professional side of the sector.

To be honest during my initial phase of engagement in the sector, I was pessimistic about the social change that the development sector strives to bring. When I joined the sector, I was carrying the baggage of pessimistic thoughts in my head. ‘People won’t change, it’s a dog-eat-dog world’ were some of the thoughts that kept on resonating in my head. My cynicism stems from the preconceived notions that got framed by the encountering of barbaric, anti-social incidents (Cat-calling, dowry-deaths, rape, murder and what not!!) that have unfortunately became part of our wonted life. Somehow all of these factors compels us towards focusing on the negative aspects of the society & filled us with utter disbelief, hate, misconceptions.

Like every individuals’ journey. I too had my share of crest & trough moments. Initially, I received much flak from family members, friends and acquaintances regarding my choice of career with some terming it as career suicide. Unperturbed by the peer pressure, there was an inner belief that kept me assuring that I had made the right choice. My decision got further validation during my first field visit to our area of intervention for Sonia’s (one of the survivor) casework. Our team from Astitva met Sonia & her family members. She shared the gruesome details of her verbal, physical abuse with us. The brutal details left us teary-eyed & shook us to the core. As part of our routine work, Astitva’s team provided counselling, legal support to her. The discussion with her was the turning-point for me. It cemented my decision to pursue my career & render my services in the sector.

One wouldn’t argue about the importance of a mentor in a person’s life. Being naïve in the development sector, it was the rich experience of Mrs. Rehana Adeeb, Director of Astitva Samajik Sansthan covering three-decades working at grass-root level that provided me the much required valuable guidance & knowledge that every pupil seeks.

Astitva, a not-for-profit organisation was established in year 2005 by her & since then has been working on issues of gender in 62 villages of district Muzaffarnagar. Its efforts are towards uplifting of marginalized communities- Dalits, Muslims, in order to bring communal brotherhood in the villages. Working with village communities on issues of women, youth & children’s education, safety & dignity also falls under the working domain of organization.

Astitva has done advocacy for case works, formed women pressure groups and trained them about their constitutional rights, aspects of law pertaining to them. In many cases we got success against local police-station in court cases. One such important case was “Imrana Rape case” of 2005. The case stirred the hornet's nest in the socio-political ambience of the area. The Imrana rape case is the case of the sexual assault of a Muslim woman by her father-in-law in 2005 in Charthawal village of district Muzaffarnagar. What followed only made the situation of Imrana worsen. Soon after she was raped, a local village Panchayat (council of elders) asked her to treat her husband as her son and declared her marriage null and void as the Sharia law regards sexual relations with both the father and son as incestuous. This sparked nationwide controversy with the case garnering undiluted media attention with debates pertaining to the case making to prime-time news-room debates. It also raked up volatile issues like-Uniform civil code, Unconstitutional rulings of caste Panchayats and Sharia law.

Such unfair and medieval rulings by caste Panchayats are common in western UP. Desolated Imrana reached out to Astitva. Upon discovering about the unfortunate incident & the on-going media & community trials faced by Imrana, Mrs. Rehana extended her full support to her. She helped her file an F.I.R against the tainted father-in-law, followed by shifting Imrana to a safe shelter home since Imrana was receiving backlash from her in-laws family, community in the form of threats of death & societal ostracization. Even attempts were made to abduct both Rehana & Imrana while on their way to court to produce testimony. As the saying goes, “The Wheels of justice turn slowly but grind exceedingly fine”, eventually Imrana got the much deserved Justice with the court directing the culprit father-in-law to jail along with providing monetary compensation to her.

 It was not only the triumph of Imrana but also for all oppressed community women. The other positive outcome that the case yielded is that it started a ‘domino-effect’ among community women who too were facing the similar crisis. Soon after the Imrana Case came into light, many women from the communities shared their stories of violence with Rehana.

Like all grass-root level organizations, Astitva too was struggling with the issue of funding support before Oxfam’s intervention in the form of “Creating Spaces” (C.S)project. Through engagement with Oxfam India, Astitva has been able to further the efforts to curb VAWG in UP in a substantive way. The project Creating Spaces has opened up new avenues to work with men and boys on social norms. Although Astitva has prior experience of working with women on the issues of gender but the engagement with men and boys on these issues as done under the C.S project is unprecedented.

During the course of work so far under the C.S project, we were able to bring community members as role models through our engagement with them. Violence & Child Early and Forced Marriage CEFM survivors were linked with livelihood opportunities under the program, thus strengthening their leadership and decision making skills Oxfam believes in hand-holding of partner organization & gives strong emphasize on capacity building of its associate members. As resources are limited, its overall aim is to push the partner organization to create self-sustainable goals so that even in absence of resources, the objective of bringing change in social norms doesn’t get affected.

Irrespective of the harsh situation, it is the positivity, hope of a better future that can help us advance towards a safer, conducive, violence free society. Persistence & Patience can break the greatest of obstacles. With a motivated, positive mindset we will continue making ‘ripples of change’ in the social narrative. Surely, change in social norms, mindset doesn’t happen overnight, it requires commitment, perseverance, regular engagement but so is the case with any kind of change that one wishes to work towards. Our self-motivated staff members with their experience & skills are ready to tackle hardships, problems and are leaving no stone unturned in reaching the overall objective of the program. I consider myself fortunate to have the platform of Astitva & be able to use the resources available from Oxfam to act as a facilitator in bringing change in the unfortunate social narrative in our area of intervention.

By Asim Rais

The author is  a Project Coordinator for Creating Spaces, Astitva Samajik Sangathan, Uttar Pradesh

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