This post is part of a series in support of the United Nation’s “16 Days of Activism” campaign to end violence against women. Now through December 10, we’ll be sharing stories from women around the world as they work to eliminate violence against women internationally.
Trigger warning: This post contains mention of rape and domestic violence. Some names have been changed for privacy reasons. It is disheartening to skim the newspaper and read titles like “Rape cases rise: 462 registered in five months” and “Madhya Pradesh tops rape list: 12 cases every day.” Unfortunately, articles about violence against women and girls are not hard to come by, as I counted 11 headlines spanning just two days in The Times of India.
While traveling in India and reading articles or listening to televised news, I learned that incidents of violence against women and girls were far from isolated. At times, it felt like every other story pertained to violence against women and girls, whether it was the rape and hanging of the two Baduan sisters or the Meghalaya militants who killed a mother of five for resisting rape.
Before further describing my experiences, I should note my limited perspective. I am writing as a white woman from the United States who spent five weeks traveling in India. I believe it is best to learn about violence against women in India from Indian women, and I will do my best to highlight the stories of women I met and share their experiences. Additionally, I remind myself that violence against women and girls is a present problem that nearly every country is working to address. Though there is a horrific amount of violence against women in India, it is important to resist the single narrative. In her recent TED talk, Chimamanda Adichie explains that cultures are composed of multiple stories. A single narrative about a culture or a people quickly leads to a narrow-minded ignorance. Since the Delhi gang rape case of 2012 and the necessary media attention that followed, violence against women in India has, in some ways, become a single narrative. I do not wish to downplay the gravity of the problem; however, it is important for outsiders, like myself, to learn about India’s culture beyond what is seen or read on mainstream media sites.
While in India, there were times I felt threatened because of aggressive stares and the lack of women in public spaces. It was not uncommon to see only a handful of women in crowded streets or markets; I quickly began to prefer traveling with small groups. On one trip to the market, I asked Deepa, a sister in my host family, to accompany me. After passing a newspaper stand displaying headlines about a recent rape, Deepa shared a personal story.
She talked about a friend from childhood who was recently married. The marriage was arranged and Deepa’s friend did not meet her husband prior to the wedding. Deepa experienced a similar arranged marriage and spoke very highly of her relationship with her husband. However, she said her friend was having a very different experience. Her friend’s husband was both physically and emotionally abusive. There were long periods of time her friend was not allowed to leave the house or see anyone aside from her husband. Deepa explained that her friend told very few people about the intimate partner violence within her home. I learned that intimate partner violence is commonly referred to as private violence in India because of the shame attached to disclosure. Deepa explained that her friend normalized the violence and did not consider divorce as an option because she did not want to leave her husband. Finally, Deepa expressed personal guilt because her friend only told a few people.
While I hope to avoid generalizations, as this is one example of intimate partner violence, continued conversations with Deepa and human rights activist in India point to larger themes in this specific case, especially normalizing violence, isolation, and fear of divorce. While in India I also had the opportunity to interview several organizations working to stop violence against women. I learned a lot from each of these interviews with incredibly passionate leaders, but I was most interested in the work of Breakthrough, particularly after conversations with Deepa and reading “Behind Closed Doors: Domestic Violence in India” by Rinki Bhattacharya.
Breakthrough is a global human rights organization working to make all forms of discrimination and violence against women and girls unacceptable. Breakthrough works to transform the norms and attitudes towards women that cause, justify, or excuse violence. Seeking to address the root causes of the problem, Breakthrough uses mass media campaigns and community-based trainings to start social change movements within communities. The most popular and widely spread campaign to date is called Ring the Bell, or Bell Bajao in Hindi. The campaign began in India in 2009 and focused on domestic violence. Bell Bajao inspires men and women to take action and work to change the existing culture.
The widespread campaign sought to integrate media, organizing, and community-based strategies to bring the problem of domestic violence into the public discourse. The campaigns, displayed on television, radio, advertisements, and online, ask people to interrupt overheard domestic violence to make the “private” public and the “acceptable” unacceptable. By asking audiences to literally and metaphorically “ring the bell,” these campaigns give concrete actions that individuals and communities can take to stop domestic violence.
Additionally, the campaign involved community-based approaches to localize the solution. While each component contributed to Bell Bajao’s positive impact, incorporating both social media and community-based approaches created a distinguishable campaign for social change in India.