Mumbai-based Akshara is increasingly involving students, including male students, to stand up against gender violence and change mind-sets on the issue.

“I gained so much confidence when I participated in a campaign to end violence against women. I learnt to speak up against the fear that women have about violence and to argue against the indifference of society,” says a forthright Vaibhavi Tankheda, talking about student involvement in an ongoing campaign on gender violence in Mumbai.

The campaign, part of myriad programmes initiated by the Mumbai-based NGO Akshara, is the Indian leg of the international One Billion Rising (OBR) campaign to end violence against women. The movement, spearheaded by award-winning playwright Eve Ensler to raise awareness about gender violence, invites one billion women and those who love them to walk out, dance, rise up and demand an end to violence on V-day’s 15th anniversary on February 14 next year.

“For the last 14 years, we have been doing a number of programmes to campaign against gender violence, so the ‘One Billion Rising’ campaign is a logical extension of our work,” says Vinita Balekundri, programme manager with Akshara.

Now, Akshara has joined hands with the International Association of Women in Radio and Television (IAWRT) to use the powerful medium of cinema for the OBR campaign in India. ‘Our lives…to live’, a film festival screening around 90 films and spread over five cities will be launched in month, informs festival curator Smriti Nevatia.

A little less than half of India’s 1.2 billion people are women and the gender violence they face has several dimensions, including domestic violence, sexual assault, displacement, forced migration, malnutrition and so on. The film festival will explore these aspects with discussions and debates around a host of themes: Our bodies, our rights; States of mind, Whose culture is it anyway?; Forced marriage and compulsory heteronormativity, Who else faces gender discrimination?; Sexual harassment, assault, rape; Questioning our privileges; Who's afraid of the F-word; Globalisation and "development imperatives" and women in conflict zones.

The festival will look at human stories of violence through the lens of different cultures, says Ms. Nevatia, a text editor, film researcher and writer who has brought together documentaries, short fiction and full-length feature films for this event. In some films, she says, gender violence may not be on the foreground (for instance, a film on manual scavengers) but they will nevertheless bring in the dimensions of caste-based occupations and sexual harassment at the workplace and the inherent violence experienced by people.

So there will be films like How Green Was Our Valley by Iranian film-maker Fereshteh Joghataei; Hindi feature film Bhumika; the Academy Award-winning documentary by Pakistani filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy Saving Face on survivors of acid attacks; Fighting the Silence: Sexual Violence Against Women in the Congo, a multiple award winner that goes into the hearts and minds of rape survivors (more than 80,000 women and girls were raped in the seven-year war in Congo and their families have come together to demand justice) and Orchid: My Intersex Adventure, another award-winning documentary that traces Australian filmmaker Phoebe Hart's voyage of self-discovery as an intersex person.

The best part, according to Ms. Nevatia, is that through the festival, the OBR campaign will be reaching out to the vast student community. Akshara’s ‘violence against women’ campaign has been working with college students for the last 14 years. to gain an entry point with youth. The organisation’s ‘Youth for Change’ programme mobilises students of undergraduate colleges through the National Service Scheme (NSS) and has made use of street plays against sexual harassment, leafleting and poster campaign to popularise a helpline for women in distress, a ceeti bajao (blow the whistle) community-level campaign and a ‘Zero Tolerance to Sexual Harassment’ campaign.

Male students have been particularly targeted, in the hope that intensive work with them will help change their mindset. “Earlier, we used to talk only to the women, but when we began speaking to the boys, we found that their responses were very valuable,” elaborates Ms. Balekundri.

The ‘gender justice and women’s empowerment programme’, which includes an orientation program and a residential camp, discusses their perspectives on issues like gender, relationships, sexuality, patriarchy and masculinity. The one Akshara initiative that has been most effective is the launch of the ‘103’ helpline, a dedicated number which citizens can dial to report any kind of gender violence. “The police vans do respond within 20 minutes and most people have heard of the number,” says Ms. Balekundri.

Another ambitious programme is the safety audits of different areas that map poorly lit roads, skywalks, deserted streets and beach stretches where women are vulnerable. Being conducted in around 10 colleges in Mumbai, students have been taught to observe a particular area in the morning rush hour and then after dark. They talk to local residents and make a note of problems like poor lighting or deserted stretches. A report is submitted to the municipal ward officer and ‘actionable’ cases are then dealt with.

But does the mindset of students change after being involved in such campaigns? “Yes, absolutely,” says 19-year-old Ravikumar Jaiswal, a second-year commerce student at R.J. College in Ghatkopar. He recalls that his friends would earlier protest if he raised topics related to the campaign with them. “They used to tell me ‘Don’t pakau (bore) us’. But now, they get involved and ask questions,” he says.

Aditya Sawant, a student of Kirti College, described a similar experience with his friends. In his own home, however, he has noticed a change in the way family members speak of women who suffer violence. Earlier they used to be dismissive but now they admit it is wrong and must be stopped.

Kirti College’s Priyanka Kamble, meanwhile, lays an emphasis on women coming together to fight gender violence. In her family, too, the general response at first was lukewarm, but now their reactions to the campaign issues she has been raising is much more positive.

The final word comes from Santosh Wayangankar, 19, an enthusiastic college student. He says with a rare wisdom, “We take one step forward, then another, and another…and slowly, we will be able to reach out with our message to end violence against women. But if think the task is too huge and don’t take that first step at all, we’ll never get anywhere.”

(Women's Feature Service)