Multi-faceted Suraiya Baluch says gender violence must be seen as a human rights issue
Psychologist, psychotherapist, teacher, educator, campus consultant and policy-maker on gender issues — Suraiya Baluch practises a brand of activism that is quiet and sharply-targeted. Her advocacy in prevention of violence against women is done on college campuses. As director of Princeton University's Sexual Harassment / Assault Advising, Resources and Education (SHARE), and board member of Take Back That Night Foundation (TBTN), she works on both sides of gender violence — counselling those that have suffered physical and emotional abuse while helping to establish policies and procedures to prevent them.
In Chennai at the invitation of the U.S. Consulate General for the ‘16 days of activism against gender violence' campaign, Dr. Baluch specialises in how belief in gender role and cultural norms influence attitudes towards women abuse in South Asian American women.
Isn't her work daunting? “Trying to work with institutions can be difficult,” she agrees. “Educated people don't want to be educated about the need to make a difference in women's lives.” Getting help might not be easy. “Sometimes institutions are structured, and the law may work against us.” And yes, we are resilient and that works against us too.
The cycle of violence
She talks to the students about the cycle of violence, what campus resources can do; how to help a friend in a violent relationship. “There are experiential activities for awareness,” she says. “It's a simulation of a typical community. Thirteen stations in a room represent agencies such as the police station, and shelter and family / friends. You assume a victim's role, and navigate the ‘system' to find help.”
If that's difficult, domestic violence comes shrouded in philosophy. When she's abused, “the community views it as ‘her choice'. We need to assess the safety of the woman in that situation. She should have a safety plan, know about property laws. When the advice is ‘just leave', where will she go, what if she's pregnant, what if he has a weapon? You need to strategise carefully”.
TBNT, she believes, is the way to go. “In March 1978, in Mumbai, a pregnant woman was gang-raped. This is the first documented happening for TBTN movement, which soon went worldwide.” It is a vibrant grassroots movement with a one-point demand — that the women's environment be made safe.
“When women are asked to be careful, not go out at night, their freedom of movement is curtailed,” she says. “Freedom to move is a pre-condition for everything else, and education and laws are not useful without it.”
Men may define it as teasing or joking, but traumatised women have quit college, she says. A third of the women students admit to being harassed / abused, but very few file reports. “We need to change the culture that says good women accept fate. It puts us in a subservient position.” She wants people working together. “Boys should be taught to think it's a privilege to intervene when a woman is being harassed. Men have to be allies in this project, educating other men.”
In classrooms, she builds awareness around the alarming statistics of gender violence on campuses. “I ask students to tell their stories. We publish those stories, to change attitudes.” Whether it's Internet / SMS pornography, drugging, date rape or abuse under a religious / cultural cloak, her verdict is clear: civil law prevails.
Home isn't safe, neither is the street, campus or workplace. What do we tell women? “Everyone has a right to be safe, not terrorised inside or outside the home.” Will attitudes ever change? “Attitudes are an individual thing,” she says. “We must see this as a human rights issue. Safety is a right. An abused / harassed woman is a victim, not someone who deserves it.”