Delhi Police give refugee women lessons in personal security

It is a nondescript room on the ground floor of a rundown building in India’s Capital city. The lane winds its way deep inside the depths of West Delhi. The majority of refugees from Myanmar live in this corner of the city.

“Hyaaah!” a loud shout emanates from the room. “Now, attack!” says a young policewoman. The women, all refugees from Myanmar, get into position. A grab and a lunge from behind, hand on their partners’ throat and waist. “Defend!”, a deft turn, kick and they break free from their attacker’s hold, pushing with force the hands that grip their throats.

This group of 30 refugee women goes through the drill with enthusiasm. They are being trained by the Crime Against Women Cell of the Delhi Police and this is part of a training programme organised by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and its partner, the Socio-Legal Information Centre.

The issue of personal security is important for these women who have already gone through the trauma of displacement. “I want to protect myself,” says Ngun, a 50-year-old widow from Myanmar. “I have heard that Delhi is a dangerous place for women and refugee women are very vulnerable,” she adds.

The suppressed anger in the women becomes evident as they go through the training. Every move is hard fought – it is as if their frustrations are being played out through their actions and their unknown tormenters are being punished.

Delhi has the highest rate of crimes against women in India. Sexual harassment on public transport and random attacks in isolated parks are often witnessed. For many refugee women, it is a learning process to understand where the dangers lurk. Taking a short cut through a park after a long day’s work seems the most natural thing to do. In the villages they came from, this was not an unsafe option. But in Delhi, many of the molestations and attacks have happened in badly-lit isolated areas.

Another risky place is the weekly night market. The vegetables are cheaper the later it gets, refugees often visit markets at closing time – sometimes as late as midnight. There have been many instances of harassment, even pitched fights, as refugee men take on local men who harass the women from their community.

Hnem, 54, is a feisty woman who lives alone in Delhi. For her, the self-defence classes have helped her gain self-confidence. Hnem with determination writ large on her face says, “If someone touches me at the night market, I can fight back. I feel more confident now.”

The policewomen conducting the training are constables who are trained in self-defence techniques. They have conducted events like this in colleges and schools before but for the first time they are conducting for refugee women. “There are challenges,” says instructor Sunitha (26). “They want to learn and they are learning well. But language is a problem. It takes a while for them to understand,” she adds.

Everything takes twice as long because the classes are in Hindi and there is an interpreter. Sunitha is confident of the final outcome. “I know they will be able to do it, and I feel happy to be able to help,” she adds. UNHCR places a lot of emphasis on refugees learning the local language – in this case, Hindi. Free classes in the language are offered to refugees and asylum seekers – children and adults at various outreach centres in the city. Everyone is encouraged to learn because without being able to communicate in the local language, even asking for help becomes difficult.

Trainer police constable Sharada (26) points out that a ten-day session can work wonders. “After 10 days, the confidence of these women increases a great deal,” she says. The Delhi Police training team has also gained from this experience. They feel they will now be able to handle better similar training sessions that are to be conducted with other refugee groups in the city.

For these refugee women, the training represents a turning point in their lives. Years after their flight from the dangers back home, they are now ready to stand and fight back.

(The writer is an Associate External Relations Officer with UNHCR, India.)

(Women's Feature Service)