Reethu, a story teller, a person often found between the pages of a book or contemplating the nuances of life.
In India, we wake up to horrifying incidents of crimes against women every day. While some of the brutal ones garner media attention, many not even get reported.
Almost on a regular basis, women go through some form of sexual harassment. With the prevalent normalisation of sexual harassment against women, issues like eve-teasing and groping are hardly ever reported. Often, women do not talk about these or are unaware of what to do about it.
According to the latest report by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), a total of 3,78,277 cases of crime against women were reported in India in 2018. Though the rate of filing charge sheets was 85.3% in rape cases, the conviction rate in such cases stood at a mere 27.2%.
With such an alarming number of cases, it comes as no surprise that women are fearful of stepping out on secluded areas, especially at night. Today, due to lack of safety, more and more women are staying away from public spaces that are rightfully theirs too.
Fighting this safety concern is a Bengaluru-based NGO, Durga India. In collaboration with Bengaluru Police, this NGO is helping women reclaim public spaces through their 'Be Together Bangalore' campaign.
The campaign was kick-started on February 24 by the former Deputy Commissioner of Police (DCP) of the South West division of the Bengaluru police, Isha Pant. Through this campaign that will be held until March 8(International Women's Day), women are encouraged to spend time in public spaces after dark.
For this, eight specific places have been identified where women feel unsafe and women have been asked to spend time in the evening - from 7 pm to 10 pm.
"Eight different places have been identified where women feel uncomfortable at night. The goal is to make these places safe. Come join us for a fortnight from 24/02 to 8/3 every evening from 7 pm to 10 pm," the then DCP had tweeted.
The spots include Silk board, Dairy circle, Koramangala BDA complex, Koramangala regional passport office, Madiwala market, Spurthy hospital Tavarekere, Grape garden Koramangala 6th block and Veera Yodhara Udhyanavana 4th block.
Durga is a citizen sector organisation that works toward creating gender equal spaces in India. At Durga, they believe that sexual harassment deterrence is of utmost importance and can be effective if addressed at the very initial instance.
"My safety is not just my responsibility. The community, space, the institution - wherever I am, everybody shares that responsibility. That is why Durga was born," says the founder of Durga India, Priya Varadarajan.
While Durga started its work around 2009 - 2010, it really took off after the brutal Nirbhaya rape case in Delhi, in 2012.
"After what happened in Delhi, I felt that I can't wait anymore," says Varadarajan.
Currently working in the Azim Premji Philanthropic Initiatives (APPI), the 42-year-old, Varadarajan, firmly believes that a place is safe only if more women occupy it.
"If safety is to be increased, the space has to be something that makes the person comfortable and feel safe to be in. As a woman, I will feel safer to go to a place only if the place has more women," she says.
To encourage a large number of women to occupy more and more spaces and to get the community to own the responsibility, as far as safety is concerned, is what lies at the heart of the campaign.
"Women should be able to do whatever we want to, whenever we want to, and however we want to. And today, in the space we are in, we are largely not able to, and one of the biggest hurdles to that is safety," says Varadarajan.
A discussion with Isha Pant, on ways to encourage women to occupy spaces and help them raise complaints, was what led to the inception of the Be Together campaign.
"Today, most women do not walk into police stations to file complaints. It was on this context that I went to have a discussion with Pant, to figure out how to encourage women to come and talk about violence or other issues they face, which otherwise we normalise and brush under the carpet," recalls Varadarajan.
With the help of the Police, Durga India has set up several complaint boxes across the city through which the women can share their grievances. Durga India then shares these with the police, who takes action.
In order to encourage women to reclaim public spaces, Durga India first identified places in the Southeast jurisdiction that women do not feel safe in. They conducted night audits as well and shared the details of each of the places with the Bengaluru police.
In collaboration with the BBMP, they also fixed lights, pavements and other infrastructure.
"Some places like the Silkboard junction also needed more police patrolling. Unless there is someone to see that things are fine, it is really unsafe. After women get down from buses, they are just public property - people touch you, grope you, pull you," says Varadarajan.
The two-week campaign also features music bands, women bikers, games, discussions on women issues, etc. to raise awareness on a number of women-centric issues.
For the last eight months, Durga India has also been working on another initiative called 'DARE'- Durgas Are Real Heroes Everywhere - through which they recognize responsible citizens who are keen to help a woman in distress.
"There are real heroes everywhere - someone who will actively intervene when someone else is facing an issue like sexual harassment on the streets. These 'DAREs' for us are people who occupy these spaces anyway - like the chaiwalas on the streets, the street vendors," says Varadarajan.
Durga India regularly interacts with these street vendors over 20 days and convert them into a person who takes responsibility for the safety of the women in that street.
The organisation also works with school and college students to address various issues.
"Our work is largely on equipping women and girls and even boys on addressing inappropriate behaviour, by first understanding that behaviour. We break down power, we talk about bullying, roles and stereotyping. And all of this is done through interesting games and theatre," says Varadarajan.
They also have 'voice labs' in colleges to encourage boys and girls to start having active conversations around gender. In the coming years, the organisation is planning to expand its work with DARES and work more with colleges.
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