kNOw Fear: Making rural public spaces safer for women and girls

Sexual violence against women and girls in rural India remains a largely unaddressed, hidden issue.

Big pink stickers point the way to the women’s only car in the Delhi subway. “This taxi respects women” decals adorn cabs in the city’s snarled traffic. These are outward signs of the potent advocacy pushing governments, like Delhi’s, to make public spaces and transportation in India’s cities safer for women and girls.   

Venture into rural areas and it’s a different story. No pink stickers, no decals, no slogans. Sexual violence against women and girls in rural India remains a largely unaddressed, hidden issue.  

Four hundred and five million women and girls live in India’s rural communities. Ignoring their safety concerns would mean, “Women and girls in rural areas will be left far behind, and that will be a big drag on the economy,” says Poonam Kathuria, director of the Society for Women’s Action Initiative (SWATI).

The fear of sexual violence limits the mobility and inhibits the development of women and girls. To keep them safe, they are “pushed” into the home, Kathuria states. As a result, “girls have limited access to resources and opportunities, which further restricts their access to education and the external world.”

A model for rural change

India’s Gujarat state is home to a comprehensive strategy to mobilize rural women and men to address sexual violence and safety in their villages. Funded by IDRC, it combines the unique strengths of three Indian organizations: 

  • The International Centre for Research on Women (ICRW) conducts research on gender to promote evidence-based policymaking and programs.  
  • The Society for Women’s Action Initiative (SWATI) builds women’s leadership and engages men and boys to end violence against women, especially in Gujarat.   
  • SETU Abhiyan works with local governments to improve transparency and responsiveness.  

Together, they call their pilot project “kNOw Fear”.

The kNOw Fear model is being tested in 16 villages. A baseline study by ICRW captured women’s and men’s perceptions of safety. It documented the nature of sexual violence and its impact on the lives of women and girls. The kNOw Fear team used this knowledge to shape activities in 11 of their intervention villages (five villages will receive no intervention support because they will serve as a comparison when a post-pilot study evaluates the intervention’s effectiveness).  

Leveraging India’s constitution

Poonam Kathuria’s 17 years of experience as a women’s rights advocate is evident as she addresses a community centre of women and girls in the village of Sedla, Gujarat. Her audience, dressed in brightly coloured saris, is all ears and smiles. This is one of the 4,000 collectives that SWATI has organized. Working through collectives like this one, Poonam and the kNOw Fear team are helping women and girls become agents of change in their own villages. 

The focal points of that change are local elected bodies, called gram panchayats. The kNOw Fear strategy leverages constitutional reforms introduced by the Indian government in 1992, which reserve up to one third of all seats on panchayats for women. However, providing a means to access political power has not translated into women exercising that power. The reasons are many, among them is a lack of awareness by women and girls of their rights as citizens. Even where women are panchayat members, they are often proxies for their husbands’ concerns.

The kNOw Fear team builds the capacity of village collectives by teaching members about their rights. They show them how to conduct village safety audits, how to use smartphones and tablets to gather evidence, and they support women and girls in framing their demands and monitoring the results. 

Armed with the evidence they collect, women raise their concerns at bi-annual public meetings called mahila gran sabhas. The gatherings are public forums where women can hold panchayat members accountable for addressing their safety. 

The same 1992 reforms to improve women’s political participation also broadened the role of panchayats to include social justice and equitable development. To date, panchayats have largely neglected this role, considering sexual violence and safety issues as private matters and the responsibility of women and their families. In workshops and meetings with panchayats, the kNOw Fear team deepens members’ understanding of their role in addressing women’s safety concerns.

This multi-pronged approach to change has had some success. In one of the pilot villages, the lack of safe transportation to a high school in a neighbouring village stopped many girls from pursuing education beyond elementary grades. Faced with limited options for their daughters’ education, village women organized and effectively lobbied their panchayat. A government bus now delivers the girls to school in the morning and brings them home safely. 

The village bus is a marker in a longer term strategy to address deep seated cultural and gender norms that underpin the safety of women and girls. The kNOw Fear team is laying the groundwork for generational change by working with village youth to challenge conventions that favour boys over girls. They call these groups of youthful champions “infomediaries”.

A focus on youth

To address this imbalance in power, the kNOw Fear team is including young men, like Anand Pandya, Rakesh Parmar, and Jayesh Gavaniya, as part of the solution. Working as “infomediaries”, they create awareness within their communities, advocate for political change, and monitor public spaces for safety concerns.

Pushpa Rathore knows the change she wants to see. “We have to ensure women are safe when they step out, but they also have to be freed from home. If mothers stuck at home doing housework can get out, so will daughters,” she states.

The 19 year-old infomediary describes herself as “fearless”, unafraid of walking around her village, even at night. Her parents, she says, “support my independence.” 

This is not the case for some of her friends, whose mobility, even access to mobile phones, is curtailed by their parents to safeguard the family reputation. This parental concern masks a common belief — that women and girls are somehow to blame for the harassment and violence they experience. It also hides the men and boys who misuse their power and place in society to commit the violence women and girls endure.

Reshaping public policy

The kNOw Fear pilot is the first model to examine the safety of public spaces in India’s rural communities. Results will help define the scope of the problem and shape interventions.

One thing is clear, however, rural women are frustrated with the status quo. It’s a frustration Poonam Kathuria has seen harden over the years.

“Women are now resentful of their situations,” she states. “Earlier I saw acceptance, I saw a sense of resignation. Today I see a determination to get out of it, and that is coming from a sense of resentment because women are aware of what they are missing out on.”

Like their urban sisters, rural women are finding their voice and demanding change. 

Published: 07 Aug 2019

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