August 27, 2015

The Call We Didn't Expect

by Ria Vaidya '16

Ria is a 2015 Social Innovation Fellow. She is the co-founder of No Country for Women, an internationally-recognized gender education initiative that aims to combat systemic gender-based discrimination in India.

“H-Hello? No Country for Women?” came a shaky voice on speaker phone.

“Yes,” said Shreena. The monsoon rains had left us both cranky and I was anxious to sleep. It was almost 11 pm. I rolled my eyes at her and whispered, “Dude. Why did you answer that?”

 “H-Hi. I am speaking from Bhubaneswar. I am 19 years old, college student. I need your help please.”

Shreena and I founded No Country for Women a little over a year ago in Bangalore. What started out as a humble summer project began to gain traction and grew steadily into its current state: a social venture that has provided gender education workshops in more than 45 educational institutions in India. NCFW’s work is largely preventive: we want to use education to tackle cultural attitudes which trivialize, sanction and perpetuate gender-based violence. We want to help students understand gender as a social construct, and equip them with some of the skills necessary to navigate the heavily gendered Indian society.

All of this is in the hopes that, one person at a time, mindsets will change and there will be a shift in cultural norms. Discrimination and sexual violence will become a thing of the past.   

As one might imagine, the phone calls we normally receive are from excited high school students or administrators who want us to deliver workshops for them. This was not one of those phone calls.

 “Yes, how can we help you?”

All I could hear was sounds of erratic breathing. Shreena and I exchanged uncomfortable glances.

Finally, we heard: “I just want to tell you something, please.”

Neither Shreena nor I were emotionally prepared at the time to hear this woman’s story. My heart sunk as she narrated to us the details of her brutally violent history of sexual abuse.

“Can you help me?” she asked.

I choked softly on my flimsy words of comfort. We weren’t a helpline. But how were we supposed to cut this woman off, explain to her that we only educated people about sexual abuse, and didn’t actually help women who had suffered from it? How can we claim to make a difference if someone like her calls us and we just turn her away? We frantically tried searching online for resources she could use – helplines, shelters, anything. However, it became pretty clear that we weren’t equipped to help her – she knew it, I knew it, Shreena knew it. She was calling from a small city in a part of India 1,500 km away from us, where gender-based discrimination and violence is quite normalized and prevalent, and there was very little infrastructure in place to help women in her position.

“This has been happening to me for 12 years. No one here will believe me or listen to my story. There is nowhere for me to go,” she said after an hour-long conversation. “Thank you for listening and for believing me.”

Working in sexual violence prevention in India at times feels like a mission far-detached from reality. Too often, I hear comments such as, “Nice work, but you’re not really going to change anything. You should use your resources to make a women’s shelter instead.”

It does feels strange to put so much effort in changing the future when so much is at stake now. I’ll never know for sure, but maybe, just maybe, the work I’m doing now will prevent a case like this woman’s from occurring in a generation or two.


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