In Focus 25th July, 2016

Be my safe space.

It’s an exciting day for us here at Breakthrough as we launch our #StandWithMe, Be my safe space campaign. This campaign will go on till the month of September and will be a mix of both on-ground and online activities. As we begin, we thought it would be a great idea to share with you how this campaign acquired its current form and what we plan to do over the next two months. So, here we go!

What this campaign aims to fight is sexual harassment through the creation of gender inclusive safer spaces. And the stance this campaign is assuming is that if there are gender inclusive safer spaces available to individuals and communities, instances of sexual harassment will decrease.

Before we proceed any further, let’s also understand what the string of words – ‘gender inclusive safer space’ means. For us, gender inclusive means that we do not understand gender as a binary (man-woman) rather as a spectrum and thus through this campaign we are addressing all the genders people identify with and how it is integral for spaces to be inclusive of them too. Secondly, we acknowledge that no space can be absolutely safe and thus, choose to use the word safer.

But what is a safe space? Or a safer space? When we say safe space in the context of this campaign, we are moving beyond a physical understanding of a space. We are saying that if two people are having a conversation and a person can speak freely, willingly without any fear of judgment or threat, then the space the two individuals are sharing is a safe space. Another example would be being able to surf a space like the Internet without the fear of being bullied, trolled etc.

A safe space is an idea, an idea of a space which is marked by empathy and open conversations. Let’s face it. Sexual harassment is not just a law and order problem. The foundation of the problem is the social structure which shames certain groups of people, certain acts, and certain ideas and thus in turn is exploitative and oppressive.

This campaign is a result of a survey we conducted with youth between the age group of 13-23 years, who also happen to be our primary target group. They were asked several questions to understand what gender inclusive safer spaces meant to them and their responses gave us the five issues we will be discussing at length. These include – Inter generational dialogue, Safety, Stigma, Consent, Segregation. So, basically what we are trying to advocate for is that if a space is marked by inter-generational dialogue, consent, safety, desegregation and is free of stigma, then it is a gender inclusive safer space.

What do we mean by each one of these terms? Let us begin with inter-generational dialogue which also happens to be the theme we are discussing during the first week. There is a certain lack of trust between the youth and their parents, teachers or even adults who are in a position of authority such as doctors, police etc. This lack of trust stems from the fear of being judged, being punished for indulging in acts which are not ‘approved’ by them. Very often, parents/teachers shy away from discussing topics such as sex, sexuality, periods etc. and this lack of information can also be very misleading for the youth. The impact of this lack of trust is the lack of a support system during times such as when an individual faces sexual harassment as the person concerned does not feel safe enough to share his/her experience and feelings.

Next, we come to safety. This is a conversation we are really looking forward to as we are not only discussing on- ground safety but online safety. Another aspect of our campaign is that it identifies three spaces – online spaces, educational institutions, public transport as spaces our target group (13-23 years) inhabits the most. Thus, online safety is integral to our campaign. All of us spend a lot of time on the Internet, especially the group we are targeting through this campaign (13-23 years). The virtual world offers us a universe of possibilities, but it also at some levels is another manifestation of our social lives. As a result, harassment in its various forms is commonplace on the Internet and it has become essential for us to have more and more conversations to counter this.

The third theme we will be exploring is stigma. Also, at this point we would like to make a disclaimer that we realize and acknowledge that we cannot speak of these themes separately in isolation. One cannot talk about safety without talking about stigma and the same holds true for others. However, just as an exercise to direct our conversations we will focus on one theme, but the focus would not mean the connections will be negated. Getting back! A conversation around stigma would involve exploring the several layers of shame or backlash that comes our way if we choose to talk about certain issues, or dress a certain way in a certain setting amongst several other examples. We hope to question these ‘social norms’ which marginalize people and their experiences if they don’t conform.

‘Yes’ and ‘No’ are two words which form a part of almost all our vocabularies in different languages. However, at some point along the way, the meanings they hold got distorted. Someone’s yes was taken for granted. Someone’s yes was understood be implicit. And someone’s no was viewed as a threat. Taking off from this crude example what we want to bring out is the understanding of consent and just how essential it is for a space to be safe. Consent matters between partners in a relationship, consent matters between parents and their children, consent matters in any interpersonal relationship. Being consensual is the bedrock of admitting that a fellow human being can exercise agency and has the right to make decisions, choice etc.

One of our areas of focus would also be intimate partner relationships where we will explore how all these aspects such as inter-generational dialogue, stigma, consent etc. play out. Lastly, we hope to engage all of you in a conversation around segregation. All girls, all boys institutions, separate train/metro compartments for men and women are a few examples which display segregation. We are at no point saying that these are not needed. We realize that segregation also emerges out of a context but we also believe that it is not a long term solution. Further, segregation also translates into discriminatory gender roles, norms etc.

As we begin the campaign, we are certain of the one change we envision. We seek to initiate, engage in and sustain as many conversation we can. We want to demonstrate what safer spaces look like. We want to get conversations going. We want to do so by bringing to the surface as many personal stories as we can. And we want all of this to enable each one of us to be the safe space we all seek.

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