The Breakthrough Voice 13th October, 2016

Safety on the way to school.

Breakthrough has been working on the issue of sexual harassment for the past two years. The issue has mainly been addressed and taken up during various training sessions. But, it was first programmatically tackled during the campaign “Board the Bus” in March 2014 which talked about making public transport safer for women and girls, by increasing the number of women and girls who use public transport.

In the last few years we have been increasingly reading about cases of sexual harassment and assault on girls/ young women enroute to their school or college or returning home. We conducted a survey across our 6 intervention states to access the situation around the issue of sexual harassment some time back. We asked young people (girls and boys) to share their experiences of sexual harassment through anonymous drop-boxes kept in schools and colleges. With physical activities happening across two states (UP and Karnataka) along with support in the digital space through our platform and social media handles, Breakthrough has used these tools to inform our work.

This was a tough survey for us as sexual harassment is a very personal matter and one generally associates it with only girls/ women. Since, we were going into educational institutions, we would be finding both boys & girls and young men and women who might have faced some form of sexual abuse at a given point in time. It was important for us to understand how we handle disclosure of cases. We had to find out which were some of the local referral organizations who could be approached for giving support to individuals who have faced violence and abuse, post their disclosure. Also while talking we might also get cases related to incest which are tougher to handle. We had to do a lot of preparations from our end.

One of the key highlight this survey threw up was that girls/ young women going to school were the most vulnerable and their journey to school/ college is where they face most harassment. This age group of girls/ young women do not report such incidences primarily because they fear being pulled out of the education system and feel they will be blamed for it. Once girls/ young women are out of school, parents want to get them married early since they see them as a burden. The girls/ young women are also not aware about what they can do in such a situation or whom they can approach. Boys/ young men on the other hand also do not have skills to deal with the such incidents and do not know whom to go to for help. Surprisingly most of the people interviewed did not even know what actions constitute sexual harassment.

We have been taking up this issue through our campaign #Askingforit and “Nation Against Early Marriage”. The key asks under these campaigns to make it safer for any girl/ young women to travel to their educational institution are:

  1. Better public transportation facility with increased frequency during school hours, designated space for girls to sit
  2. Better street lighting
  3. Better community support
  4. Better policing with easy access and response from helpline numbers

It is also stressed that no matter how good the public infrastructure is, safety of girls and women cannot be ensured unless and until the bystanders intervene when they see sexual harassment happening. Till, we do not change the mindset which justifies sexual harassment as being harmless and the “if I intervene I can be at risk” mindset, such incidences will not reduce.

Our aim is to shift the burden of ensuring her own safety from a girl / young women (which is the current scenario) to the environment and people who habitat this space, especially the by-standers. The by-standers can take collective action in case they fear any form of violence from the abuser, but being silent is not an option.

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