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Domestic violence cuts across all socio economic classes: Sonali Khan

Mar 11, 2016

To change deep-rooted norms, working with boys and men is essential, believes social activist Sonali Khan.

Sonali Khan

New Delhi: Sonali Khan, Country Director and Vice-President, Breakthrough, in a write-up shared with OneWorld South Asia, explains how violence is a continuous mechanism of control and has severe repercussion on the lives of women and girls. Breakthrough is Delhi based women's rights organization.

The complete narrative is as follows.

We were a small team in those days (2007) and had to run around doing end to end work on promoting our campaign against domestic violence, Bell bajao!. I used to show the television ads to explain the campaign before asking for a discount, and if possible, free support for marketing, event planning, airtime, all the good stuff we needed. They were never short meetings, as the ads opened up wounds that lead to lengthy discussions. Folks told me their stories, often of a friend or family member who was facing domestic violence (DV). I realized that we had something that might work to break the silence around the issue, and that everyone sees as personal. Bell bajao! went on to become a global campaign with iterations in countries like China, Peru, Uganda, and Pakistan.

Silence around DV are deafening. No one wants to publicly admit to it and likes to believe that only poor women in slums face it. One evening I was speaking in a drawing room where expensive paintings, the kind that make it to auctions hung. I had just finished talking about the stigma around domestic violence that prevents women from speaking up. A lady stood up and asked about what to do to get help. There was an uncomfortable silence in the room. My colleague Sunita Menon will tell you how only when she is leaving a session with upper class educated women that they will walk up to her with questions. Not one of them will speak up during the talk.

Domestic violence cuts across all socio economic classes. It is considered a private affair, so no one even comes to assist unless asked. Caught between this, women suffer for years. Then the question is asked “why does she not speak up?” Social stigma, family prestige, social conditioning, and acceptance of violence, all create a wall that is so difficult to break down. Even if there is a law, not many access it.

In any change process, the first step is to break the silence and then get people to take action. Breakthrough’s campaign Bell bajao!, challenged two key social norms. One, that domestic violence is a private matter, and second, that it is only a matter for women. It created a cross gender conversation and opened up a dialogue on how men can participate in a positive and proactive way in tackling DV.

Violence is never an end in itself, it is a mechanism of control and has severe repercussion on the lives of women and girls. For instance, when a woman steps out of her home, fear of harassment curtails when and where she can go. This limits the access to education, jobs, and even entertainment. To create an environment where women and girls feel safe and free needs one to tackle the larger acceptance of violence. “Boys will be boys” or “it’s okay for a man to be aggressive”, along with women being accused for “getting into trouble” creates a culture where violence is normalized.  What is accepted within the homes gets played out in public too.

To change deep-rooted norms, working with boys and men is essential, and creating an open dialogue at home should be the first step. Breakthrough’s attempt at doing this led to the creation of our campaign #ShareYourStory, where a mother talks to her son about her experience of harassment- a conversation that usually does not take place. This opened up a debate on Facebook and Twitter on what is harassment, and why it is not okay for men to think that women who go out are “easy”.

It has been a long journey of campaigning against social norms that make violence against women & girls acceptable. What we have learnt is that it is not about protecting women, but about ensuring a life free of violence. What we need to work towards, is creating a world where women and girls have equal access to rights without discrimination of any kind.

Sonali Khan is featured in the third edition of Vodafone Foundation’s Book Women of Pure Wonder.

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