On a sweltering afternoon in the middle of India’s devastating second wave of coronavirus, Megha Kumari, 18, heard the screams of a neighbour.

A man was beating his wife in a house adjacent to Kumari’s home in Sangam Vihar, a suburb in South Delhi.

“The husband was unsatisfied with the taste of the meal,” Kumari says.

Kumari entered the woman’s house and confronted the man. Kumari says he told her the abuse was a “private matter” and she was making the situation worse by getting involved.

But Kumari says her intervention emboldened the man’s wife to warn her husband of legal repercussions if he assaulted her again.

Kumari is part of Dakhal Do, a bystander intervention campaign run by Breakthrough India, a women’s rights organisation.

Bystander intervention programmes are used around the world to prevent violence and harassment, often targeting gendered or sexual abuse. Ordinary people are encouraged to either create a distraction to interrupt the incident, delegate to an outsider to help, or directly intervene in the situation themselves to call out the perpetrator.

Breakthrough launched Dakhal Do in Sangam Vihar in September 2020, when community leaders noticed an increase in domestic violence cases and the vulnerability of young girls to early marriage in their community.

As in many countries, intimate partner violence is a common reality in India, one which has only gotten worse during the pandemic. Domestic violence reports spiked in 2020 compared to 2019, according to the National Commission for Women, particularly during the country’s first lockdown.

“The situation in the community was bad, and domestic violence cases were on the rise,” says Nirmala Singh, a Breakthrough official who looks after the implementation of Dakhal Do in Sangam Vihar.

With everyone stuck at home due to pandemic restrictions, it became impossible for some women to report incidents of intimate partner violence via helplines, because they could not find a private moment in which to do so. Nor was it easy to seek support from institutions outside the home. 

The bystander intervention campaign was designed to fill this gap, Sohini Bhattacharya, the president of Breakthrough India, says.

“Women were home and there was no letting off house work. All this exacerbated into great mental pressure, physical harm and even abuse within families,” Bhattacharya says.

Today, Kumari is one of 31 young people in her community who have been trained to take action to stop gender-based violence. As well as personally intervening, young people in the programme were also encouraged to make posters which say “Violence is not private” and paste them on the walls and doors of houses where domestic violence was recorded. The posters also include the number of the national domestic violence helpline – 1091.

Kumari’s close friend, Nargis, who uses only her first name, works alongside her.

Nargis says she grew up in an environment where violence against women was “normalised.”

“We are not supposed to react, respond or take action,” she says. “It has always been tough for us to stand up for abused women or girls in our community.”

Nargis, who is also 18, intervened in a domestic violence incident in her neighbourhood during the 2021 lockdown.

A man in the community was physically abusing his wife due to the lack of resources at home, she says. He was not able to make enough to support the family and wanted his wife to work on top of her caring responsibilities.

“We encouraged that woman not to suffer silently and to confront her husband,” Nargis says.

As well as preventing abuse in the moment, bystander intervention is also seen as a way to change harmful societal norms that lead to discrimination against women, minorities and LGBTQ+ people. 

“We recognize that it is crucial to break the cycle of normalisation and change the norm where a woman accepts violence as a normal and given thing,” Bhattacharya says.

She says engaging young people can be a potent tool for creating more gender-equal communities in the future. 

This is the hope at least in Sangam Vihar, where Kumari and Nargis say there has traditionally been little opportunity for women to speak out. But, they say, things are changing, even within their own households. 

While Kumari was acting to undo harmful gender norms in her community, she was also waging her own battle for equality within her family home. 

When her brother smashed his phone in a fit of anger, he decided to take his sister’s from her, an act Kumari saw as an exertion of his male power. 

Kumari’s phone was her only means of studying and doing university assignments, she says. Without it, she began to miss readings and classes.

In the past, she may have left things there, and Kumari says her brother did not expect her to do anything about it. But she says her bystander intervention training helped her to speak up for herself and demand he return her property. 

“I told my mother that I would not suffer,” she says.

Originally appeared in Les Glorieuses.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s