What are the factors that prevent the formation of women-centric collectives? Is there a favourable time of day for women or girls to get together? What do women and girls perceive as safe spaces?
A neighbourhood can flourish only if the women and girls within can interact freely and decide what’s best for them as a collective. At Aangan, a key component of our intervention objectives depend on how often the community members and leaders can come together and chart out initiatives and roadmaps. However, the absence of safe spaces for women in communities is a critical but unheralded part of determining the success of community-led initiatives. A lack of safe spaces to congregate and debate means progressive actions at the community level suffer. It also depicts an ingrained gender-based structural form of violence, where societal structure prevents women from accessing a rather basic social need. Considering the importance that such spaces hold, we decided to dwell deep by conducting a survey that we hoped would help throw more light into resolving this conundrum.
The gendered reality in impoverished settlements
As individuals, mothers and young girls are constantly negotiating with the men in their environments and trying to break out of their gender-designated roles. Women have to contend with the men-folk in the family as well as the older womenfolk; while young girls are forced to juggle the complexities of sibling care, household chores, work/ studies and conservative social norms. What this means is really a lack of opportunity to sit together and spend time in understanding each other’s problems and arrive at workable solutions. Then, there’s the constant societal male imposition, a parochialism that prevents women from meeting each other and organizing their own collectives. Even accounting for the successes of self-help groups in areas such as microfinance, women collectives are known to still be frowned upon by males in the neighbourhood.
Additionally, the basic physical environment, and the lack of adequate safety infrastructure tend to physically impede or be a deterrent for women leaving the house unaccompanied. Anticipated dangers and concerns around family honour both inform as well as inhibit their daily routines. This is a serious issue for women wishing to meet in public spaces, as K Viswanath and S.T. Mehrotra articulate in their journal article ‘Shall We Go out?’. In another book on women’s safety and everyday mobility, Whitzman makes a case for environmental safety as a critical enabler that will help women congregate and form spaces amongst themselves.
The Evidence from Aangan’s Survey
The factors discussed above are not mere theoretical constructs, but rather situations that women and girls living in impoverished villages and slum settlements encounter on a daily basis. We’ve been able to ascertain this through a quantitative and qualitative research conducted with over 140 women and adolescent girls across 6 districts in as many states – Mumbai, Patna, Varanasi, Khurdha, North 24 Paraganas and Bharatpur.
Overall, 44% of women and girls do not get to meet together with peers from their community in slum settlements. If, however, one considers only adult women, this number rises to 53%; that is, over half of the women surveyed have no communication or contact with their peers. This is primarily due to restrictions imposed by family members (51%), followed by the lack of a conducive safe physical space within the community (19%).
Interestingly, of the adult women that did meet, a majority 74% chose to discuss community and child-related issues. Yet a majority (57%) of the women stated that there was no privacy in the spaces where they met, which acted as a deterrent to the quality of the discussions and the resulting outcomes.
Further, we attempted to dig deeper into what does prohibit the 44% from meeting up more regularly. Just under half of these respondents have said that they literally have no time to meet with peers due to household and family-related responsibilities. Two-thirds (67%) of the women who don’t meet, acknowledge that with a safe space for discussion, they would be able to bring up real issues that affect them, their children and the community. As for the appropriate time, the data clearly spells it out – over 88% of women and 75% of girls surveyed have selected the afternoon time as their most preferred time to meet.
The survey results reveal that the biggest challenge in creating safe conducive spaces for both women and girls is ‘family restrictions’, followed closely by the absence of privacy and a safe physical space. This shows that a gender-biased parochial mindset may be harder to overcome even if there are spaces available. It’s encouraging though that where women have been able to create a safe gathering of peers or hope to do so, their choice of topic veers towards community and child-safety concerns and solutions thereof.
What does the lack of opportunity for women in this scenario mean?
So, what does happen when women don’t get the opportunity to meet and exchange notes, thoughts and ideas in a community setting?
The most obvious one is to be excluded from decision-making inputs and contributions within communities, since their collective voice would never be heard. It also means ceding important public spaces exclusively to the men in the community, and thereby reducing safe spaces available to women.
These insights are again borne out by our survey. For instance, a woman from Orissa shared, “There is no space for us to meet really, all the good ones are already taken over by men”. A girl in Mumbai concurs, “At any half-decent available space in the community; you’ll find boys who sit around, do drugs, harass girls and pass comments (chhed-chhad). Seeing this, our families don’t even allow us get out of our homes unaccompanied”
Another woman from Varanasi adds, “If we had accessible public places, then I think we could have contributed so much more to the community… by getting together with the sarpanch, ward members… but that is not to be”
Further, men often do not allow women participation in public activities, with the patriarchal mindset hiding behind the garb of societal norms. A woman from West Bengal confirms, “We have to take permission from our male relatives whenever we want to go out of the house, even if it is to buy groceries from the nearby market. I tried to fight this out initially, but eventually just got tired and gave up. Now I rarely meet or talk to the other women in the community, except for exchanging pleasantries when I occasionally run into them.” All of this points to a systemic issue in creating safe spaces for women.
Often, women from male-dominated societies find ways to take advantage of the inherent loopholes or lacunae in infrastructure to find their own safe space. In their book The Business Solution to Poverty (2013), Polak and Warwick share an anecdote of a group of rural women in Kenya. These women walked several miles every day to fetch water in heavy vessels to be used in their homes. A foreign entrepreneur became aware of this situation and decided to install a water pump in close proximity to the women’s town. To the entrepreneur’s dismay, the pump was frequently broken. After investigating, it was found that the women of the town were breaking the pump. They were actually keen on trudging miles for water because it gave them precious time to be amongst themselves, away from the ears of their husbands and elders.
Deductions and the way forward
Women as a collective that can devise how to solve community issues is critical to the progressive growth of a community and to the success of any community-based intervention. Studies from South India (by Frank Tresorio) and Kenya (by Nyaga Mwaniki) show that women who participated in a self-help group were found to be more confident and united in their ability to bring about social change as compared to women who did not.
Aangan’s own impact evaluation across 85 high-risk locations revealed a similar trend. 96% of the women who had formed and participated in women-centric collectives believed that they were capable of affecting change within entire communities so their children would be safer; as opposed to only 16% of the women who were not part of such collectives. Further, 97% of those who were members of women collectives had gotten together to address child harm situations, as against only 32% of those who didn’t identify with a collective. Clearly, women collectives are powerful facilitators for bringing about sustainable change.
Further, a few factors have become apparent through our survey. For instance, the afternoon timing is crucial for facilitating women collectives as we have ascertained. For girls, it’s the time after school that they’re free, and for women, this is the time they’re not beholden to their household responsibilities or answerable to the male members of the family. Another significant factor is the perception and availability of safe spaces. Schools for instance, are seen as a designated safe space for school girls (47%), and therefore an important part of the strategy. The local anganwadi centre is also identified in the survey as a designated safe space by a large proportion of community women. There thus appears a need to extend schools and anganwadis beyond their typical working hours into ‘safe meeting spots’.
To conclude, our survey helped us identify some of the key enablers in terms of time and space for women to come together, but the most critical factor remains the breaking down of outdated societal norms that encourage gender biases. As we continue to engage with the local communities working closely with women, men, girls, boys, and local government officials, we see ourselves – through our women-headed community safety collectives – becoming the critical catalyst for this.
Author: Neeti Daftari
Data Compilation: Srabonti Ghosh, Sneha Gupta
Field Researchers: Varanasi – Ajit Yadav, Charu Mishra, Smriti Gupta; Patna – Aditya Pratap Singh, Anupama Singh; West Bengal – Archita Nath Khan, Moumi Sengupta; Bharatpur – Shalini, Vanisha Tiwari; Orissa – Eugene Soreng; Mumbai – Mugdha Naik, Rachel Varghese