By Vineet Mall*
While traveling through Lucknow, one is bound to come across e-rickshaws and autorickshaws driven by women. The picture of women driving e-rickshaws/autorickshaw across Uttar Pradesh, a state notorious for patriarchy and crime against women, is bound to surprise onlookers. Behind this effort to create livelihood opportunities for women is HUMSAFAR, a Support Center set up for women in 2003 in Lucknow. Richa Rastogi, Program Coordinator for HUMSAFAR, believes that this initiative fulfills two main objectives- 1) it provides financial independence to women who have decided to come out of abusive relationships 2) it also creates a safe mode of transport for women across the city.
Foundations of HUMSAFAR
NGOs are generally started with a definite set of aims, objectives and get themselves registered at the onset. HUMSAFAR started more as an informal group in 2003. At that time, there were very few organizations in Uttar Pradesh that actively worked on the issue of gender-based violence. HUMSAFAR started with the idea of providing legal help and support to domestic violence survivors. During our interaction with Richa Rastogi, she proclaims that HUMSAFAR does not use the word “victim” to address women facing domestic abuse; it rather calls them “survivors” as these women have courageously raised their voice against the atrocities. HUMSAFAR was formally established as a trust in 2008. Currently. HUMSAFAR multi-pronged approach to address gender-based violence: it provides legal, medical, social mediation, engages in outreach programs, counseling, rescue, shelter, rehabilitation and livelihood opportunities. In the last ten years, HUMSAFAR has intervened in more than 7000 cases. Richa Rastogi believes that what stands out for the survivors who approach HUMSAFAR is the legal backing they get. Usually, the husband knows that the wife would receive little support from her family if she takes the legal route of facing violence. But when the survivor is backed by HUMSAFAR, which supports all the legal aspects of the case, the abusers mostly agree to mediation.
Evolving perspective of women on domestic violence
During the early days of HUMSAFAR, Richa Rastogi points out that the awareness about domestic violence was low- women sometimes would not realize what constituted abuse, be it physical, mental or sexual. Over time, the awareness of what constitutes physical abuse and how it is not normal has taken increased among women. But even now, the understanding of marital rape is low and women tend not to open about this issue. Awareness and change in outlook is needed to address this problem of domestic violence- be it physical, mental or sexual. In order to create this supportive social environment for the women who choose to speak out and seek help against violence and to generate awareness, HUMSAFAR has a dynamic outreach program in communities which works in urban bastis (settlements) and among adolescent and youth in educational institutions. At present HUMSAFAR is working in 53 neighborhoods with women and in 42 schools and colleges with the youth of Lucknow division in districts Lucknow, Hardoi, Unnao and Sitapur.
Women prefer going for mediation instead of court cases
Of the cases HUMSAFAR encounters, roughly 15% go to the court, 60% are settled through mediation and in the remaining 25% cases, women do not go ahead with their complaints. Richa Rastogi says that the main reason women prefer mediation instead of going for a court case is that the judicial system has failed them. It takes years to settle cases and the entire process takes a toll on women, both mentally and physically. For career-oriented women, filing a court case could prove suicidal to their careers. They would have to take leaves for hearing every once in a while, which is irksome to the employer- many employers in small private jobs prefer not taking women employees who are fighting a court case. In case women plan to migrate to other cities for job, the situation gets all the more draining with their court cases stuck in Lucknow. Even if women win cases in court, the maintenance granted is abysmally low- it is on the range of INR 500 to 2000 per month, which would be insufficient to take care of the basic needs of the mother and child.
The need of the hour is to ensure speedy justice to women. The Domestic Violence Act, 2005 states that cases should be disposed off within 60 days but that is not seen anywhere in the country. Only speedy conviction by the courts can restore the faith in the system.
Financial independence can reshape women’s lives
HUMSAFAR found that a woman delays the decision to come out of an abusive relationship due to her being ill-equipped to rebuild her life. In many cases, survivors decide to withdraw their court case and return to face violence due to her precarious financial situation. It is in this context that HUMSAFAR has taken on the task to equip VAW survivors to rebuild their lives by helping them reclaim their right to live with dignity and now survivors are trained for livelihood skills like driving and wood polishing. These skills were chosen as they are so far regarded as male bastions. The effort was to equip women to gain financial independence and at the same time, challenge the myth that these works cannot be performed by women. Around 137 women survivors have been trained and supported so far through this initiative.
Effect of Covid-19 induced lockdown
Covid-19 and the lockdown has resulted in a rise in cases of domestic violence. During the lockdown, cases were low as women were in no position to reach out to NGOs and other support networks. Most of them did not have a phone or had insufficient mobile balance. Further, due to the lockdown, there was a lack of private space where women could talk to someone on the phone over these issues. Even in scenarios where women somehow reached the police station to register complaints, they were dismissed by the police officers who cited the pandemic to be a bigger problem than a case of domestic abuse. Gradually, as India unlocked, HUMSAFAR received a flurry of cases. At present, they get 2-3 cases on a daily basis. Covid-19 has made things worse for women- domestic violence cases have risen sharply and the need of the hour is to press for the right implementation.
Lastly, the question remains as to what motivates HUMSAFAR in its fight against domestic violence, especially when things have gotten worse in this situation. To this question, Richa Rastogi clearly stated the entire idea of getting to empower women and their success examples motivate them to work more and more.
Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad | PGP in Management, Class of ’21