By Abhishek Raj*
Formed in 2003 in Lucknow as a support centre for women, Humsafar has been actively involved with issues related to women rights and their upliftment. The group got registered as a trust in 2008 and has been a pioneer advocating for women’s rights and gender equality. It has constantly raised voices against any kind of human rights violation against women and gender-based violence. It has come a long way since its inception and now operates in 53 localities and 42 schools and colleges in Lucknow, Hardoi, Unnao and Sitapur districts. The vision and mission of Humsafar aim not only to prevent the occurrence of violations against women but to also help the survivors of such atrocities. Humsafar strives to help the survivors overcome the suffering and assist them in getting justice from the law.
We had an interview with Richa and Shahira Naim from Humsafar to get more insights into the work and history of Humsafar.
The history of Humsafar can be tracked down to an interfaith marriage in UP. The boy was a Muslim, while the girl belonged to a highly connected upper-caste Hindu family. The case came to the court, and the girl was sent to Naari Niketan after being declared a minor by the judge. This judgement spread tremors across Lucknow, and many women rights organisations came together for the girl. Suspecting an attack on the couple from the right-wing organisations, many women leaders, activists, and journalists attended the court hearing to prevent it from happening. Finally, the court verdict came in favour of the couple because of the joint efforts of these women and their organisations. During the same time, a case of child sexual abuse came up in Chitrakoot. The accused was a well-connected government employee, and using his contacts, was able to stop the actions by the police authorities. Joint protests and dharnas followed this incident by several women rights organisations in multiple districts of UP. This increased the pressure on the government. The accused was finally suspended and sent to jail while the custody of the minor girl was given to an NGO. The organisations involved in the cause realised that operating and fighting alone would not always yield the desired outcome. They needed to come together under an umbrella to strengthen their voices and cause. These events led to the consolidation of many organisations, and thus Humsafar was formed. Initially, it was a loose network of organisations focussed primarily on providing legal and counselling services for cases related to violence against women. Soon, the members realised that something extra must be done to significantly impact the prevention of women’s rights violations apart from the offered curative services and helps. So, an outreach program was started to support the marginalised and oppressed women in the localities where the cases of domestic violence were high.
Humsafar operates like a corporation to get justice for any woman who approaches them. Once a woman comes to Humsafar, the representatives listen to their grief and advice them on the course of actions they can take. The legal implications are explained to them. If needed, Humsafar gets involved and tries to get justice for the women from their end without involving the authorities. The outreach program has helped break the stigma around women to end marriages because of violence and gave confidence to the suffering women in taking actions against the accused family members. The reintegration of women back to society is also covered under the works done by Humsafar. Humsafar also has a program known as Sakhi Samuh at the local level. These groups consist of women who are the first responders at the ground level when any act of violence happens in their locality. The members of Sakhi Samuh are trained to ensure that their response is apt to handle the situation and is within the legal boundaries.
As time passed, Humsafar underwent organic growth and the span of the work done by them expanded. In a particular incident, a college-going girl was murdered by few men who often eve-teased her during her commute. The college was quick to disown the whole situation by claiming that the incident happened outside the college premises. Several allegations were also made on the character of the dead girl. This motivated Humsafar to start a program at the college and school level where any girl facing harassment or violence could contact them for help. Humsafar made a list of colleges that were attended by students from the lower and middle classes. The students from these colleges were educated on their rights and the steps they can take in case they face harassment of any kind. As the youth members of Humsafar increased, a new wing named Yuva Tarang was formed, which comprised of young members. This new wing worked on gender, diversity, discrimination and sexuality issues. As the scope further expanded, the linkage of Humsafar with the youth increased.
Humsafar has also faced several backlashes in its journey. Some people believe that an organisation like Humsafar can result in more divorces and marriage separations. They are of the opinion that a woman should not raise domestic violence and related issues on any formal forum. Many organisations with orthodox mentality have tried to intervene in the work of Humsafar. But, Humsafar has successfully ignored and circumvented the demands of many such right-wing traditional organisations. As a step towards this, Humsafar started workshop sessions with teachers to train them and make them capable of imparting knowledge about human rights to the students. A joint session for parents, students and teachers was also started under the Joint Open Forum program.
Because of the patriarchal nature of the Indian society, often the women withdraw the cases due to pressure from the community. They go back to the same abusive relationship after getting tired of the slow legal process of the country. They are not educated or skilled to live a life on their own, and their last resort is to return to a life full of suffering. This motivated Humsafar to start the livelihood program under which they trained women on specific skills using which they could start their livelihood. This included skills like carpentry and motor driving. Further expanding on this, Humsafar has trained more than 150 women on driving E-rickshaws.
However, the COVID-19 pandemic has severely affected the work of Humsafar. The activities and programs are either under hold or being performed on a very small scale. Many members are full-time paid associates of Humsafar. The operations of Humsafar is capital intensive owing to long time requirement in the legal procedures. Despite the disruptions due to the pandemic, Humsafar and its members are determined to continue their work and struggle for women’s rights and upliftment.
*IIM Ahmedabad | Post Graduate Programme in Management | Batch of 2022