Sharmila Tagore from one of her films

Sharmila Tagore in Conversation with Augustine Veliath on VAW (Violence Against Women).

The very beautiful and talented Sharmila Tagore recently addressed leaders of local governments, on the occasion of the Panchayati Raj Foundation Day. She chose to speak about violence against women (VAW).

On the sides of the event, I had a chance to interview her. She firmly believes that when it comes to violence against women the local self governments can bell the cat. She says the Prime Minister of the Chief Ministers cannot do much but the panchayats can.

Augustine Veliath: How Serious is the Problem?

Sharmila Tagore:

Let me begin with quote from Mark Green, an American public figure.

“If the numbers we see in domestic violence were applied to terrorism or gang violence, the entire country would be up in arms, and it would be the lead story on the news every night.”

But as you know it is not a lead story anywhere. It is not even a story very often. VAW is so common it is no news

Augustine Veliath: But Who will Bell the Cat?

Sharmila Tagore:

Let me elaborate. I believe today I addressed the people, who can take effective action in time at the right place.

I recently saw an inspiring news item from Jharkhand. That state plans to have child protection committees in every panchayat. Do all such intentions come true? I hope and pray this one does come true and we stop hearing those heart rending stories of trafficking children and young women.

I felt good about this news.

But then another thought occurred to me. Why do we need a separate committee for protection of women or children?

Is not that the first duty of every panchayat and every gram sabha? Women and children should be free from fear in every village. There are no two opinions on that. Is it not what, the Constitution wants? “A heaven where the head is held high and the mind is without fear” — was this not the vision of our freedom fighters, our founding Fathers. Is this not what Gurudev Tagore articulated so eloquently as the national vision and dream.

A prime minister or chief minister, however good intentioned or efficient he or she may be, cannot protect a woman from domestic violence. But a neighbour can, a ward member can, the gram sabha can, the Panchayat can. Governance comes to us from three governments, the central, the state and the local. On some crucial issues, the local government is the one closest to us, the true friend of the people. That is why the Panchayati Raj is called local self governments.


Domestic Violence One Word too Many

Augustine Veliath: So you think local self get involved in domestic issues?

Sharmila Tagore:

The phrase “domestic violence”, in my opinion, has an extra word in it. What is “domestic” about it? Violence is violence. And silence around violence is also violence. By calling it “domestic” somehow we are distancing ourselves from it, some how we are hiding the heinousness of it in “privacy” so that we can keep away.

The fact that it happens at home makes it only more cruel and more unjust and more unforgiveable. Just because it happens at home does not mean it is more private and beyond the reach of the society around a victim.

In Africa there is a proverb “It takes a village to bring up a child”. Ms Hillarie Clinton had made this the title of her famous book. We know that it takes a village, a panchayat not only to bring up a child but also to keep women and children free from violence.

There is no masculinity in violence, only cowardice. The cowards need to be identified, exposed and confronted by an alert and enlightened neighbourhood, by the society around the victims. This I believe is one of the core functions of a gram sabha and a panchayat.

Where Men fail to Address VAW

Augustine Veliath: But Panchayats are controlled by Men?

Sharmila Tagore:

Where men fail to do this, women should come forward. In many states women are increasingly doing this. I am reminded of Nari adalats being held by Mahila Samakhya in Bihar.

A woman victim of violence, only needs to confide in a Mahila Samakhya volunteer and the case is followed up till a solution amicable or at least satisfactory to both sides is reached.

A lot of violence happens because it is done in the secrecy of homes. A lot of violent people walk around as respectable human beings. This veil of hypocrisy must be broken. It is time every gram sabha said “this is zero tolerance area when it comes to violence.”

It will happen when each gram sabha, has a set of ground rules. In creating those ground rules organizations like this, and various gender justice groups should play a pro- active role.

Violence free villages and panchayats must be acknowledged, admired and celebrated. How violence free a village is, must be decided by secret ballots of women.

On Conventional Advice against VAW

Augustine Veliath: What is your take on conventional advice given to victims of violence?

Sharmila Tagore

When a neighbour, an elder, or an elected representative decides to intervene usually the advise is like this and you know it.

– “Submit to your husband”
– “Pray harder”, or
– “Be a better wife”

This will not help her. Rule no 1 is that she should not feel guilty about looking for help. The woman has to feel that she is not alone in this. This is the first assurance that neighbourhood and panchayat should give her.
“The guarantee of safety in a battering relationship can never be based upon a promise from the perpetrator, no matter how heartfelt. Rather, it must be based upon the self-protective capability of the victim. Until the victim has developed a detailed and realistic contingency plan and has demonstrated her ability to carry it out, she remains in danger of repeated abuse.”

So the intervention must build the victim’s capability. The plan must be built around the victim. She should be able to carry it out.

Be Bold Take on Societal Beliefs, Patriarchy and Dowry

Augustine Veliath: So you think local self get involved in domestic issues?

Sharmila Tagore:

The other important issue before a gram sabha and panchayat are how many of its members believe that a husband is right in “punishing his wife.” According to Unicef‘s Global Report Card on Adolescents 2012, 57% of boys and 53% of girls in India think a husband is justified in hitting or beating his wife. If this is so it is a very serious issue. If the panchayat dealing with men who believe it is all right to abuse and if with women who accept this willingly, that panchayat is not going to go very far. If a whole generation is growing up with such a belief, the panchayat has a lot of work to do.

Augustine Veliath: What about patriarchy?

Sharmila Tagore:

Patriarchy rules our minds. However hard we try it will dominate married life. It makes sure that women limited opportunity. It stifles her independence. It is men and women become aware of this and take patriarchy headlong in every day life that a panchayat and the household within will become free of gender violence.

Augustine Veliath: What about patriarchy?

Sharmila Tagore:

There are strong links between dowry and domestic violence. Dowry dicates common physical and emotional abuse, dowry death and bride burning.

In conclusion our communities, our gram sabhas need to end the deafening and deadly silence on gender violence. Young men need to show women the respect they deserve and recognize sexual assault and to do their part to stop it.

Amplify the Voice of the Voiceless

Augustine Veliath: So You see men as key players ?

Sharmila Tagore:

There is never a reason for any man to be violent towards any woman. On the contrary men have an important role to play in sending out the message that real men do not hurt or abuse their partners. Be a man and amplify the voices of the voiceless. that would be my advice. The people who could do most to improve the situation of so many women and children are in fact, men. It’s in the  hands,  panchayat leaders to stop violence towards women. Success will come when the societal attitude changes.

India will become violence free ward by ward, gram sabha by gram sabha, Panchayat by panchayt. From such panchayts will emerge a prosperous and peaceful nation.