Sarang Gupta, 18, was spending his summer vacations doing the regular Class 12 grind – tuitions, home, TV – when he chanced upon a newspaper clip that changed his life. “I don’t particularly remember the incident but I distinctly remember the feeling that crept in my gut as I read about another violent death of a girl. I knew at that moment that I had to do something,” he recalls. With the help of eight friends and 60 volunteers the youngster organised Shakti, a run for women’s safety in his area, Noida, to create awareness and raise funds. Initially his parents weren’t happy with the way he had decided to spend his vacation. “They thought I should be preparing for engineering entrances rather than focusing on social work. But eventually they agreed to help me,” he adds.

In the end, over 300 people, including local residents, students and professionals, participated in the event. According to Gupta, he was inspired to take action as he had often heard of community participation abroad and was rather keen to set an example for his peers, “If they [foreigners] can do it, so can we. We need to inculcate some values of social responsibility.” Today, he has become a positive role model not just for his 13-year-old younger sister but he is influencing his contemporaries to take a stand for women and their rights through the group, Students for Change, that he has formed. At the same time, this committed teen is a staunch supporter of the Safe City initiative, launched by the Delhi-based women’s resource centre Jagori.

Reports of crimes against women in India have been on the rise. The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) figures indicate that gender crimes have increased by 26.7 per cent in the current year – there were 309,546 reported crimes as compared to 244,270 the previous year. Alarmingly, the number of rapes has risen by 35.2 per cent, and when it comes to domestic violence, every five minutes one case is brought before the authorities.

Of course, rising crime numbers don’t necessarily indicate an actual increase in incidents; it can also mean that a larger number of cases that were being ignored earlier are now being reported. Women are slowly gaining the confidence to speak up for their rights and this is because for the first time in their lives they are being backed by their communities. Over the last few years, people have galvanised in large numbers to deal with violence against women.

Madhu Bala, Senior Manager at Jagori, strongly believes that community organisation is the key to preventing gender violence and improving public safety. “Reaching out to the local community is necessary because this is where people come from. Their involvement is imperative because it exemplifies that one can move forward and combat such issues with collective effort. Change is indeed possible, once we stand for it together,” she asserts.

Case studies have proven that in many cases by-stander intervention has, in fact, saved people. “We definitely need that kind of an involvement in our society too because a lot of young women who face violence do not retaliate for the fear that no one will come forward and back them up,” observes Manak Matiyani of ComMutiny-The Youth Collective, which motivates young people to bring about social change. “We try to tell people about the safest ways to intervene when they witness violence,” he elaborates. Matiyani has been consistently mobilising the community through his Must Bol Campaign as well as through The Youth Collective, which he now heads in Delhi.

Under Must Bol, he had trained 30 students to make short films against gender violence. In the aftermath of the Nirbhaya incident, the youngsters had been enraged with the prevailing public apathy to violence and that’s when the idea of by-stander intervention took shape. “At that time, our volunteers decided that there was an urgent need to carry out public demonstrations that emphasised the importance of people’s involvement to fight violence. We all get to hear of heinous gender crimes but what has to be recognised is that it all starts from somewhere and most often it starts off small. We wanted to highlight those seemingly inconsequential things that ultimately escalate into the kind of violence that we feel compelled to respond to as a group,” shares Matiyani.

Theatre is one of the oldest and most powerful means of sensitising people and Arvind Gaur, who heads the Delhi-based theatre group ASMITA, knows that. This eminent director has written and staged many meaningful plays on gender violence and safety for women to rouse communities in remote locations as well as urban spaces to respond to violence. Indeed, his well-known street play, ‘Dastak’, performed by a team of over 50 actors, often leaves spectators in tears.

Another gender champion who has spent the last year talking about girls’ safety is Jessie Hodges. She manages Kid Powered Media, an NGO that uses interactive media programmes to educate children on key issues like access to education, governance and child rights. “We run media labs with a core group of 50 kids in three localities in the Capital and create a variety of productions, including street plays, comic books, storybooks, short films, advertisements, and feature films on social issues that are relevant to youth in the country. Afterwards, as part of our community action campaign aimed at bringing about children-led change at a local level, our students distribute this media kit in their area. Every year, we focus on a new topic and we spent all of 2014-15 taking a closer look at girls’ safety,” she reveals.

Hodges and her team of budding activists have come to the conclusion that it is the strict gender roles followed by society that actually give rise to violence. “In the neighbourhoods where our children live, gender roles are so defined and separate that neither boys nor girls really have access to members of the opposite sex. So there is no insight or understanding of the kind of pressures the opposite sex is under. Instead, every interaction between boys and girls involves an element of harassment,” she points out.

If individuals have been working hard to herald change, then institutions, too, have played their part in initiating greater community engagement. Just like the Centre for Health and Social Justice (CHSJ) that has been hosting regular meetings and using interactive games to engage with urban middle-class men and boys. “Recently, we have started taking unique and bold steps to reach out to men in middle-class homes. In particular, we are using games to generate awareness and talk about the ideas of masculinity and gender,” informs Lavanya Mehra of CHSJ.

To draw the attention of the general public to women’s safety and to break the stereotype that only men can ride a bike, SpinLife and Jagori organised a hugely successful cycling event on International Women’s Day in Delhi this year. “For our Raahgiri event, we made ‘cycling for women’s safety’ our agenda and used that to bring about change. We wanted to endorse the idea of freedom and mobility and boost women and girls’ confidence by encouraging them to get on to a bicycle,” states Gaurav Verma of SpinLife.

Whether through theatre, poster campaigns, sports or short films, inventive ideas have been used over the last one year to encourage the community to shed its apathetic attitude and stand up for women. It’s yet an uphill task but one that does not seem impossible anymore.

(Women's Feature Service)