Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Empowering Indian women to tackle extremism on the home front

Archana Kapoor, coordinator of the SAVE “Indian Women Say No to Violent Extremism!” program, was sure that no-one would turn up for the workshop the day after a fresh terror attack in Mumbai on 13 July, 2011. But on the morning of 14 July she was pleasantly surprised.

Group of participants in the brain-storming session, November 2010

“The morning of 14 July saw 100% attendance at our workshop. All the 80 participants were there and also the trainers, some of whom continued to commute from far flung areas of the terror stricken city,” recalls Kapoor, referring to the second three-month phase of SAVE’s workshop in Mumbai.

“I was amazed. I was overwhelmed,” adds Kapoor.

SAVE recently successfully completed the pilot phase of its income-generation, empowerment and anti-extremism workshop in Mumbai. The pilot workshop ran from April to June and involved 100 women. Due to the success of the pilot workshop, SAVE decided to immediately continue with a second workshop for a further 80 women. This second workshop had barely been launched when Mumbai was hit by a series of bomb blasts that killed 26 people.

Archana is convinced that the reason women don’t want to miss out on the workshop despite the traumatic events is due to the fact that the first workshop proved so useful to its participants. She suspects that the positive change seen in the women who participated in the pilot SAVE training was noticed by their neighbours, some of whom have joined the second phase.

Before they came to the workshop, many of the women felt they had little choice but to watch the world pass by helplessly. They lived in a narrow world of their own, with little insight into the motivations and risks of their children’s behavior. The participants now seem far more vigilant and aware about their children’s activities.

SAVE India first visited the neighbourhood where members of Mumbai’s large police force live soon after the three day terrorist siege of Mumbai in 2008. Most of the women SAVE talked to were deeply traumatized by the attack on their city, especially as most had male relatives who had been on duty during the siege. Some had lost family members in the attacks.

Many of the women felt helpless in the face of the changes that were taking place so rapidly in the world around them. They did not understand why their lives were threatened, and most were totally dependent on male members of the family. Most of them had no experience of formal education and no income of their own.

SAVE decided to introduce concepts of self-empowerment to these women, initially through a week-long workshop called Our Stories, Our Future in April 2010. Storytelling was used as a tool to get the participants to find their voice, to articulate personal encounters and to make the lived experiences of those impacted by violent extremism heard. Before this exercise, the women had no outlet to voice either their pain or their joy.

This was followed by Swimming into the Future with the aim of providing a new skill but also creating a bond between participants. Swimming was chosen as a tool conducive to confidence building that helped participants to feel comfortable with their body.

In November 2010, SAVE organized a brainstorming session with the women to discuss what skills they would like to learn in order to make their life more meaningful for themselves, their families and the communities in which they live. After initial hesitation, the women found their voice and the unanimous answer was that they wanted to learn a skill that would also help them to generate an income.

Reacting to the women’s wishes, SAVE decided to launch a pilot project in the midst of these women who spend their entire lives supporting male members of the family in the police force. As the agenda of the workshop took shape with the help of professionals including EduGuru India, a skill-providing agency, an integrated program of income-generating activities, empowerment and anti-extremism training was designed by SAVE especially for these women.

By the end of the eight week training, participants said that their time-worn perceptions of themselves and of the world that they live in had changed.

For example Sandhya Nikam, a housewife in her mid 30s said that the SAVE training is not just about leaning a skill, but about learning a life-changing skill.

Sandhya was part of SAVE’s Our Stories Our Future workshop and has returned for computer lessons and more confidence building. She says that she has come a long way since she was married at the age of 22 to a policeman with a meager salary. The family grew to three children but the income did not. At that time Sandhya probably believed that a life of deprivation was her fate. She lacked confidence to think of an alternative. But then she signed up for the computer training program, which changed her life.

“The success of the first workshop made it easy for us to begin a second one so soon after,” Archana points out.

However both the workshops were organized in the face of multiple challenges, says Archana.

The 80 participants in batches of four alternated in shifts between two small rooms that had to be fully renovated before the workshop was able to begin. While one group of ten learnt computer skills in one room the second room held English language lessons for another group of ten.

The workshop opened its doors at 10.30 am to the first group of participants and the day ended at 8.30 pm with barely a break of 15 minutes in between for the trainers.

“The problem of time, space and budget are real challenges but the thrill of engaging more and more women in activities that inspire us to take our life into our own hands is what will make me do this over and over again,” Archana concludes.

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