Recalling the 2012 Delhi gang rape case still runs a chill down our spines. Although it made the country sit up and take notice of the sort of evil meted out to women, three years have passed but nothing has changed.
Every other day we hear news of yet another case of sexual harassment and rape. Mass protests, improved advocacy or hastened court decisions have done only so much, and some women, like Priya Varadarajan, feel it is time to take matters into their own hands.
Creating safer environments for women was always in the DNA of Bengaluru-based 38-year-old Priya. After the Nirbhaya tragedy, this chartered accountant decided to start her own organisation, Durga, to arm girls and women with self-protective instincts to deal with sexual harassment in public spaces. The trust was formed in April 2013. Durga conducts workshops to help women understand behaviour better and be prepared to address crime. Over the last three years, it has worked with over 3,000 women and girls across Bengaluru, Chennai, Pune, Mumbai and Jamshedpur.
We believe that skill for women is the first and best intervention for this issue. If crime is addressed at the first instance effectively, yet not aggressively, we feel the impact is highest. That’s exactly what we do with the women and girls we work with,” says Priya.
Unlike other organisations which address the issue through technology, activism and legal interventions, Durga runs theatre-based workshops, where it facilitates women to come up with a number of solutions to handle the sexual harassment they face in their everyday life.
Role-play, theatre games, and simulated learning are used to communicate the tools and techniques in a much easier way.
Durga charges Rs 500 per person for a three-hour workshop. It also has donors to invest in the campaign. Currently, the not-for-profit trust has a team of nine women spread across Bengaluru, Chennai, Mumbai and Pune. It holds two workshops in a month in schools, colleges, girl’s hostels, construction sites, residents welfare associations and corporates.
On what the organisation hopes to achieve, Priya explains,
Durga is a movement. We create Durgas who can go and replicate themselves in their communities. The focus in Durga is to be the first police for you and also be a responsible bystander.”
‘I’m a Durga’ campaign
When Bengaluru witnessed rape incidents in the last couple of years, Priya stumbled upon the idea of installing a ‘Durga Alarm’ in BMTC buses. The alarm can be used by women and girls in public transport to raise voice against harassment. In the last one year, Durga Alarm has been successfully placed in five BMTC buses in Bengaluru. A panel is placed above the driver with multiple switches in the entire bus.
However, Priya recalls how tough the journey had been: starting from knocking on the door of Bangalore Political Action Committee (BPAC) to taking permission from Whitefield Rising, to doing a pilot project. Moreover, Bangalore Metropolitan Transport Corporation (BMTC) was also reluctant to install these tools in the buses.
After getting the required permissions, the next step was finding someone who was tech savvy, to develop the tools. For this, an acquaintance connected Priya with some students at M. S. Ramaiah Institute of Technology, Bengaluru.
Priya is a mother of two girls, aged 14 and 11. She has worked with organisations like Deloitte, EY, Infosys in the past and is currently serving as the Life Science Lead for the British Government in Bengaluru.
We have launched a year-long campaign called ‘I claimed my space. I’m a Durga!’ This is to share positive stories on how women braved simple or serious harassment, to inspire other girls. This is focussed on college girls and young employees,” says Priya.
Though the Transport Minister of Karnataka expressed extreme support towards the Durga Alarm initiative, the trust is still facing resistance from BMTC. In order to fund its future growth plans it is planning to explore CSR. Priya is now planning to monetise Durga Alarm and has roped in a handful of startups.
Durga has already on-boarded B.PAC’s ‘B-SAFE’ and will have FM Indigo by the next month. To promote the campaign via TV programmes, it has also gotten on-board TV channel TV9. Additionally, it has started chapters in Chennai and Mumbai and aims to build a robust team there too.
Priya stated that in India, majority of women cannot fight back in the face of harassment. Durga should be able to arm women, especially young girls, to stand up and fight for themselves. It is looking to gather positive stories from women and curate them as a databank on how women can counter sexual harassment.
Women have been my biggest inspiration. I love observing women, how we multi-task, how we empathise, how we jump to solutions, how we nurture and how we get hurt. We are strong, yet we are vulnerable. That’s the beauty of women. We are helping women and working with them so that we can live a better and secure life. I fight for equality in everything, ” adds Priya.