Mallika Writes: Just Speaking

Kerala Calling

I am looking out at the remains of the old fort in Cochin. I am in an old Dutch Resident’s bungalow built in 1508 and beautifully restored, with much of the original flooring in teak intact, into a lovely small hotel. But it is not the beauty of Kerala that has brought me here, but the ugliness. The ugliness of what has been happening to women in this once matrilineal State.

I was raised on stories of valour, those of women in my family in Pallaghat. And when, a few years ago, I started coming to the State regularly and interacting with women, especially young women, I expected fire. What I came across instead were educated and usually gainfully employed, unhappy and highly repressed people. Why? No one could really answer. I started looking for strong women leaders, social activists, NGOs and I found very little. Most of the vocal women’s leaders were well into their 60s. The next two generations seemed to be missing. I was told of the fear of physical safety that women lived in, of constant harassment in buses, on the streets, at work. “When someone in a bus pinches you, why don’t you yell? Why don’t you  punch him?” “Maam, all the other women will disown you. They will disapprove. So we have to bear it”.

At an awards event in Thiruvananthpuram organized by the Kerala State Women’s Development Corporation I got talking to the dynamic MD of the Corporation Mr Suneesh. I spoke of the extensive work Darpana Communications had done using TV and music videos to bring to the fore adolescent and women’s issues in Gujarat, to help break the silence that oppressed women into life long victimhood and suffering. And from that was born the project that brings me here.

Unnarthpaatu, The Song of Awakening, is a half hour film that talks of the stories of many young women. It touches on the issues of educational pressure and expectations; of blackmailing through MMS that is becoming commonplace; of false expectations of marriage based on romantic films and of sexual molestation, usually by members of the immediate family. With this, and accompanied by a trained counsellor, I have started a journey across 40 women’s colleges in the State, to start a conversation to break the silence that prevents young women from getting help or guidance, that traps them into aloneness in the midst of many. And the response has been overwhelming. Silent and shy at first, the questions and comments become a torrent of hurt and confusion, of questions and pleas. Help us. Guide us. We are lost. We have no one to turn to. These are the underlying pleas in the questions that pour forth.

And I am inundatd by e mails from the young women. One reads, “There are many a woman who fear to raise a voice against cruelties they face. Today we have organizations that help these women. But it is only after they have already become victims. What can we do before hand? How do we prepare ourselves to pre-empt the exploitation? How do I stop a molester in his tracks?”.

KSWDC and Darpana are setting up an on line portal for mentoring and counselling, where counsellors can guide and respond to girls who may want to remain anonymous.  And KSWDC is planning on working closely with college and school counsellors. They already run REACH, a training centre primarily for rural girls to make them job worthy. To ensure access they also run a hostel for these women, making it easy for them to live safely in a big city. And they are open to different ideas. The MD wants the Corporation to make a difference, now, and for the long term. And with his vision he will make this happen.

The project and the Corporation’s road map are path breaking. If only other State’s would emulate them.

July 10th, 2011, DNA


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