It takes a community effort to prevent gender violence.
When we think of violence against women, we typically think of victims and perpetrators. That may be accurate in a specific case, but to address the broader issue of gender violence—a phenomenon that crosses borders and cultures—we need to focus on the community at large.
SLAP: Empowering Women,Combating Gender Violence
Like people in India and around the world, Mriganka Dadwal was deeply shocked by the “Nirbhaya” gang rape case in New Delhi in 2012. But unlike others, she decided to launch a program to protect and empower Indian women through a new initiative—the Street Level Awareness Program or SLAP.
“We wanted to go beyond candle marches and Facebook activism and do something practical to change the face of our city scarred with rapes, assaults and public harassment of women,” says Dadwal. She is an alumna of the U.S. State Department’s International Visitor Leadership Program and traveled to the United States in March 2014 for a program related to the theme, Combating Gender-Based Violence.
Since its founding in 2013, SLAP has conducted dozens of workshops in several cities—New Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata and Chennai—for people ranging from business professionals to college students and housewives. Dadwal is also planning to extend the program’s reach by establishing SLAP clubs in schools, colleges and smaller communities.
SLAP has three self-defense trainers and a counselor, along with a large number of volunteers. Initially, SLAP conducted open workshops with 100 or more participants, which helped raise public awareness, but was limited in benefiting the women themselves, says Dadwal. “So we opted for smaller groups of 25 to 30 participants, where everyone could get personalized attention.” SLAP seeks to empower women both physically and psychologically. Dadwal cites the example of women who have endured groping or lewd comments on public transport, but were afraid to protest.
In the workshops, she says, “We throw open these kind of situations and when they get support from other women, they walk out confident to take a stand the next time it happens. Even better things happen when men stand up impromptu and say they are sorry or ashamed that this happened in their city.”
Dadwal and the SLAP trainers take a very practical view of the effectiveness of their training by running through a checklist for every participant:
Do you have emergency contacts on your mobile speed dial?
Have you downloaded an emergency, lifesaving app on your phone?
Do you carry pepper spray?
Have you learned basic self-defense?
Do you have a plan if you find yourself in trouble?
“While we have been able to break the ‘these things happen to other women, not me’ mindset,” says Dadwal, “it is still difficult for many women to act on that realization.”
That’s the founding principle for an innovative program to combat gender violence at the University of New Hampshire that has drawn attention across the United States. It is called Bringing in the Bystander and features an associated social marketing campaign called Know Your Power.
The Bystander program was created by Prevention Innovations, a research, training and advocacy organization founded at the University of New Hampshire in 2006. Its co-director is Jane Stapleton, who first became involved in gender violence issues after a case of gang rape on the campus in 1987. The assailants received minor sentences, the victim dropped out of school and disappeared.
“It was such a different time,” Stapleton recalls. “We didn’t even have words like date rape or acquaintance rape. I changed my graduate studies to focus on gender equality and violence issues.”
Today, Stapleton’s work draws upon those experiences and upon years of extensive research in the causes and prevention of gender violence.
“The field now has shifted from attempting to end the problem of assaults on campus by just talking with women about how to stay safe and asking men not to rape,” says Stapleton. “Bystander intervention is different. Women are not approached as potential victims nor men as potential perpetrators. Instead, we use a community approach to prevention, where everyone has a role to play in ending sexual violence and stalking.”
Prevention Innovations, which include university experts in sociology, psychology, social work, law and women’s studies, has developed a variety of programs for dealing with violence against women. Equally important, in this context, is that they have also rigorously evaluated the programs.
“What’s unique about our work is the research we conduct on the effectiveness of our program,” Stapleton says. “Everything is based on evidence-based research.”
Many of the best practices derived from that research have been formulated into a series of training modules sold to colleges and other organizations throughout the United States.
“The Bystander program uses a public health model—that violence can be identified and prevented,” says Stapleton.
In workshops that can last 90 minutes or half a day, participants learn the concept of bystander intervention and how to make a decision to intervene in a case of sexual assault before, during and after an incident. The workshops, which consist of discussion, group exercises and role-playing, are designed to empower participants with the confidence to act when necessary, while remaining safe themselves, to aid victims. In this way, participants are trained to be part of a larger process of community change in which gender violence is unacceptable.
Know your power
The social marketing effort, Know Your Power, has created a series of images that capture difficult and tension-filled scenes designed to raise awareness of situations in which harassment, stalking, sexual violence or rape have occurred. The images, which number more than 20, come in every possible format—web photos, screen pop-ups, postcards, bookmarks, posters and even bus ads.
In an age of branding, especially for young people, the campaign slogans—“Know Your Power. Step In, Speak Up. As A Bystander You Can Make A Difference.”—can also be placed on items like water bottles, buttons, gym bags and flashlights.
In an online video, Stapleton says, “We work with communities to adapt and modify the campaign…So, it’s a collaboration from the very onset of the project. We really find out who the target is. What things are important to them? What do they look like? What is the language they use? What are the examples of a problem that resonates most with them?”
From Stapleton’s perspective, the evidence is clear that an approach like the Bystander program can raise awareness of the issue of gender violence among participants and increase their willingness to intervene in situations of actual or potential violence.
The key is to understand that someone in such a situation is not alone, but part of a much larger, caring community determined to end violence against women, and the attitudes that allow it to exist.
Howard Cincotta is a freelance writer living in Virginia.
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