16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence – Breaking Barriers: Highlights From USAID’S Women’s Legal Rights Initiative

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Woman receives legal advice at a counseling center housed in a police station in Rajasthan.
Woman receives legal advice at a counseling center housed in a police station in Rajasthan.

USAID supports gender integration in all its programs. However, in order to increase women’s abilities to pursue and protect their legal rights, in 2003 USAID launched the “Women’s Legal Rights Initiative” in India in partnership with IFES. Working with Indian NGOs, the program uses multiple interventions such as legal aid, legal literacy, advocacy, public information, training and research to build support for change. The program has demonstrated that the engagement of men and boys is critical to advancing women’s rights. The support of men reduces friction within families and communities and contributes to women’s empowerment. While some activities are conducted at the national level, the majority of interventions are in two states – Karnataka and Rajasthan.

Addressing violence and creating an enabling environment:

The program has helped create and strengthen twenty nine legal counseling centers for women and a supporting network of lawyers and paralegals to assist women in Rajasthan and Karnataka. The centers provide comprehensive assistance for women facing violence and offer legal aid, options for alternative dispute resolution, and rehabilitation and referral services. In Rajasthan the centers are located within police stations and in Karnataka, the centers function as a part of Mahila Samakhya, a state sponsored education program for women. Community-based groups to address violence against women perform a “watchdog” role and help create a more enabling environment for women.

Boys enacting a rape scene during a training for peer educators in Karnataka. Photo credit: IFES and Partners
Boys enacting a rape scene during a training session for peer educators in Karnataka. Photo credit: IFES and Partners

A pilot program that works with boys and young men to better understand gender roles, gender-based violence and promote gender equity has shown excellent results early on. Many of the boys have admitted to a transformation in their personal beliefs and conduct. The partner NGO has mobilized the formation of 120 “Youth Forums against Gender-Based Violence,” creating awareness in villages through debates, discussions, street theater performances and essay competitions. Piloted in Karnataka, the program was recently launched in Rajasthan.

Doctors, prosecutors and judges are important stakeholders for women seeking justice. The program conducts gender trainings for doctors, judges and public prosecutors to help them think through their own biases and also provides advice on how to handle gender violence within their professions. In Karnataka the program has established “Help Desks” for women in family courts. Clients, referred by lawyers and judges as well as NGOs, seek information on family law, court procedure and the execution of orders.

Dignity of the girl child

Couples taking an oath against female feticide at a group wedding in Rajasthan.
Couples taking an oath against female feticide at a group wedding in Rajasthan.

The 2001 census confirmed the alarming decline in the number of girls in the 0-6 age group. To prevent female feticide, the program supports research, advocacy and outreach initiatives in Rajasthan. These activities have had a positive impact on the government administration, community-based organizations, students, the medical community, statutory bodies, religious leaders and local communities.

Like her colleagues who attended a USAID supported workshop for community leaders on the declining sex ratio, Kuldeep Kaur was moved to action when she found out that the Sikh community had the lowest child sex ratio in the country. She organized mass weddings where couples took oaths against feticide and later organized a march dedicated to fighting female feticide which was attended by 13,000 Sikhs in Sri Ganganagar, the district in Rajasthan with the lowest child sex ratio – 850 girls to 1000 boys.

In collaboration with the National Service Scheme, a program for senior high school and college age youth, USAID recently launched a program to train 100 youth leaders who along with 10,000 youth will work on raising awareness about female feticide and the declining sex ratio in urban Jaipur.

Mid-level religious scholars and senior students of Madrassas participating in an orientation program on women's legal rights in Rajasthan.

Muslim Women’s Initiative

Women’s organizations face challenges to ensure that the rights of Muslim women are progressively interpreted and protected under the Koran and the Constitution and that Muslim women understand their rights.

The “Muslim Women’s Initiative,” disseminates information on Muslim women’s rights in Karnataka and Rajasthan. The use of several channels such as information dissemination campaigns, distribution of material, counseling centers, a class on women’s rights in Muslim schools, programs for mid-level religious scholars and Madrassa students has led to broader community support.

The program targets both women and men, including adolescents and community leaders. After participating in the program, a number of Muslim women have brought complaints into the open and requested legal assistance. Women participants have also reported an increased sense of self-esteem, stating that they have gained more respect from their families. The intervention has led to a community-based support system for safeguarding Muslim women’s rights through the creation of and training for women’s support groups.

Women participating in a WPC rally on the 33% reservation for women in Parliament.

Women Power Connect (WPC)

USAID’s program was instrumental in the formation of Women Power Connect, a national coalition that advocates for women at all levels of the government. WPC’s priority issues include: the implementation of the Domestic Violence Act; the 33% reservation for women in Parliament; the passage of the Sexual Harassment Bill; gender-just budgeting and the problem of female feticide. It played a significant role in the successful passage of the 2005 Domestic Violence Act. WPC is building a network of state chapters which will support advocacy efforts at the national level and will work with state legislatures and local governments on local issues.