Every time women walk into a public place, they are stared at or perhaps even pestered with comments about their looks or attire. The harassment is not age-exclusive. The indifference of the bystanders often discourages women from confronting the harasser or reporting the offence. It is to fight this mindset that the Delhi-based NGO Breakthrough has launched an initiative to break this culture of acceptance and silence. Called AskingForIt, this was one of their first campaigns and a winner in the Women Empowerment category at the SM4E awards, organized by the Digital Empowerment Foundation earlier this year.

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The initiative began with a survey carried out by Breakthrough from June to August 2014. More than 1,000 people from Delhi, Panipat, Sonipat, Kanpur and Lucknow were interviewed, and the findings, which were released in 2015, showed that about 92% women had experienced sexual harassment at some point of time and 67% of them faced harassment on a daily basis.

“Our research showed that women always felt under-confident when it came to reporting a case of sexual harassment. People tend to look away and even blamed the women for the crime. We wanted to create a campaign through which we could reclaim that space for women. AskingForIt is about a woman asking for a safe space for herself where she doesn’t have to face harassment," said Sonali Khan, one of the key architects of the campaign.

Khan, a political science post-graduate from Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, joined Breakthrough in 2004. Before this, she had been working as a journalist for over a decade.

The objective of the initiative was to educate bystanders to change their outlook towards sexual harassment. Breakthrough used various channels such as videos and social media posts to encourage bystanders to confront the harasser, call the police, and help the victim file a police complaint. Codeisgn, a creative agency, helped with the branding of the campaign

Aside from an online presence, Breakthrough is working behind the scenes in 16 districts in the National Capital Region (NCR), Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand and tying up with auto unions, bus unions, police and even media houses to spread awareness about the initiative.

Challenges

Stereotypical thinking was the biggest challenge that Khan and her 54 member team faced. What made it even worse was that most people thought they were right about their notions of how women should conduct themselves. “You need support for the victim, counselling, support from police, and most importantly you need to change way the people think," said Khan.

Another challenge within the digital space is when a victim is bullied on social media networks. Khan hopes the project will also inspire more online users to speak up and create a counter-narrative to the one that exists right now.

“The social media is important as it creates a body of conversation which is so important. Not everyone acts but then real actors will when they see there are others who identify with them," said Khan.

Digital advantage

With the use of digital channels, Breakthrough was able to scale up and reach out to a wider audience. Some of the content for the digital channels was developed in-house while some was produced by Breakthrough’s social change actors such as volunteers to generate more awareness on the subject.

One of the advertisements developed by the volunteers shows two women discussing a case of molestation involving their neighbour’s daughter. The women are shown blaming the girl for the incident; she stayed out late and wore short clothes. While they are at it, two boys on a bike show up and try to molest them. The idea is to make people see that the attire or the hour when a woman is out is not the only reason for sexual harassment.

Breakthrough uses the Facebook and Twitter platforms extensively to promote the campaign. Mobile penetration has played an important role. It also partnered with Gram Vani, a community-based radio-over-phone network, which is quite popular in rural areas.

One of the biggest contributors to the initiative has been the United Nations Trust Fund to End Violence against Women (UNTF), which gave Breakthrough a grant of about 1.7 crore for the entire programme on preventing sexual harassment, including the AskingForIt campaign. This fund is being used to finance campaigns and community work.

Future plans

AskingForIt was followed by another initiative, ShareYourStory. One of the advertising campaigns for that project shows a mother telling her teenage son to change his phone’s catcall ringtone as she often gets to listen to it on her way to office and doesn’t wish to listen to it at home too.

Breakthrough has partnered with Twitter for the campaign, for which it is getting the Twitter Foundation grant, which allowed it to optimise and use the platform for better reach.

Khan said a lot still remains to be done. The next step is to get boys and girls to work together to create safe spaces.

“Change doesn’t happen so quickly, we need to continue working on it," she said.

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