Saturday, Apr 01, 2023

Engagement With Communities Can Ensure Greater Gender Sensitivity: Sohini Bhattacharya

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Engagement With Communities Can Ensure Greater Gender Sensitivity: Sohini Bhattacharya

In conversation with Sohini Bhattacharya, CEO, Breakthrough India.

Sohini Bhattacharya, CEO, Breakthrough India
Sohini Bhattacharya, CEO, Breakthrough India

What are the programmes and initiatives that Breakthrough is working on to advance gender rights and build a gender-neutral world? 

Breakthrough works towards transforming gender norms to make violence and discrimination against women and girls unacceptable. We do so by building the leadership of young people, setting public agenda, using media and arts and mobilizing communities to value girls. Over the years, we have developed and executed a number of campaigns stressing on bystander intervention to inspire action against gender-based violence –  

 “Bell Bajao,” asked men and boys to stand up against domestic violence through simple actions like ringing the bell while “Share your Story” urged mothers to share their stories of sexual harassment with their sons, thus building an intergenerational approach to solving discrimination and violence.  

Our key programme areas include:  

  • Deep Transformation Work: We work with young people aged 11-25 years and have so far reached close to 700,000 adolescents directly and more than 3000 young adults, their families and communities, across 12 districts in 4 states of India.  At the heart of it is our gender equity curriculum that we implement in government schools, Taaron ki Toli (Gang of Stars). Additionally, we work with young adults aged 19-25 years in the community. These Team Change Leaders (TCLs), as we call them, act as the bridge between Breakthrough and the community. Finally, engagement with communities ensures greater gender sensitivity overall.  

  • Systems Change at Scale: In collaboration with the state education departments in Punjab and Odisha, we are working to create a gender transformative education system that will focus on building gender equitable behaviours among all stakeholders within the education system including students, teachers, school leaders and administrative staff and parents.  

  • Using Media to Shift Norms and Narratives on Gender: Media plays an important role in our strategies. Media's role within Breakthrough has evolved over the years from being singularly campaign focused to being integrated into all strategies that the organisation is using. In our Deep Transformation areas, we use media to develop and support content, narrative/messaging, IEC material, audio-visual products, conduct media trainings.  

What do you see as the biggest challenge facing women's rights today, and how can individuals and communities work together to promote gender equality and women's rights in their everyday lives? 

From our experience and interventions in different parts of the country, we have seen that women and girls are born into a socio-cultural context steeped in patriarchy. This leads to discrimination and inequity that pushes them to the fringes of society with little control over their lives. For example, across the country, fewer girls than boys are allowed to be born into families; only 33% of girls make it to grade 12 from a 95% in grade 8; one in four girls is married before the legal age of 18 years; and only 21% of women are part of the workforce. 

At Breakthrough, we believe that challenging these gender stereotypes is an essential step towards promoting gender equality and women's rights in everyday life. Stereotypes about gender roles and abilities can limit opportunities and perpetuate discrimination against women and girls. By being aware of these stereotypes and challenging them whenever possible, we can help break down these barriers and create a more equitable and gender neutral world. All our campaigns and activities aim to do this and are designed to inspire action against gender-based violence and inequality.  

How can we ensure that women have equal access to education, employment, and decision making?  

I believe that India has made significant strides in enrolment of girls into school but they continue to drop out on attaining puberty because of restrictions on mobility, rampant sexual harassment, and the high burden of unpaid care work that falls disproportionately on women and girls. Unsafe public and workspaces contribute to declining labour force participation of women. 

Breakthrough believes that schools can be an ideal place of transformation in this case. A more gender transformative schools and education system - where all girls are nurtured and made to feel valued; where the curriculum provides a progressive picture of women’s roles for all girls; and where the school administrative staff and teachers prioritise and demonstrate gender equitable behaviours and parental engagement is also about the burden of unpaid care work on girls and delaying the age of marriage. Such an environment can promote the aspiration of girls in relation to their education, employment and self-esteem, contributing to elimination of gender based violence and greater decision maker power for them.  

What steps is Breakthrough taking to address violence against women and girls, both in the home and in public spaces? 

Our campaigns and programmes are designed to inspire action against gender-based violence. These campaigns have been successful in raising awareness and bringing about behavioural change. For example, our ‘Bell Bajao’ campaign launched in 2010 resulted in a 49 per cent rise in the awareness of the new domestic violence law (Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act that was passed in 2005). Also, it raised demands for services by 15 per cent. As a result of these campaigns, people are now more aware of their rights and more vocal of their views for intervening in any kind of injustice towards women both in public and private spaces. 

Most recently, Breakthrough launched the ‘Ignore No More’ and ‘Dakhal Do’ campaigns.  

Both the campaigns are designed to encourage bystander intervention and support collective action to end violence against women in public spaces.  

How can policymakers, governments and non-profit organizations collaborate better in the post COVID world for creating a gender-neutral world?

We are now working with governments, particularly at the state level in an effort to promote gender sensitive education for school students. We launched our first partnership in 2020, in Punjab to introduce gender equity curriculum in social studies textbooks for classes VI to VIII, and trained 250 master trainers. Currently, the curriculum is part of the syllabus in over 6000 schools in the state. In August 2022, a similar programme was launched in Odisha where an integrated gender equity curriculum is set to be introduced in around 28,000 secondary schools in early 2023 and teacher training will follow. The programme aims to reach over 4 million adolescents with a gender equity curriculum in both the states.  Additionally, Breakthrough will use evidence and data from its projects in Punjab and Odisha to scale up and expand the programme in other Indian states. Our target over the next 5 years is to work with education administrators and teachers in India, engaging with relevant stakeholders for collective action. We will also create awareness at national level on the importance of having a gender transformative school system for a greater uptake across the country at scale.