“People in our society have this notion that being a girl means being weak. We want to prove them wrong”
Renuka Chaudhary, 19, was walking to her house one evening when she was cornered by a group of hooligans. “They touched me inappropriately, and hurled abuses at me,” she shivers as she recalls those moments. “I started crying. They looked at me, amused, and left. Never have I felt so worthless in my life,” she said.
Her story echoes a state of helplessness that she and her friends feel when they are harassed in the public buses, on the streets or in their schools. “When you feel powerless, your confidence depletes, and self-loathing and negativity creep in,” she said. The adolescent girls were taking turns to narrate stories of sexual abuse and harassment in a self-defense training organized by Search for Common Ground in Parasi, Nawalparasi.
“People have this notion that being a girl means being weak,” said Chaudhary, “but by participating in the self-defense training, we want to prove the society wrong. We want to show that we now have the skills to defend ourselves.”
The self-defense training is an evidence-based course designed for people of all age groups to hone their skills on violence prevention and protection. Strategic skills to address harmful situations facilitated through audio, visual, and physical training allow participants to effectively deal with even life-threatening situations. The training also includes experiential learning tools to overcome anxiety and develop situation awareness.
Weak and fragile?
“With this training, we want adolescent girls to build their confidence to deal with risky and life-threatening situations, and also encourage them to report cases of violence to the police,” said Arman Raj Pandey, a self-defense coach from PARITRAN, a self-defense training provider.
In the last fiscal year, a total of 2,156 cases (815 of them rapes) of violence against women were reported to the police. The majority of the cases dealt with violence against adolescent girls. Nepal Police has also launched many campaigns to curb violence against women and girls, the latest being the ‘Safety Pin Campaign’ to curb sexual harassment. Police in plain clothes conduct sting operations in public transports and take immediate actions if anyone reports harassment.
The patriarchal society underestimates women-related problems. Women and girls are often thought of as weak, fragile. Their diluted decision-making capability in their homes and communities results in more violence against them. Self-defense training can change this. It is a fact that violence against women and girls is not inevitable, and early intervention and awareness greatly help.
Training participants highlighted how violence from family, friends and peers against women is often dismissed because of the fear of stigma and discrimination. This often leads to ‘self-blaming’ and further retribution from the predators. Participants also cited lack of knowledge on sexual harassment, reporting mechanism and counseling contributed to anxiety, mental trauma, and fear of socialization, which in turn affected their personal and professional development.
The training is a step towards breaking gender-stereotypes on strength-based learning. As the adolescent girls in training practice their kicks, strikes and blocking skills, there is a smile of triumph on their faces. They show that girls don’t need others to protect them and establishes that they are capable of taking care of themselves.
Lessons on instincts and intuition, fear control and trust building, and self-defense tips provided by facilitators not only empower adolescent girls to protect themselves but also instill in them confidence to deal with any adversity. Wiping the beads of sweat on her forehead, Chaudhary shares her favorite self-defense tactic: “If someone tries to grope me, I scream loudly, and use my strike skills to hit vulnerable areas such as eyes, the groin or knees. And I will escape the situation as soon as possible”.
Inspired by self-defense training, Chaudhary and her friends have started their own Girls Self-defense Group. They meet on the last day of every month, and provide self-defense training to adolescent girls. They also take part in inter-generational dialogue with police and local government officials on their safety and security issues.
The takeaway from these trainings is clear: a tectonic shift in people’s behavior, attitude and perception takes time. Therefore, in the meanwhile, there’s no harm in equipping girls with the skills to defend themselves.
Joshi is a development communicator and Chaudhary is a peace-builder