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#StandWithMe: Empathy Builds Gender-Inclusive Safe Spaces

By Sonali Khan

I was moderating an open discussion at a program on “safety in public transport” in a college in the state of Haryana, India. The students had heard about how girls face sexual harassment when travelling by bus to college, and how they are stigmatized if they speak up. Often, worried parents even withdraw their daughters from college, and that is the end of all their aspirations.

I stood fielding some questions along with the college principal and the deputy superintendent of police on masculinity, impunity, silence, and lack of enforcement. The girls spoke and the boys looked concerned. In answering one question, I spoke about the violence that boys face. It is often peer-to-peer and they also feel pressure to remain silent about it.

Suddenly the mood in the auditorium shifted. Now the boys had questions. They did not want the session to end. But what happened after the event was significant. A number of boys surrounded me. It was as if a dam had broken. Then a girl who piped up: “Why don’t we speak about the sexual abuse that boys face? Why only girls?”

I wanted to hug them all. But I could only promise that I would come back soon and we would talk about every and anything. This is what young people often want—a free and safe space to talk. This is the aim of our campaign #StandWithMe – Be my safe space that we, at Breakthrough, are running.

Breakthrough is a global human rights organization with a mission to make violence against women and girls unacceptable. Throughout this campaign, we were able to have bold conversations on topics like consent, being asexual, violence faced by transgendered youth, and segregation. The idea behind #StandWithMe is to demonstrate how gender-inclusive safer spaces can be created, and what they will look like.

The message of the campaign is simple. It is a call to be each other’s safe space, and that empathy is the starting point of any such journey. How can we achieve this? By directing all our efforts towards initiating and sustaining as many conversations as we can.

There is a resounding view among young people that most conversations around sex, sexuality, gender, harassment, etc. break down or never start because we are so judgmental. An open inter-generational dialogue mostly doesn’t happen.

One solution that most adults and institutions adopt to end sexual harassment is to segregate boys and girls. So there are separate buses, schools, colleges, or classes. Even if boys and girls land up in the same space, the girls sit on one side of the room and the boys on the other.

When we raised this issue among the students at the college in Haryana we were taken aback at what they had to say. They did not want segregated spaces. The teachers too agreed. They said that often it was the parents who felt more comfortable sending their daughters to girls-only institutions. The young people felt that this was not preparing them for life, where they eventually have to work and live together. A must-watch video on this topic:

If we want to create safe spaces, first and foremost we have to ensure that they are gender inclusive and encourage open dialogue. It is not about being right or wrong, sure or unsure, but about being open. I could not believe the responses that came in during our campaign. Some examples:

“I am asexual and the biggest problem I face is that people have no idea about asexuality. There is not enough history on this, and the movement to build awareness on asexuality has not even started out. When I was in school, one of my most prominent experiences was the peer pressure to be in a sexual relationship.”

“When I was out on my first date ever, I was determined to get the consent bit right. I knew that I was supposed to ask for consent, not just before but also throughout. On our date, we were fooling around, so before every step, I’d stop to ask ‘Do you consent to this?’ I was younger then and my asking for consent again and again was immensely unsexy to her (she asked me to stop asking)! Today, I use a host of other methods like looking at the person’s expressions. But it’s still immensely important for me to ask for consent—not just before but throughout.”

We managed to reach more than 13 million people across our social media platforms with serious engagement. #StandWithMe is the open space that we have created to break this culture of silence. We are engaging young people and giving them the platform to have a conversation.

Within a span of three months we have spoken about topics that are generally swept under the rug. A lot of these conversations stemmed from personal narratives. It is a good feeling to know that we are able to create a space where people are comfortable in sharing these personal stories. These voices make the campaign stronger and louder.

It is November already and we have an event happening in Delhi as part of the #StandWithMe campaign. The idea is to extend the campaign to the physical public spaces that we inhabit and make them gender-inclusive and safer. What we will witness is women pushing the boundaries and rightfully reclaiming public spaces without any kind of fear for their wellbeing. We look forward to an exciting weekend and hope for a lot of you to be a part of it. The joy of challenging, resisting, and celebrating is much greater when all of us come together. The togetherness emanates the strength that we are all seeking.

Our #StandWithMe campaign is only a few months old. Our journey of treading on a path of understanding, acceptance and open, diverse conversations has begun.

For me, the question asked by the girl after that open discussion in Haryana made me realize that we were on to something good. I hope to keep working towards expanding these spaces, spaces which will always be marked by inclusivity and flexibility.

For us at Breakthrough, our ultimate goal is ending gender-based violence. Our journey so far has been marked by various campaigns and projects. Through this post, I have shared with all of you a snippet of one of our most recent campaigns, an attempt to bring about normative change.

As we celebrate International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, I am glad to have this space to share my thoughts and our work. On this day for celebrating human rights, and on every other day that follows, I hope all our individual stories and voices will pour into the cauldron of collective strength, which if stirred will simmer to reach the brim: change. A changed society, where you and I are the safe spaces we seek.

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