Priya Varadarajan confesses she is always very excited to see women laughing, joking or standing in a corner and perhaps smoking, in short women having a time of their lives on a day-to-day basis. 

Founder of Durga, Varadarajan in her day job leads the gender justice vertical of Azeem Premji Foundation. She studied to be a chartered accountant but believes being a financial analyst is the most boring job. In a free-wheeling chat with SheThe People Varadarajan tells us about Durga, rampant gender-based discrimination, sexual harassment and the role an active bystander can play in calling it out, her theatre workshops, being a social entrepreneur and so on.

 Varadarajan confesses “I have lived in Bangalore all my life, and faced differential treatment just because of my gender. This bothered me and worried me for a very long time. I have always been a rebel. In my own ways, I have fought things and moved away from the stereotypes.”

DURGA (Dare to understand behaviour, respond appropriately and guard ourselves ably), also the organisation behind panic buttons or ‘Durga alarms’ in buses BMTC buses, works towards achieving equitable sharing of public places.

How Durga Happened

“I started writing about women who despite being short-changed had chosen to walk on the road not taken. I kept wondering why women doing something became a big issue when it remained normal and regular for a man. Then I went for a theatre course – Theatre of the oppressed. It is a theatre form where you take a problem to a community which they are facing, for the community to first resonate with it, then to start solutioning.”  

It was the Nirbhaya case which pushed Varadarajan to give a formal face to her endeavours. “I registered the organisation. So, my work was that every time I faced sexual harassment, I would go out to find why it happened to me. So, the only person I could walk up to and ask was the perpetrator. I got all kinds of response from ‘you are occupying my space’ and ‘I am not even interested in you’ to ‘I am not even looking at you’ and so on. What I arrived at is, men came from a space of entitlement they come from a fact that they have a right to look at you the way they want to, second, if you take that right away, and if the question that they get put off and the third thing I learnt was if you question them then they are not interested.”

Durga has been a ten-year-long journey, she tells us. “We work on women safety; we try and equip women and girls to address safety in their own way. We are working at the grassroots, it is largely limited to urban spaces. We use theatre extensively as a tool. Through these workshops, they figure out up to what point in any inappropriate behaviour or a bad relationship are they ok taking it. We only show a situation and start culling out solutions from the participants.”

Role of an Active Bystander

Durga has an endeavour called DARE: Durgas Are Real Heroes Everywhere. Varadarajan explains “today our Durgas are street vendors, these are people who spend more than 10 hours on the road. We engage with them over 21 days. So we put the power back in the hands of the people.”

On current scenario

Whether it is shooting of Ballabgarh college student, Hathras, Buxar, Balrampur rape cases, or the case of the 16-year-old boy from Gujarat who sent rape threats to MS Dhoni’s daughter, Varadarajan says, “ It’s a show of lust and power, sexual violence is most often about power. The power imbalance actually starts home. Father’s taking radical decisions, men owning everything, women being far more docile. Whatever you see as expressions of frustration at home that then translates into the acts. Our first circle of influence is at home, so unless we free our boys, to express, emote and be weak and be themselves, we are not helping build a good nation for them.”

 On marital rape

More than a law criminalising marital rape Varadarajan feels, “It is about the woman acknowledging it because she is taught that her job is to satisfy her husband in the bed. Today we are not even talking about violence in marriage. Everything for a woman is marriage, and if her marriage is not successful you will judge her. If we have laws we also need to equip a person to use these laws, and then the community shouldn’t judge her.”

The typical challenges’ social entrepreneurs face in India

Varadarajan feels there is “No intent from the government to support initiatives that happen. While social entrepreneurs have great models and ideas, they still need resources. To pay for people resource we need financial resource and we don’t have an environment to raise this.”

Have women been the collateral damage of this pandemic?

Varadarajan says “Women and girls, and the wider disadvantaged genders had the worst of this pandemic, a lot of which may never catch the public’s eye. Violence has grown, more women have lost jobs, more sorts of sexual harassment and workplace harassment as emerged. The girls are struggling to go to school, their marriages have been fixed. Many organisations working in remote areas of Jharkhand and Odisha and Chhattisgarh, where getting girls to school was their actual work, all their work in so many years has been reversed. The effort they put in building capacity and agency has all gone back-tracked. Girls have no digital access either, the digital divide is crazy.”

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