Friday, June 19, 2015

Patriarchy, Politics, and Violence against Women: Delhi's Self-Defense Program for Girls

Since 2002, Delhi’s Special Police Unit for Women and Children’s (SPUWAC) has trained over 125,000 women and girls in a mixture of physical fitness and martial arts techniques that are intended to protect them from assault, harassment, or “eve-teasing” (often known as “catcalling” in the United States). 

On Friday, June 5th, I had the opportunity to attend SPUWAC’s self-defense program finale. The crowded auditorium was filled with female students who had participated in the 15-day self-defense program, along with their teachers and faculty, NGOs, and media.

As this year’s self-defense course culminated, SPUWAC also launched the unit’s very first self-defense manual and training DVD for girls. The manual and video include step-by-step photographs and directions for defense maneuvers that can be used to disable an attacker in cases of harassment and assault.The manual describes what to do if an attacker puts his hands around your throat, grabs you from the back, shoves you, pins you down, or attempts to use a knife. I have to admit, it was hard to watch the self-defense video. I spent a lot of time during the presentation covering my mouth with my dupatta and laughing... 

No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t take the video’s recommendations seriously. Many of the situations and maneuvers were dangerously unrealistic for the young, school-aged girls at whom the manual and video were directed. In several instances, the video depicts a woman deftly disarming an attacker and flipping him to the ground. Another example shows a woman using her handbag to choke an auto rickshaw driver if he goes the wrong direction and refuses to turn around.

After screening the video, Delhi’s Police Commissioner Bhim Bassi, took the stage to speak about the self-defense initiative’s success. Bassi congratulated the schoolchildren who had completed the training, and explained why he believed that self-defense was the most effective solution to violence against women in Delhi. 

Bassi started by acknowledging that sexual harassment and rape are problems faced by all nations, regardless of socioeconomics or degree of development. Even if it’s hard to believe, this statement is true: violence against women is a global epidemic without boundaries. The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine’s recent analysis of primary data from 80 countries found that the lifetime prevalence of violence against women is 35%. This means more than 1 in every 3 women across the world experience physical or sexual violence during their lifetime.

However, Bassi’s perspective (and the Delhi police’s position) on violence against women began to unravel from here. Bassi proceeded to say that changing the violent psychological mindset of men is a slow and difficult process. Apologizing to NGOs and activists in the crowd who advocate for gender equality, he said that the Delhi Police cannot waste time trying to shift men’s attitudes towards women. Bassi blamed men’s “natural genetic disposition” their aggressive behavior and violence. "
Delhi Police Commisioner Bhim Bassi
In order to see immediate change, Bassi said, women and girls must work to bridge the natural physical gap between males and females. “Men will not risk assaulting a woman if she is capable of hurting him,” Bassi said, “Men prey on women because they know they won’t face any resistance or injury. He substantiated his theory with anecdotal evidence, saying men don’t harass or assault other men because they fear the consequences.

If women and girls are capable, confident, and empowered to take action, Bassi explained, then men will be too afraid to commit violence and perpetrate harassment. In fact, there is some recent evidence that empowerment self-defense training can successfully prevent rape and sexual assault. In a large scale study at Canadian universities, a 12-hour self-defense program for female students reduced attempted sexual assault by 63%. 

But is it ethical or effective for government institutions to take this approach to preventing violence against women on a societal scale?
Share your opinions in the comments! I’ll share my perspective (along with some relevant stats) in a second installment on the blog - coming soon!

Sona Jani
University of Michigan, School of Public Health |

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