A 16-year-old girl in Dublin instinctively becomes “more careful” about her surroundings if she is stepping out after dark. A 14-year-old girl in Calcutta returning home in the evening from tuition has learnt from an early age to “ignore” boys in the neighbourhood who size her up.
Concerns of girls and women remain much the same across geographies, a reality highlighted by the One Billion Rising movement that hit town on Saturday evening.
The Calcutta leg of OBR India 2019, presented by the Kolkata Mary Ward Social Centre in collaboration with the Eastern Zonal Cultural Centre, was like a giant wave of activism, unity and resistance against atrocities on girls and women.
For more than three hours, the area in front of the Simpark Mall adjacent to New Market turned into a stage for stories and performances that forced people to stop, hear, see and think.
“In the last four years, we had organised the programme in relatively closed spaces like schools and parks. But we felt we should be brave enough to take this to a more open space so that we can reach out to many more people and raise awareness in a much larger way,” said Sister Monica Suchiang, director of the Kolkata Mary Ward Social Centre.
Joining the campaign for two weeks is a group of 20 schoolgirls from the Irish capital of Dublin. These students of Loreto College, St Stephen’s Green, have been visiting slums and schools in the city to raise awareness about what the OBR movement stands for.
“I have to be more careful when I am travelling alone and cannot move as freely as my two brothers get to do. What is being discussed here today is relevant to women across the globe,” said 16-year-old Tara O’Sullivan, one of the visitors from Ireland.
A sex worker in her 40s shared the story of how she shielded her 12-year-old daughter and resisted attempts to force her into prostitution. “It was not easy but I was determined that my daughter would not go the route that I was forced to take. I kept her away and she now goes to a south Calcutta school,” said the woman to thunderous applause from the gathering.
A performance by students of La Martiniere for Girls broke the hesitation to talk about atrocities like marital rape, dowry, female infanticide and acid attacks. “We wanted to talk about marital rape because in many families, people are not even aware of it. Using the excuse of a woman being a wife (of the aggressor) does not justify rape. Women have to protest and not take it lying down,” said Class XI student Ranjini Ghosh.
Gouri Basu, director of the Eastern Zonal Cultural Centre and chief guest at the programme, said: “We should speak in one voice to protest against atrocities on women.”
The organisers of the event had distributed 2,000 bands bearing the message “Rise! Resist! Unite!” along with pamphlets containing phone numbers that women can call to share their own or other people’s stories of discrimination and sexual harassment.
The One Billion Rising movement was started by Eve Ensler to take “activism out of the theatre and into the streets and communities across the globe”.