Working with the Barrackpore Avenue Women’s Culture and Social Welfare Society (BAWCSW), I see the people in the community with whom I work as part of my family. BAWCSW was established in 2016 with the aim to help the most disenfranchised people in India. The social structures of caste and patriarchy in India result in discrimination against minorities, especially against the women, children, and elders. In many cases, the feminist struggles of society are lacking since women are not allowed to express their opinion and are supposed to “stand behind the curtains.”
Culture is something that should be cherished and nurtured. It is an important part of any community or group of people. Yet, when the culture is distorted, it can have a destructive face. If elements of the culture are not benefitting the people, it should not remain as part of the culture.
One way to deal with social problems caused by the misinterpretation of culture values can be seen in the work of BAWCSW. The Peace Support Group (PSG) and the shelter for children and elders were created to decrease communal disharmony in society.
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The organization provides accommodations for foreign and national volunteers so as to facilitate their stay in the organization’s homes.
The volunteers get a chance to work with the grassroots level community. They can use their innovative ideas and contribute to the peacebuilding efforts of the organization.
There is a “peace project” where mediation and counseling, especially in cases of domestic violence and adolescent conflict, are undertaken.
The Peace Support Group by Women
The PSG program was established in 2006. This program started after conducting a series of seminars on women’s rights and legal aid. It was from here that the PSG was formed. This is an activity for women to serve as peace advocates in their community. This initiative surfaced due to the aspects of the culture in India that have deprived women of their rights to education, to select their own partner in life, and to make their decision to pursue a career and what they would like to do.
Another element of the culture that has had a negative impact on women is the desirability of a male child over a female in the family. A woman who conceives a female baby would most likely be compelled to abort it. This is common throughout India and is prevalent without regard for social status, whether middle class, upper class or even the lowest class in society. Thus, the PSG also promoted the right of women to carry a baby girl.
There is a high percentage of domestic abuse of women in India. It’s primarily related to the marriage custom in India where the family of the woman must pay a dowry of an amount commensurate with the wealth and stature of the groom’s family. If the woman’s family is unable to pay the agreed-upon dowry, the woman is subjected to abuse or even torture by the husband or his family. In some cases, the women have even been killed, burnt or sent back to her family’s home until the demand is fulfilled. There are countless families in dowry debts in India, though statistics are hard to come by since demanding dowry has been illegal in India since the 1960s, and so dowry processes are done in the shadows.
The PSG works hard to see that women are able to assert their rights, stay with her family, and find legal aide. We sometimes negotiate at the community level, conducting mediation between families. However, these actions can also be frightening as many of the mediators have been insulted and sent back home. PSG workers and volunteers have had to face a lot of abuse from the families, religious leaders and even from some of the politicians.
In the political sphere, women have developed the habit of voting for candidates for whom the men order them to vote. Women do not even know who the candidates are. As such, they are unable to practice their democratic rights. The PSG is hoping that women will become more aware of these and other rights through its programs.
Working with Police to Solve Crimes Against Women
Without their basic rights, women lack any recourse to protection from crimes committed against them. Creating partnership with local police is one of the solutions to solve domestic violence or violation of rights of the girl child and woman. The PSG facilitated this through peace mediation and conflict transformation. The women negotiators and facilitators from PSG help police officers handling cases of violence against women through a peacebuilding approach. They report every day to the police station where they have a special desk. If there is a call at any time of the day or night, someone from the PSG will be there.
Currently, every case related to women is transferred to the PSG. If there are families or other parties having a conflict, the PSG, together with a local counselor and religious leader, will conduct a mediation process at the police station. This includes a large population in the Barrackpore area, but the success rate has been quite high. With this success, the PSG received permission from the police commissioner to continue the program. The PSG is the only organization that has been permitted to provide such service. Currently, about 70 percent of the cases are finished through negotiation and mediation, and only about 10 to 12 percent of the cases go to court. Cases that do go to court require a lot of negotiation and mediation.
Restoring Humanity and Dignity
Peace for women also requires a level of financial independence. BAWCSW also emphasized the need for livelihood and helps to create livelihood projects. It is a strategy that allows women to more easily get out of the house and take entrepreneur training as well as BAWCSW’s legal aspect seminar. Those women can obtain small loans to begin microenterprises. Partner banks train the women on how to open a bank account.
BAWCSW has also built shelters for the elderly and children and a small school in a village area. School fees are paid and there is a nutrition program for the children. The program develops skills through dance class, yoga, English lessons, computer class and more. The children are mostly from poor families, street children, and children at risk. One child came from an area known for prostitution. Her mother supported her living in the shelter so her daughter would not follow her path.
The elders that live in the shelter are from among the many cases where a son or daughter neglected to take care of them. Since the shelter for children and elderly is located in one compound, it is like a natural family gathering. Those foster children are like the grandchildren of the elders.
Recognizing a person’s humanity and restoring her/his dignity is one of the highest principles of BAWCSW. The elderly and the children are among the most vulnerable groups if they do not have anyone to stand by them. Even without seeing any background of the elders and children, the team is ready to offer the maximum service.
One of the most memorable moments with the elderly was when I was attending a Hindu burial ceremony of an old woman from one of the shelters. She did not have any relatives present. I took the role of her child, for it is the rule in the Hindu religion that a child conducts the burial ceremony for the parents. Although I am a Catholic, I was more than willing to conduct the Hindu rituals.
Unfortunately, BAWCSW has struggled with funding for the elderly. They are not seen as productive anymore, and few funders are concerned about the issues of the elderly. Despite this, BAWCSW continues with its mission to “Touch Lives and Bring Smiles to Sad Lips.”
Peacebuilder Inspires Peacebuilder
The peacebuilding training at MPI was a life-changing experience. I had never been far away from my family for three weeks. The three courses I took—Introduction to Conflict Transformation, Conflict Resolution Skills and Trauma Healing—lifted my spirits and developed my knowledge for running a new social project in India. I appreciated the exchange of values with participants from different countries with diverse social issues where they work.
The courses at MPI were not only a place to listen to lectures, but the facilitators encouraged a high level of discussion and strong team bonding between participants, staff and facilitators. I believe that all of the participants will have gone home with new hopes and dreams to create a better life in the world by contributing more to peacebuilding in their respective places.
I will transfer what I have learned to five or six recent trainees in BAWCSW, and I intend to share this with the women in the community. While participating in the peacebuilding training at MPI, I developed the new idea of conducting peace education with male children. Male children have priority in the family. In the long run, it will change the male’s role in the family to one that promotes peace and in turn decreases violence against women.
Camille Johnson is the secretary and one of the founders of the Barrackpore Avenue Women’s Culture and Social Welfare Society (BAWCSW) http://www.barrackporeavenue.org (https://www.facebook.com/BarrackporeSocialWelfare.