How Personal Stories of Violence Can Change the Dynamic Between Trainers and Trainees
Early in 2018, Sharanya Gautam, Assistant Director at the Indian NGO Voices 4 Girls, travelled to the town of Jamshedpur in the state of Jharkand in eastern India to train community workers supporting adolescent empowerment.
The trainees worked in villages across Jharkand, organising small group discussions with local boys and girls. They had received numerous training sessions on health and nutrition, but Sharanya was one of the first trainers to broach the topics of mental health and gender-based violence.
Most of the trainees were older than Sharanya and the majority were raised in rural communities. While some held traditional views on gender roles, Sharanya recalled their willingness to talk openly about issues that remain taboo in some Indian communities.
“They talked about topics like menstruation, sexual relationships, and they apparently talk about love and all of that too—but they never really talk about sexual violence,” she said. When the topic of sexual violence against women was raised, the conversation became markedly more confrontational.
In a session on learning how to handle distress, Sharanya and her co-trainer discussed the question of how to respond if an adolescent boy or girl discloses that they have experienced violence. The group was receptive, but there was backlash when the issue of street harassment was raised.
Some of the trainees believed that women had a duty to defend themselves, and that if they did not respond—whether verbally or with physical force—that they had in some way forfeited their right to redress and support.
“It was clear that they thought women had to be responsible for their own protection, that they have to claim safety in public spaces, and it’s their fault if they aren’t able to do it. They thought that sharing details after the event was futile and unnecessary,” said Sharanya.
When the conversation reached an impasse, her co-trainer turned to storytelling. She spoke about how she was harassed in the street aged 11. She explained how someone groped her and ran away before she could react. She explained to the group how this event changed her whole experience of being in public spaces, and how it continues to affect her relationships today.
While many of the trainees started to understand through her testimony that disclosure is an important part of the healing process, one man was resistant to the idea. A two-hour long discussion ensued, but he refused to change his mind.
The next day, Sharanya and her co-trainer received anonymous evaluations from participants. On the whole, the reviews were glowing. “They said it was some of the best training they had ever had, but they were really unhappy that my co-facilitator had shared her experience of being harassed as a child,” Sharanya recalled.
Their objection, it seemed, was that the participants admired Sharanya and her co-trainer, but the disclosure of harassment had somehow tainted their perception of the two women trainers. “Their reaction was, ‘Now you’ve shared this story, we don’t see you as the same person that we wanted to, so we wished you hadn’t told us,’” Sharanya said. Even though, the trainees understood that sexual violence was prevalent, some couldn’t shift the idea that it taints a woman—even one they know and respect.
For Sharanya, this experience brought home an important lesson about the deeply ingrained nature of shame after sexual violence. “One of the major problems about how we engage with violence has a lot to do with the morality of being violated. There’s a lot of victim-blaming and victim-shaming. If you are violated, then you are seen as less like a whole person than somebody else,” said Sharanya.
Sharanya’s realised the importance of combating shame in Indian society and trying to dislocate the problem of violence from women’s dignity. For all of the rapport that she and her co-trainer had built with their trainees, social norms around the morality of women survivors still determined the trainees’ response to a woman’s disclosure of a violent experience. It was “eye-opening”, Sharanya said, and raised many questions that she is still grappling with:
- How can you combat sexual violence when women’s morality is at stake?
- How do we go about preventing violence in families, marriages, relationships, schools and workplaces when seeking redress itself is tainted with shame and morality?
Sharanya concluded that using personal experience and storytelling to open up honest discussions was useful to start a dialogue to unpack harmful gender stereotypes. However, a much more comprehensive, long-term approach needs to be developed to deal with the deeply ingrained norms around victim-shaming.
Sharanya’s work has focused on girls’ education, designing and implementing adolescent specific life skills, emotional health and community peer leadership programmes. She has worked with grassroots organisations and projects across India, and contributed through programme and curriculum design, formative research, capacity building and training, process and programme documentation, and communications. Currently, she is working with CorStone, a non-profit that runs adolescent girl focused personal resilience programmes in government schools in Bihar. Sharanya was a Chevening Scholar (2016-17), and has post graduate degrees in Social Policy and Planning (London School of Economics, 2017), and Media and Cultural Studies (Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, 2010). Sharanya currently lives in New Delhi.