Priya Varadarajan sees herself as the everyday Indian woman – always concerned about safety in public spaces and tired to being at the receiving end of micro aggressions from men that often lead to much worse situations. But she is also different from the everyday woman who quietly accepts it.
About a decade ago, Priya launched Durga - an initiative to fight harassment of women at public spaces. A chartered accountant by qualification, Priya has worked with firms including Deloitte, EY and Infosys and with the British Government leading on Life Sciences for close to a decade. But she wanted do more in life than balance sheets. (She is presently the Gender Justice and Disabilities Lead at the Azim Premji Philanthropic Initiatives.)
In 2009-2010, Priya started forming the idea of Durga, in an effort to bring people together in the fight against harassment of women (or any other sexual minorities) in public space.
In a recent conversation with MAKERS India, Priya says, “We speak about rape and murder cases. But when it come to the cat-calling and staring (that often escalates to much worse) in public - no one was working in that space. We have normalized it so much that this issues was not worth talking about. The fact that it was not a meaty topic is why I decided to do something about it.”
Instead of growing Durga as an NGO with a large team and presence across the country and millions in funding, Priya wanted to make an impact in her hometown – Bangalore. “I started speaking about issues of safety to a lot of people in the US and the UK whenever I would travel, to see how sexual harassment is addressed there. Durga started by working with children, using tools like theatre and games to make it interactive and fun,” she says.
With adults too, Priya adds, theatre has been an efficient method of engagement rather than lectures. “We make the participants do role reversals in our workshops – say a man takes the role of a woman, and experience things which women experience.”
In an effort to create more active bystanders, Durga also works with the Transport department. “We work with bus drivers and conductors, who can make women feel safer in their buses. We build a relationship with them by talking to them about their own problems with the job. Once a good relationship is built, they start seeing us from where we come from. We tell them that women’s safety in their buses is their responsibility,” Priya tells MAKERS India.
Likewise, Durga works with street vendors too. “We would buy a chai from the street tea seller for 21 days, and build a relationship with them and tell them eventually that this is your street. This gives you your bread. So can you make sure the space is safe for all the people who come at that space? So they get invested gradually,” Priya explains, adding that even during the COVID-19 period, the NGO has managed to procure rations for them, thereby keeping in touch.
The NGO also works with children in juvenile homes as well as from underprivileged sections; but the Coronavirus-related lockdown has restricted access to them.
However, Priya says that their work with college students has continued through online channels, and that she was pleasantly surprised by the enthusiasm shown by male students. “During the lockdown period, they have managed to take down more than 1000 posts on Instagram and Facebook which were inappropriate and anti-women,” she adds proudly.
Durga, a not-for-profit organisation funded by CSR and institutional donors, also has an initiative called ‘Take a Step’ to empower women facing gender issues to take the complains to the authorities. “We facilitate her taking each step. We've partnered with other NGOs who do counselling as well as with lawyers. We are also working with the police and cyber-crime department closely. This is all done pro bono, free of charge to the woman in question.
That India is no country for women may be a truism, but women like Priya, with hard work and dedication, prove that there is still hope for a better world.
(Interview by Athira Nair; Produced by Urmi Chatterjee)