Sophie Mae Berman ’22, Intern with Swayam, Kolkata, India

Swayam means “oneself.” A women’s rights organization based in Kolkata, India, Swayam was founded in 1995 with the goal of empowering survivors of violence to become self-reliant and self-confident. Although India’s laws address violence against women, survivors often are isolated from these protections by social stigma, which fuels communal silence and state inaction. Swayam provides services to women, helping survivors to access rights and entitlements by serving as bridge to institutions including: the judiciary, police, and government representatives. Through legal counsel, therapy, and a group support system, women can overcome abuse to reclaim their dignity and autonomy. However, Swayam believes that psychological and legal aid is not enough. Swayam also empowers women to be agents of change, providing a network resource for survivors who have formed an autonomous literary magazine “Prayas,” musical theater and vocal performance groups, crafting a web of growing unity. Survivors are driven to sustain a long lasting change – where women are recognized as equal stakeholders and craftsmen of society. Swayam works to change the perception of violence against women and gender roles, organizing awareness campaigns and community discussions to reveal the influence of patriarchy’s ideological power.

As an intern with Swayam, I designed a research framework and survey questions to gather the stories of its survivors, and learn how they have renegotiated the underlying social narratives of community exchange. This summer I collaborated with a caseworker to chronicle the story of a first year college student, enduring a professor’s sexual and physical abuse. The ongoing case study will serve as a tool for future workshops about VAW in higher education and work environments. Forming the Men and Boys Groups, Swayam recognizes that the call for an equal society demands and compels the support of all members. To examine how Swayam’s workshops have interacted with more subtle and ambivalent forms of gender bias, I wrote survey questions to gauge how men perceive women’s rights, freedoms, and family power dynamics.

Swayam predominantly works in Metiabruz, an urban community within Kolkata and Diamond Harbour, a rural municipality of South 24 Parganas District situated on the eastern banks of the Hooghly River. Swayam’s tailoring programs in both of these locations have helped women to become financially independent in order to gain economic freedom. Survivors in these distrcits have founded core leadership          groups, called Nari Shakti, “women power” and Isaaf Ki Awaz, “the sound of justice.” I designed a research framework and survey questions to learn about women core group members’ intervention in cases of violence, mobilization in community awareness, and their exchange with state agents such as police, councils, and local government. Survivors recalled being defamed and ridiculed when asking state agents when asking for assistance.

They explained how Swayam’s trainings in basic civil and criminal law equips them with knowledge about the documentation and proceedings in cases of violence, providing them with credibility required to approach law enforcement and challenge opposition by citing statues and regulations. Core members spoke about the threats and narratives impressed upon them by family members when they joined IKA who termed the group deviant or worthless. These women claimed the IKA as a source of refuge and power, emboldening them to challenge violence and rely on each other for support. Some recalled the group’s efforts intervening in cases of dowry violence, child marriage, and financial oppression. I look forward to synthesizing and sharing their stories in Swayam’s 2019 annual report.

I am grateful to the Skidmore community for making my work in Kolkata possible, to everyone at Swayam, and the women core group members, whose strength and courage is inspiring.








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