The Violence Free Zone Campaign by Mary Dwyer

June 30, 2010:
It is a roller coaster ride of a morning. Not what I was expecting from a standard volunteer workshop to talk about the challenges and successes of the “Violence Free Zone Campaign.”

At the start of the workshop I thought I had a pretty good idea of what to expect. I had been working for Vikalp Sansthan, an NGO that focuses on legal advocacy for child marriage, female feticide, and domestic violence. I had done a lot of research on the Violence Free Zone campaign in hopes that I could get them funding for three more years of work. I knew all about the strategies of using visual materials to reach illiterate audiences, was familiar with the difficulties of bringing a traditionally private issue into the public sphere, and had read quarterly reports from the last two years of the campaign. But I was about to learn that reading about things can only take you so far.

When our translator arrives, he sits between me and my male co-worker. He faces away from me and begins to translate what is being said from Hindi to English. Every ten minutes or so, he turns to me and summarizes in a sentence what is going on. Within a half hour, he has stopped translating for me entirely. At first I just sit patiently, convinced that things will improve. Then I start to get angry, until I am just sitting there fuming about the situation, but not wanting to make waves by saying something to my translator.

At our first break, my co-worker asks our translator to please split his time evenly between the two of us. The irony of being dependent on my male co-worker to stand up for me at a women’s empowerment workshop is not lost on me, but I am happy to finally have an idea of what is going on. As the first activity of the day, the workshop participants are put into pairs. They talk to their partners and then present their findings to the whole group. One of the few male volunteer stands and begins to tell the story of his partner. A young girl, my age, but smaller than me, married off by her parents in the traditional Indian way. Though her parents paid the requested dowry, her in-laws and husband demand more. When the don’t receive it, they beat her, or on a good night, throw her out of the house. She finally gets out with the help of a Vikalp volunteer, who finds out about her through Vikalp’s household visiting program, and becomes a volunteer herself, working to help other young women break free.

I am on the edge of tears for a million and one reasons. I am happy for the young volunteer, who has managed to be one of the few women able to break the cycle of violence in her life, but devastated that she had to live through such an experience. I am floored by the fact that I have trouble asserting myself with a translator who works for me, when women around the world have to work up the courage to stand up to their husbands and boyfriends. I am realizing for the first time on a personal level that the difference between countries is both great and small. Individuals are born into drastically different circumstances, but there is room for common understanding. Finally I am proud to be working for Vikalp, amazed by the work that they’re doing and the results they have to show for it. After all, I’m sitting on the floor right across from one of those results. She is a volunteer in the circle just like I am. If this is an hour in your typical workshop, the rest of my time here is sure to be life-changing.