Ahmedabad Women’s Action Group (AWAG) is a not-for-profit organization whose vision is to support women who are victims of domestic violence by helping them assert their individuality and empowering them towards financial independence. AWAG backs women achieve social justice so that they can assert their identity as crucial members of their family, society and overall economy of the country. A holistic approach is adopted towards women’s empowerment whereby women’s rights are seen as a basic human right.
Vinita Kinra: Welcome to Global Asian Times, Tasneem. The mission of AWAG is to protect women from domestic abuse. How does your organization help them in becoming financially independent once they are out of an abusive relationship?
Tasneem Sara: At Ahmedabad Women’s Action Group (AWAG), we provide holistic service of a full cycle from counselling to empowerment. When a woman steps into AWAG’s premises, we make sure that she walks out dignified, healthy and economically independent. For example, when Lata Parmar, 34, knocked at our door four years back, all she had was a bruised face, a tattered old bag that contained some of her belongings, and a child that was atrociously malnourished. Lata was immediately taken into our shelter home and in a span of few days, her spirits were uplifted. Psychological and legal counselling was provided to her which boosted her self-confidence. In the midst of her personal struggles, police complaints and law suits, AWAG trained Lata to stitch and sew and she became a successful seamstress producing value-based products. In the current scenario, Lata is the head of the large social enterprise structure that AWAG undertakes as part of its income generation wing.
Vinita Kinra: What triggered the idea for your association and how did you execute this noble vision to empower women suffering from violence?
Tasneem Sara: Dr. Ila Pathak founded the Ahmedabad Women’s Action Group. Dr. Pathak was a professor of English language and free-lance journalist addressing women’s concerns. Her passion towards feminism lead her to establish AWAG in 1981 with her young colleagues and students. Since then, AWAG (acronym means noise), has been consistently working to protest all kinds of violence against women. Dr. Pathak, an ardent and fervent feminist, held firm on her concepts and always believed that, “Save a Woman, Save a Family”. Her courageous and consistent work among women from various political, social and cultural backgrounds symbolized her secular humanism. Today, after three decades, the organization follows her footsteps and has been successful in bringing scintillating changes in the lives of thousands of women across Gujarat.
Vinita Kinra: Do you think attitudes towards women are changing in India today as compared to previously?
Tasneem Sara: Since India is a country that is very firmly grounded in social and cultural norms, a woman’s role is closely knitted in terms of family duties and social obligations. This makes it difficult for an Indian woman to break shackles of her social life and be independent. However, things are slowly changing now, especially in the metros. Considering the rural regions of India, more needs to be done in bringing a change in people’s attitude towards women. As compared to previously, several laws and refinements have been added in the Indian legislature that are inclined towards women’s benefits. We have the “Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005.” Sadly, however, India still needs to gear up for implementation structure of these laws.
Vinita Kinra: How do you spread the word among women so that they can come to your organization for help?
Tasneem Sara: AWAG’s strength lies in its intricate chain of community leaders. AWAG invests in training local grassroots women to become community leaders. This gives us a fine outreach to spread the word. Apart from this, AWAG’s networks with many other organizations refer a distressed woman to us; somebody suffering from mental or physical abuse. As for the rural areas, AWAG has made successful connections with primary health centers. Women turning up there are guided to AWAG in relevant cases. Currently, AWAG holds a strong impact on the online forum which serves a broad bandwidth to reach out to people efficiently and directly.
Vinita Kinra: Sensitizing police towards women’s issues is still tough in the Indian patriarchal system. How much progress has AWAG made in this field?
Tasneem Sara: Dr. Ila Pathak was a visionary. Long back she had undertaken the task to sensitize the police force of Gujarat towards the plight of women affected by domestic violence. AWAG has succeeded in incorporating quite a few important norms in the police training manual. In relation to this, AWAG proposed state-run counselling centers for District Police Offices and Metropolitan commissions to counsel women in distress and perpetrators of violence in case a complaint is registered against them. However, since the Indian tradition is quite patriarchal, changing people’s mindset towards women’s issues still remains a big challenge. So is the case with sensitizing police. AWAG and similar organizations take baby steps towards this cause, which, even with its miniscule change, makes the overall effort worthwhile.
Vinita Kinra: What is your vision for women in Ahmedabad in the next decade?
Tasneem Sara: Ahmedabad is gradually budding into a metro. So along with all the progress, there is a tremendous change in all aspects. Hence, development and positive change for women is scaling up, be it social, economic or political sphere. Women are recognized and given access to sectors previously forbidden. As for the next decade, AWAG wishes to see women from all economic and social backgrounds having equal access to education, jobs and quality life; women to be free from violence and abuse.
Vinita Kinra: In your perspective, why are rural women so vulnerable? Is it lack of education or just a mindset that has been cultivated to accept male dominance?
Tasneem Sara: Rural Indian women are tied up in multiple webs which makes them all the more vulnerable. A number of factors add to this situation such as lack of proper formal education and traditional patriarchal hierarchy. Also, rural women are physically, mentally and emotionally more vulnerable. The poor sanitary and healthcare conditions, lesser nutrition, hours of tiresome work in the fields and factors such as early marriage, blind faiths etc. add to vulnerability of rural women in India.
Vinita Kinra: India needs more organizations like AWAG. Do you think the government is serious about women’s issues?
Tasneem Sara: The government in its own ways supports organizations like AWAG and from time to time comes up with campaigns that are in favor of women. However, a lot needs to be done in this field actively. For a vast country like India, the impact and implementation of campaigns and laws related to women’s issues should be quick and effective. In the current scenario, there are a lot of such attempts, but the implementation is comparatively slow.
Vinita Kinra: In your opinion, why don’t parents help women once they get married?
Tasneem Sara: For a rural woman, it takes a lot of courage to break the social shackles and get independent, unless a strong back-up is provided to her. AWAG has a good network with offices in rural Gujarat where a woman in need can be supported via shelter, appropriate legal and psychological counselling. There is more vulnerability in cases of rural woman in terms of support and safety; however, organizations like AWAG strive hard to reach them.
Vinita Kinra: What are your future plans to assist women in need?
Tasneem Sara: As the social, political and economic scenario of India is changing rapidly, so should the work pattern and approach for organizations like AWAG that deal with women’s issues. Standing form in the vision and mission on which AWAG was built, our organization wishes to go to a next level by digging other interconnected issues and challenges for the next generation of young women. Currently, AWAG is actively exploring areas of health and sanitation for women, and in near future we would target short-term and long-term goals to deal with issues such as Women and Cancer, Environment and Women’s Issues, Women’s Empowerment etc. so as to make a woman totally independent in the true sense of the word.
Please note: Tasneem Sara is the Communication & Networking Officer for Ahmedabad Women’s Action Group (AWAG), India.
Vinita Kinra is a Toronto-based author, editor, speaker and activist, best known for her short story collection, Pavitra in Paris, launched to critical acclaim in 2013. She is also a contributor for India’s largest English daily, The Times of India.