UNIFEM Informs seminar

No Single Path: Cultural Perspectives in overcoming Domestic Violence

Thursday 23 November 2006

Co-presented by UNIFEM Australia and The Bob Hawke Prime Ministerial Centre at UniSA

This November Seminar marks IDEVAW – The International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women.  It also formed part of the Women’s Safety Conference 23-24 November, 2006 organised through the SA Office for Women.


No Single Path: Many Ways of Dealing with Domestic Violence

Veena Poonacha, Professor and Director, Research Centre for Women’s Studies, SNDT Women’s University, Mumbai, India


This presentation discusses the potential of the Self Help Movement to deal with gender violence in India – a country of one billion people with considerable cultural diversity. Comprising 29 large states and 6 union territories, the country has 22 official languages and more than other 400 recognized languages and dialects. Against this backdrop, I hope to point out that there can be no single path to dealing with domestic violence. For instance, due to the constraints of funds and support services, such as counseling cells, shelter homes, half-way homes, etc. NGOs have experimented with a number of innovative strategies. These include, organizing women’s courts with the help of para-legal professionals to avoid lengthy court battles, the setting up of neighourhood vigilance committees to monitor vulnerable homes and the use community pressure to prevent domestic violence. These strategies have proved effective because by and large women in India do not want their marriages to break up. What they ask for is that the violence stops in the marriage but would not like to opt out of it. This is largely because there are very few options available for them outside the marriage. In India, when we talk of domestic violence, it would include violence perpetrated not merely by intimate partners, but also other members of the marital family. In fact the new Prevention of Domestic Violence Act of 2005 brings sisters, daughters and other female relatives in the family under the purview of the law.

The innovative practices developed in the Indian cultural context have proved effective in many instances. Yet there are instances when these strategies have failed. For instance, in a particular case, an NGO mediated through the community elders to prevent violence. The woman, who was sent back to her marital home with the assurance of the community elders, was shortly murdered by her husband.

It is therefore important to locate the various responses to domestic violence in the cultural context of the community. This is not to imply that cultures are static or unchanging over a period of time. Cultures are subject to the macro socio-economic and political realities that affect the community. This understanding of the dynamic interface between cultural traits and the macro socio-economic realities must also recognize the many internal cleavages in the community. For instance, in a recent case, in India, of the rape of a young Muslim woman by her father-in-law, the clerics in the village decreed that she should divorce her husband, treat him as her son and marry her father-in-law. This decree was criticized by the Muslims both within India and outside. But the point here is that the location of the community as a minority group embattled by socio-economic and political marginalization affects the prevailing culture. The central question that I wish to address here is the problem of accommodating cultural differences while dealing with domestic violence.

Here my focus is not on the prevailing laws in India protecting women from violence or on the various punitive, vigilance or conciliation mechanisms that the state has introduced to deal with domestic violence, in response to the struggles of the Indian women’s movement and the international outcry against it. The focus as mentioned earlier is on the potential offered by the Self Help Group movement initiated through a partnership between the state, NGOs and financial institutions to empower women and enable them to deal with all forms of community and family oppression.

The presentation begins by describing the Self Help Groups (SHGs) movement and will subsequently narrate the struggles of the women in a tribal community in the heart of the Dandakaranya forest a thousand miles from where I live in Mumbai to overcome some of their cultural and economic subordination. The struggle was triggered by the life and death of one of their companions called Babulbai. Set against the backdrop of the socio-economic and political changes that have affected the lives of this forest community, this narrative indicates the challenges and hardships faced by the development workers. In the process, I also wish to unravel some of the difficulties encountered in bringing about socio-economic change in the forgotten corners of rural India. For this story takes into account the impact of prolonged economic deprivations and political violence on the indigenous norms of control over women, as the village under study is caught between the crossfire of Maoist insurgency and brutal police repression. It indicates the courage of the indigenous women and the grassroots workers in their collective struggles against the existing patriarchal/class oppression as well as the structures of political intimidation. The narration also indicates how the life and death of an ordinary woman is erased from the living memory of the community through a process of collective denial. It indicates how a conspiracy of silence imposed upon the community by the power elite in the village, forever wipes out the truth about an ordinary woman’s attempt at self-assertion.

The Self Help Group Movement

The Self Help Group movement is currently promoted by the Indian Government as well as by the international agencies (such as, the World Bank, and International Fund for Agriculture Development). The understanding is that development should go beyond the basic needs approach (that concentrated on ensuring everybody had a minimum access to goods and services) to empowerment. Empowerment is seen as having both an individual and a group dimension: At the individual level, the process of empowerment is expected to enable a woman to be able to identify her goals and find the means to realize them. At a group level, it is expected to promote women’s active participation in the socio-economic and political life of the community and thereby change the existing gender relationships. The project strategies are as follows: 1) Grass-roots fieldworkers organize women into SHGs and encourage the members to save in banks; 2) the group is encouraged to meet their financial shortfalls through a process of internal borrowing; 3) once the groups attain stability, they are linked to the banks and enabled credit access; 4) simultaneously, the field workers provide opportunities to up-grade their skills, start new enterprises and link up with the market; and 5) women are empowered to challenge the indigenous structures of oppression which in the Indian context would refer to the prevailing caste, class and patriarchal oppression. Additionally, the programme addresses the following needs: 1) reducing women’s productive/reproductive drudgery by enabling women to access community resources of fuel, fodder and water; 2) building women’s capacities by strengthening functional literacy (defined broadly as including knowledge of their socio-political environment and access to government development programmes); 3) enabling women to participate in the decision-making process of the community (by developing their leadership capacities and ability to negotiate with the local governments; and most importantly 4) addressing issues of violence against women in the home and the community by creating support networks among women.

The village in which the protagonists of the story live is in Gadchiroli, one of the poorest districts of Maharashtra. The dense jungles in the eastern part of the district and its rugged hills provide cover for the Naxalites/Maoists—a revolutionary movement. Ideologically committed to the ideas of class struggle and the violent overthrow of the state, the movement is spread across the entire central region of India. The Maoist influence in this region is facilitated by the poor economic growth and the continued exploitation of the people by the forest officers and timber contractors. The tribal economy there revolves around the collection of minor forest produce (such as, bamboo, tendu leaves and firewood) and their sale to the local traders. The region is famous for its forest wealth of bamboo, tendu leaves and mahua flowers. Gadchiroli is a sparsely populated, multi-ethnic and multi-linguistic district. The most important ethnic groups in the region are the Gond tribes followed by various other caste groups. The languages spoken in Gadchiroli are Gondi, Madiya, Marathi, Hindi, Telugu, Bengali and Chattisgadi.

The Prelude to the Story

In search of the story of how a group of tribal women challenged some of the age-old customs, we reached Gadchiroli town from Nagpur. The village Bagul, inhabited by the Madia tribe, is about 151 kms from Gadchiroli town and is in the forest. The Madia Gonds, an extremely good-looking, lithe and active people had moved to the forest recess to avoid the harassment by the landlords during the British rule. Their villages are usually situated deep in the jungle near some wide shallow stream, which offers facilities for cultivation and the surrounding jungle supplement the dietary intake with fruits and meat.

To reach the Bagul village, we decided to take a road less traveled though the dense forest. As we were crossing the Maoist infested terrain, we saw that the Maoists had blasted a police anti-landmine armored vehicle and the place was teeming with police personnel. Our subsequent journey was not entirely without danger. We had to be vigilant against any possible landmines placed across the road. It was with a sense of relief that we reached the Traveller’s Bungalow (TB).

After resting awhile in a room, which showed every sign of neglect and lack of basic cleanliness, we went to the village. The village is part of the Mitti local government. The village-level data indicates that the village comprises 270 households; out of which, 96 households are Below Poverty Level, 22 are in the absolute poverty bracket and 152 households are Above Poverty Level. The village is neatly laid out with narrow pathways and drains. All the houses in the village are wooden structures plastered with mud and the roofs are covered with shingles. Each house with its courtyard is fenced with wooden planks. Near a cluster of houses are various rock memorials carved for those long dead and the village shrine exists a little outside the main cluster of house.

The village has a primary school, a crèche and a community center. These public utility spaces are ugly concrete structures constructed without imagination or understanding of the indigenous cultures. The community centre or gotul, which in the tribal culture plays a central role in the education and transmission of indigenous knowledge to the young boys and girls, has been built for them by the forest department; it remains locked most of the time and is used as a storage dump. What became apparent is that despite good intensions, the lack of sensitivity to the tribal customs, inevitably leads to the erosion of cultural practices. The forest department is dominated by non-tribal officers, who despise tribal culture and the sexual freedom given to young people in the gotul.

The village has electricity and there are two bore wells constructed by the government. The village also has a private well. The ration shop in the village has remained closed for some time now. The only means of transport to the village is to either walk or to cycle down. The occupation of the region is rice cultivation, hunting, collection of timber, tendu leaves and other forest produce. The men, women and children like to forage into the forest in search of the mahua flower, which they ferment into liquor. Their staple diet comprises of rice gruel, eaten occasionally with forest game and wild berries of the forest. The village has no irrigation and only two persons in the village have paid employment. There is no school after the primary level in the vicinity and the parents wishing to educate their children further are forced to send them away to the government boarding schools. This separation of the children from their families is also eroding the cohesion of the tribal community and undermining the culture.

The field workers of the programme had informed the women that we would be coming and that they should gather near the village school. The women were waiting for us and we were very warmly welcomed by them. After a round of introductions, the women started to talk about some of the problems of the village. They told us that there was only a primary school in the village. The teacher was not always regular and therefore their children tended to drop out of school. Without suitable education the children could not get into the higher classes. We were also informed about the various economic activities they wished to undertake through loans from the bank. Before concluding the programme, the women decided to perform a communal dance for us. In the dance, each woman placed her hand on the shoulder of the next woman and together they move in a circle taking three steps, while singing an impromptu song along with the chorus of re-la, re-la. Through this song we were welcomed to the village. Nevertheless, under the façade of bohemia, there was palpable fear. It was apparent that we were under surveillance; there were at least fifty Maoists holed up in the village and they kept a close watch over us. Burdened with the responsibility of ensuring our safety, our escort, Mira, fell ill with high blood pressure and had to be taken to the hospital.

We assumed that the tensions would have subsided the next day and that we would be able to talk to the women about the process of empowerment by which they decided to challenge certain deeply entrenched menstrual taboos in the village. This however could not take place as we were under the surveillance of the Maoists and the local power elite. The women were subdued and uncommunicative. The Police Patil’s wife constituted herself as our guide and escorted us around the village. We visited the forest shrine of the village and the Police Patil’s ketul. On our return, we sought another meeting with the village women, but they were still not willing to discuss the circumstances leading to Babulbai’s suicide or their attempts to break taboos. Mira then suggested that she and I will listen to the story inside the crèche while my other colleagues talked to the other women in the open courtyard. We could not however talk to the women, as two sullen looking men followed us into the crèche and sat through our discussions. We will never know if the two men were Maoists or just hostile members of the all-male tribal council resistant to our attempt to empower women. Some of the women had informed the fieldworkers that the tribal elders had called a meeting the previous night after we had left the village, and the women were warned not to talk to us.

The Story

The story that we were investigating was the story of how the tribal women had decided to break certain menstrual taboos in the village. The story that emerged was the story of the life and death of a middle-aged woman named Babulbai Morpatti which triggered a silent protest by the village women. Babulbai Morpatti was a mother of two grown up sons and a daughter. As a Madia-Gond woman living in one of the villages that had somehow been by-passed by the processes of development since Independence, her life largely revolved around her family and her community. Surviving on subsistence rice cultivation like the other members of her community, she often foraged into the forests in search of mahua flowers, the tor seed, the charoli fruit, the tendu leaf and other minor forest produces. Her needs, like that of the other members of the community were minimal.

Babubai was excited when the field worker from the SHG programme visited the village and talked to them about the programme. Realizing the importance of Self Help Group formation, she along with other women, organized themselves into Self Help groups and took the bold step of saving money in the Laxmi Cooperative Bank. This attempt to breakaway from the familiar pattern of existence in the village was, at the outset, looked on with indifference by the village leadership, but looked askance by the Maoists who frequented the village. To them, women’s attempts to access government schemes meant a weakening of their own hold over the village. The village, located close to the Maoists stranglehold in Chattisgarh, Andhra Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, was one of the many villages that offered them a safe haven from the police.

Undeterred by the Maoist threat, Babulbai and her many friends continued to meet regularly to discuss various issues and to initiate economic change. The Maoists sought to prevent them from saving their money. The women visited the bank secretly. They did not even dare keep their pass books in their homes, for one never knew when the Maoists would pay them an uninvited visit and rummage through their scant processions.

On 21 January 2003, Babulbai and her friends wished to participate in an important state-level meeting of the SHG movement with the Governor of the state in a nearby town. The programme continued through the day and at nightfall the women could not return to their village. It was only the next day that they were able to return home.

A married woman spending a night away from the safe haven of her home was a major breach in the prevailing customary practices in the community. In many ways the norms governing sexual relationships are liberal. There is no taboo regarding pre-marital relationships and the preference is for self-choice marriages with minimum parental interference. Due to the expenses involved in celebrating marriages, the young people are free to live together without the sanction of marriage. When we were in the village we witnessed a custom known as Ghar Ghoosan. A young woman from a neighbouring village had eloped with her boyfriend and had decided to stay in his home. When we visited their home, the parents and relatives of the man were getting ready to go to the neighbouring village to inform the parents of the young woman about her whereabouts.

The wedding feast is an elaborate affair involving the payment of a bride price and a feast for the members of the two villages. It would only take place when the man is in a position to meet these obligations. We were told that there was no stigma attached to living together. The only disqualification involved in remaining unmarried was that the young couple could not perform certain ceremonial functions until they completed the rites of marriage. There have been instances when both the father and son have both got married at the same time, thereby reducing the marriage expenses. Paradoxically, despite the permissiveness of pre-marital relationships, there is a great emphasis on conjugal fidelity in the community. A married woman (perhaps because the man pays a bride price to her father) becomes the property of her husband. A woman is, undoubtedly, free to divorce her husband, but this would require that her second husband compensate her former husband.

Babulbai’s husband was extremely angry with her for having spent a night away from the village. He accused her of infidelity and beat her up. When Babulbai’s companions came to know of this violence, they decided to protest. They organized a meeting to which the various family members were called and the husband was forced to apologize for his behaviour. Their contention was that like Babulbai’s husband, their own husbands too could accuse them of infidelity the next time they went out of the village. Faced with the pressure from his relatives and the village women, Babulbai’s husband apologized to her. The matter however did not end there. He decided to teach her a lesson. About two months later, he persuaded Babulbai that they should sleep that night in their ketul (i.e., a hut near their paddy fields). During the night, he beat Babulbai again and stripped her of her clothes. She was then forced to walk back naked through the village. Humiliated by this incident, she committed suicide.

The relationship between the villagers and the police had never been a happy one. In their periodic drive to flush out the Maoists the police often raid the village and drag a few hapless tribal men to the police station, where they are brutally assaulted. Caught between fears of the Maoists reprisal if they are suspected to be police informers, and the fears of police atrocities, the villagers prefer to hush up any crime committed in the village. The decision taken by the tribal elders was that the antecedents leading to Babulbai’s suicide should not be reported. It should be reported that she died of a snake bite. There were other subsequent versions about her death.

The SHG women seemingly accepted this version of her death. But they were simmering with anger. If Babulbai, a middle-aged woman, could be humiliated after so many years of marriage, they too had no sureties. What happened to Babulbai could also happen to them. Gudubai a close friend of Babulbai, decided to protest. She organized women’s meetings to discuss gender discrimination in their village. They collectively started challenging some of the prevailing customary practices and started speaking up in community meetings. With the encouragement of the field workers, they decided to initiate change in the gender relationships. To begin with, they decided in the gathering of women that they would start wearing blouses. They also decided that each woman was responsible for the safety and well being of all women in the village. Some of these discussions centred on the customary menstrual taboos in the village.

The customary pollution taboos dictated that a menstruating woman could not stay inside her house during menstruation. She has to move into a small shack near her home called kurma loona and cannot touch the village water supply. Deeply superstitious, the belief is that that the water would get polluted if a menstruating woman touched water and that the crops would fail. The woman, however, is free to forage into the woods for her food and to collect forest produce although she has to remain isolated from the community functions for three days. Until now the women had unquestioningly accepted the menstrual pollution taboos. Now, they began to wonder why such restrictions were only imposed upon them. The village schoolteacher, the crèche worker and the health worker visiting the village are not prevented from touching the bore-well and therefore, why should they be prevented from doing so? It so happened that on an occasion when Bijjubai was living in the menstrual hut along with her two friends, she needed water to bathe and there were none nearby who would give it to her. She therefore decided to quietly draw the water herself. Seeing that there was no adverse effect of breaking the taboo, she along with a few other village women decided to continue doing so.

This transgression of tribal norms was noticed by the Police Patil’s wife (also calledGuddu) who, although a member of the SHG, complained about it to the village council. The rebel Guddubai and her companions were called before the council, where they argued their case. Nevertheless, taking a serious view of the transgression, the three women (under the threat of excommunication by the entire village community) were fined Rs. 1000/- and had to host a dinner for the entire village, in which the menu included mutton, chicken, pork, rice and liquor. As a compromise, however, the Panchayat had also decided that there would be some slackening of the pollution norms. The menstruating women would be allowed to take water from the bore-well in the school compound but could not touch any other source of water.

This was a small victory for the women; the story however does not end here. The women got together and decided that they should get the contract to construct the drains in the village allotted under the water works programme. They submitted their application for this contract in the Mitti village council, which is about 17 kms away from their village. Here too they were not entirely successful. Patriarchal bias prevailing in the village communities dictated that the women could not be given the entire responsibility of the drainage contract. It was therefore given to a contractor from outside. The women objected to this bias and argued that they should have got the contract as they had taken the initiative of submitting the application for the drainage scheme. As a compromise the village council decreed that contractor should employ the SHG women as construction workers for the project. When we visited the village we found that the contractor had left the construction work incomplete and therefore the women were in the process of petitioning to the council to allow them the complete the work. Additionally, the various SHGs have decided to expand the scope of their economic activities. One of the SHG has decided to purchase and store shingles (khavalo) from other villages and sell them when the demand rises. Another has decided to similarly trade in the mahua flowers needed for the preparation of the local liquor.

This story however is not over, we do not know whether the women will be able to challenge patriarchy or will be subdued. The male power elite is obviously feeling threatened by the women’s self-assertion. The men feel that if the women get empowered, it would be difficult to control them. The Maoists are now issuing veiled threats against the collectivization of women. They have issued a warning that the programme is attracting too many “outsiders” (like ourselves) and therefore must be stopped. It is apparent that despite all claims to struggle for the poor, the exigencies of sustaining the Maoists movement – the need to have safe havens -- make them oppose all development programmes in the villages. We were told that a few days ago, a young site engineer was brutally murdered and robbed of the money he was carrying to pay wages to the workers who were building a road. As Mira bitterly remarked, the Maoists as well as the local politicians wish to keep local communities poor and disposed. Nobody is interested in the upliftment of the poor. Not even the powerful politicians in the region.

Discussion

The question that interests us is the process of empowerment. Could we, on the basis of the above narration, argue that the women of the Bagul village are empowered, and that the programme has achieved the desired results? The Self Help Groups have been established in the village over three years. In other districts and in the less volatile regions, the time is sufficient for the groups to become self-sufficient and to expand their social and economic activities. This has not been achieved in this village, not because of the lack of efforts lack of efforts made by the field workers, but because of the various threats that I have indicated. The field workers work under considerable threat and have to travel long distances to reach the different villages. They carry extremely heavy responsibilities: for each field worker was responsible for 50 to 100 Self Help Groups. Very often they had to hitchhike to reach the different villages. There is also the danger that they are betrayed.

One also needs to take into account the various challenges to the programme in the village. To begin with we must take note of the historical impoverishment of the tribal communities in India and cultural bankruptcy they have suffered as a result of their socio-economic marginalization. Subsequently we need to understand the ways in which the prevailing economy and the political development, intrude and manipulate the communities. Here we need to take into account the threats posed by the Maoists as well as the political manipulation by the local politicians.

If we were to examine these factors on the larger canvas of history, it becomes apparent that the erosion of indigenous cultures began during the colonial period. Undoubtedly the early history of the various Gond tribes (including the Madias) is shrouded in mystery. Subdued by the British rule, the Gonds took to agriculture and were exploited by the influx of the merchants and liquor vendors. This exploitation of the tribal communities was exacerbated by the forest policies of the British period. In the pre-colonial period, the tribal communities had complete control over their habitat in the forests. In contrast, the forest acts introduced during the British period, in the name of silvi culture management, to restrict their entitlements to forest produce. The steady demand for timber from the developed world (particularly during the two world wars) depleted the forests and further impoverished the people who were dependent on the forests for their livelihood. This exploitation has continued in the post colonial period as the forest policies have failed to acknowledge the rights of the local communities to their resources.

Our journey through the forests has given us an insight into the wanton destruction of forests, that has taken place since the enactment of the Forest Laws. The forests seemed to be relatively young. There was no sign of bio-diversity or thick undergrowth. Consequently the community has sunk into poverty. This poverty is not just material, but also cultural. Therefore it is not easy to speak of the culture of the Gonds; it varies greatly from area to area and what exists today is but a shadow of what must have existed in the past. Their indigenous art and craft forms, for instance have declined and they do not weave or carve in wood.

It often happens that the insecurity experienced by any community translates itself to a reinforcement of cultural controls over women. The prevalence of menstrual taboos is not necessarily a sign of women’s subordination in any community. Anthropological literature has connected the survival of menstrual taboos with cultures that had elements of female domination in them. This is not to suggest that the Madias are matrilineal, they are a patrilineal group. The point that is being made here is that the prevalence of menstrual taboos or attempts to break them do not necessarily constitute an indicator of female empowerment or otherwise. It is more important to consider the threat of violence that forced women to comply with the punishment imposed upon them by the tribal council for breaking a taboo. The women were made to pay a hefty fine and host a feast for the entire community under the threat of excommunication. The question is why did the women submit themselves to the punishment? Is it only the fear of excommunication or was there a more serious threat implied?

Anthropological records indicate women did get hunted down as witches among the Gond tribes. The resurgence of such practices usually happens when the community faces threats from outside. The destruction of the forests has deprived the community of access to herbs and other indigenous medicines. At the same time, the faulty economic development in the country has not enabled indigenous communities to be able to access modern methods of health care. These are factors that make people superstitious and fall a prey to the manipulations of the witch doctor. Women, who question and challenge male authority, may be accused of being witches and attacked by the community. The various agents of social change must take into account such possible dangers while working in the field. In this context an important question that arises is why did the rebel Gudubai who was so vocal in her opposition of male power in the village, avoid us? The field worker had primed her about the importance of our visit and had asked her to meet us. Yet she never met us. It is true that the tribal women are extremely independent and they love nothing better than to forage into the forests. Yet could this be the only reason? Where there any other threats that she faced that made her cautious?

Again why did the Police Patil’s wife, who was also a member of the SHG movement, betray her companions? To understand this, one must recognize the deep factionalism in the community. She told me that her 22-year old son had been murdered a couple of years and that his murders lived in the village. She would not however tell me who were his murders and merely said that she burning with anger.

The most important concern is the question of violence against women. Babulbai was forced to commit suicide when she tried to take charge of her life and the women supported her. The violence that she faced in her marriage was because the man felt humiliated by the interference of the other women in his home life. Therefore, how and when do the women in the SHG group decide what is permissible interference and what is not? Again was suicide the only option available to Babulbai, when divorce was permitted in the community? Therefore, why did Babulbai not walk out of an unhappy marriage? What could have been the compulsions that prevented her from leaving her home? Was it because of the custom of bride price, which requires that the ex-husband be compensated for the bride price he paid her father at the time of the wedding? Or could it be because of the values that the field workers communicate to the women through their interactions? It may so happen that the development workers, because of their innate prejudices about tribal customs, may critique tribal customs, norms and beliefs during their interactions. This may make women feel that it is better to live in an unhappy marriage than out of it. Having thereby imbibed an alien value system of conjugal bonds, could Babulbai have felt that death was a better option than divorce?

Against this backdrop it is apparent that the danger to the SHG programme is manifold, particularly when working in areas that are under various forms of political threats. We can never forget, that feeling trapped between the threat of the police interference and the Maoists reprisal, the village community sought to erase the story of Babulbai’s life and death from their collective memory. It is apparent that patriarchal powers appear in different garbs to contain women’s growing power. The women of Bagul village are now at a crossroad: Will they continue their self-assertion? Or will be succumb to the reactionary pressures of the men?
 


About our speaker

Professor Veena Poonacha is Director of the Research Centre for Women’s Studies and Hon. Director of the Centre for Rural Development at the SNDT Women’s University in Mumbai, India and we are indeed fortunate that she is able to come to Adelaide.

Prof. Poonacha has an impressive grasp of the issues in her country and in international circles, and has not just devoted her energies to research. She has initiated various outreach programs, including women’s Self Help groups in 34 villages in Gujarat and vocational education for women who have had limited educational opportunities. Her current research interests include a wide range of investigations, including gender and the law and the economic empowerment of women. She has released several publications and most recently through her Centre, Empowerment of Women and Social Services. Professor Poonacha was a special invitee to the 25th year celebration of the Australian Journal of Feminist Studies in 2005.

Prof. Poonacha brings to this UniFEM Informs seminar some unique international insights on family violence and will share these with her audience. Her examination of responses to domestic violence include those in the tribal indigenous areas of Maharashtra, India, where conventional solutions have not necessarily led to an appropriate outcome.

" To discuss these issues, I begin with a story of a poor tribal woman, called Dondobai, who lived and died in the heart of the Dandakaranya forest a thousand miles away from the city of Mumbai where I live. The story is set against the backdrop of the socio-economic and political changes that have affected the lives of this forest community."

Prof. Poonacha will explain the challenges and hardships faced by the development workers, but also explain the pitfalls of interfering with indigenous community life. She will reflect on this experience, the Indian generalised approach through Self Help Groups and their suitability in one context and inappropriateness in another, and share general insights about the complexities of domestic violence and cultural ways.

Against the backdrop of our own diverse cultural domestic violence issues, including indigenous experience, Prof Poonacha’s insights will be informative and help us to understand the diverse challenges shared by women and families around the world and our own need to respect differences, and find different solutions, here in Australia.

Prof. Poonacha’s trip to Adelaide has been supported by UNIFEM, The Hawke Centre and the International Office at UniSA, and the Gender, Work and Social Inquiry discipline at the University of Adelaide.


UNIFEM Australia

The United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) is a non-profit organisation working to help improve the living standards of women and children in developing countries and to address their concerns. It is a global organisation with programs which promote women's leadership, with the goal to give women an equal voice in the decisions that shape their future and that of their children. The aim of the UNIFEM Informs seminars is to promote the role and work undertaken by UNIFEM to the general public.

UNIFEM Informs is a UNIFEM Australia initiative. Additional information on UNIFEM Adelaide may be found at http://www.unifem.org.au.

Additional web site which may be of interest: Respect for Women seminar

White Ribbon Day (IDEVAW)

The International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women is held each year on 25 November. If you would like to order White Ribbons, please contact Astrid at admin@unifem.org.au or admin@whiteribbonday.org.au.


While the views presented by speakers within the Hawke Centre public program are their own and are not necessarily those of either the University of South Australia or The Hawke Centre, they are presented in the interest of open debate and discussion in the community and reflect our themes of: strengthening our democracy – valuing our cultural diversity – and building our future

Areas of study and research

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