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UCL Public Engagement Blog



Every Face, A Voice: Engaging Communities in Mumbai, India, in Speaking Out Against Violence Against Women

By Briony Fleming, on 27 February 2024

In this blog Sukanya Paradkar and Lu Gram from SNEHA Mumbai and UCL Institute for Global Health respectively talk about a social psychology experiment and poster campaign carried out in Mumbai, India to address violence against women. Sukanya and Lu share their experiences carrying out a public engagement activity on a topic as sensitive as violence against women and the reactions of local women and men to a poster campaign protesting violence against women in informal settlements in Mumbai. The article has been written together with colleagues from SNEHA (Unnati Machchhar, Shilpa Adelkar, Bhaskar Kakad, Rupesh Parab, Deepali Kedare, and Nayreen Daruwalla) and UCL (David Osrin).

Violence against women is globally pervasive and cuts across class, caste, and race differences. It is fundamentally rooted in gender inequality, putting men in positions of power and rendering women vulnerable to abuse and violence. Violence can affect a woman’s physical and mental health, resulting in physical injuries, trauma, depression, and anxiety, and in long-term effects that can continue well after the abuse has ended.

In India, even though several laws have been enacted to protect women (for example, the Dowry Prohibition Act of 1961, the Domestic Violence Act of 2005, and the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act of 2006), violence against women remains widespread. Social and cultural norms remain biased towards men, rendering institutions aiming to tackle violence against women largely ineffective.

Over the course of a year, we conducted a study with married women from informal settlements (slums) in Mumbai. The study was done in collaboration with the Non-Government Organisation SNEHA (Society for Nutrition, Education and Health Action), which has worked in Mumbai for over two decades on preventing violence against women. We wanted to compare different methods of encouraging women to speak out against violence and conducted a social psychology experiment in which local women attended one of three discussion sessions with differing content to see which session best promoted willingness to speak out.

Simply asking women if they were willing to speak up might not reveal the full picture, as they might outwardly agree, but privately have no intention of doing anything. Instead, we asked women to share a picture of themselves for a poster campaign in their neighbourhood and took photos on the spot if they consented. Gender norms often make it difficult for women to show their faces in public, so this task required them to visibly resist patriarchy in their communities.

We also provided women a way out if they wanted to show their willingness to support us, but did not want to be identified in the poster campaign: We asked them if they could share a picture of their hand. Hands are anonymous and no social norms are concerned with women’s display of hands. We also offered them the option of covering their face with a veil if they wished to.

Whilst helping us achieve our research goals, this task enabled us to engage with communities over the need to end violence. We worked with a local artist to design posters and named the campaign “Every Face, A Voice”. We designed the poster in the shape of a large banner and made two different types of posters, one containing faces and one containing hand gestures. A total of 84 participants shared pictures of their faces and 332 pictures of their hands for the poster campaign. As a sign of the sensitivity of the issue, many of these already had prior experience volunteering for SNEHA or participating in community meetings run by SNEHA.

Women in brightly coloured saree are holding up campaign posters protesting violence against women in Mumbai, India against an urban backdrop.

Women holding up campaign posters protesting violence against women in Mumbai, India.

However, on the day, all the women who had shared pictures of their faces eagerly awaited the campaign. Everywhere we went, a wave of excitement seemed to infuse the small crowd of onlookers that gathered around us. The crowd was made up of, not just our participants, but also relatives, neighbours, and men in the community (see Figures 1 and 2). To our surprise, the campaign became a kind of celebration where everyone came together to look at the banner. The children of one of the participants were so happy to see their mother’s picture on the banner that they celebrated it by setting off firecrackers. Soon, the whole community were shouting ‘Every face, a voice against violence’!

Volunteers who had been involved with SNEHA since the organization had started working in their area expressed their enthusiasm at being involved. One of the participants said, ‘I hope when others from my community see me showing my face in public, it will also help them come forward.’ When the participants were asked how they felt about the campaign, one of them said, ‘I want people in my community to look at these banners and understand that there are many women who oppose violence and they can come to me with their difficulties.’ Many others echoed these sentiments.

Whilst such a short-lived campaign is in no way sufficient to shift gender norms, it helped sustain conversations on violence against women. It also provides a beautiful example of how one might embed community engagement in an otherwise rather technical social psychology research project. The campaign activities were simultaneously felt by community members to be fresh and exciting and a natural extension of SNEHA’s existing community work. We hope this can inspire researchers to integrate community engagement into their own work.

A group of Indian men are holding a poster protesting violence against women against a very crowded urban backdrop.

Local men also showed up to support our poster campaign against violence against women.

To find out more about this project, please email Lu Gram. To find out more about SNEHA’s work on preventing violence against women in Mumbai, India, please see their website.

Acknowledgements go to the intervention team on the ground for their many efforts in organising and implementing the campaign and the women who generously contributed their time and participated.

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