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Barefoot counsellors: pillars of support for victims of domestic violence

By MAMATA MISHRA
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GUWAHATI, March 10 - Having been in an extremely abusive relationship for long 18 years, Karabi Baishya (name changed) almost forgot what happiness and freedom meant until she gathered the courage to open up before Moon Bora, a barefoot counsellor of her locality, who took up the matter with the police and district authorities, apart from giving psycho-social support to her.

When counselling on domestic violence seems a nascent concept even in progressive societies, a handful of women are making a big difference in rural Assam with a unique concept of barefoot counselling, reaching out to women who are in abusive relationships or are facing other sorts of gender-based community violence.

Unlike the customary counselling through government agencies, the barefoot counsellors are a group of trained women leaders reaching out to the aggrieved women to provide them emotional and psychological support, and referring the extreme cases to other State agencies for legal aid as and when needed.

An initiative of North East Network (NEN), a women�s rights organisation of the State, barefoot counselling has picked up very well at Mirza in Kamrup district, Sipajhar in Darrang district and Doigrung in Golaghat district since its inception in 2016.

Barefoot counselling is a brainchild of Anurita Pathak Hazarika, project director of NEN. Barefoot counsellors have so far received 107 cases from women in distress, with most cases involving domestic violence.

�Our barefoot counsellors are not some university passed-out counsellors with high flying degrees. They are the community leaders who have been professionally trained by us to reach out to women in vulnerable situations. We arrange 12-day training for our counsellors through MIND India. Now they are also recognised as service providers under the State Department of Social Welfare,� said Hazarika, who has actively built up a support system for such counsellors by linking them to government agencies.

�During one of our field surveys, we realised the need to have a concrete mechanism to address women�s issues. A woman might not reveal her domestic life to someone from outside. In the first place, she does not have access to such counsellors,� she added.

The journey, however, has been far from smooth. �At first, we operated from informal setups like an open field, from beneath a tree, or even from the living rooms of the counsellors. But in some cases they had to face threats and even assaults from anti-social elements. Gradually, three grameen mahila kendras (GMK) were opened to give a more formal and functional setup to the counsellors. The centres are now becoming rights-based centres for women and also for adolescents,� she added.

Apart from addressing the cases of crime against women, the centres hold cultural programmes and even work for promoting financial independence among women, providing them threads for weaving, etc.

Working at a small level, the GMKs can be replicated in other districts, where a large number of cases of crime against women are not reported due to fear and social stigma associated with them.

Other than cases of domestic violence, the centres have also handled some cases of rape, trafficking and community violence.

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Barefoot counsellors: pillars of support for victims of domestic violence

GUWAHATI, March 10 - Having been in an extremely abusive relationship for long 18 years, Karabi Baishya (name changed) almost forgot what happiness and freedom meant until she gathered the courage to open up before Moon Bora, a barefoot counsellor of her locality, who took up the matter with the police and district authorities, apart from giving psycho-social support to her.

When counselling on domestic violence seems a nascent concept even in progressive societies, a handful of women are making a big difference in rural Assam with a unique concept of barefoot counselling, reaching out to women who are in abusive relationships or are facing other sorts of gender-based community violence.

Unlike the customary counselling through government agencies, the barefoot counsellors are a group of trained women leaders reaching out to the aggrieved women to provide them emotional and psychological support, and referring the extreme cases to other State agencies for legal aid as and when needed.

An initiative of North East Network (NEN), a women�s rights organisation of the State, barefoot counselling has picked up very well at Mirza in Kamrup district, Sipajhar in Darrang district and Doigrung in Golaghat district since its inception in 2016.

Barefoot counselling is a brainchild of Anurita Pathak Hazarika, project director of NEN. Barefoot counsellors have so far received 107 cases from women in distress, with most cases involving domestic violence.

�Our barefoot counsellors are not some university passed-out counsellors with high flying degrees. They are the community leaders who have been professionally trained by us to reach out to women in vulnerable situations. We arrange 12-day training for our counsellors through MIND India. Now they are also recognised as service providers under the State Department of Social Welfare,� said Hazarika, who has actively built up a support system for such counsellors by linking them to government agencies.

�During one of our field surveys, we realised the need to have a concrete mechanism to address women�s issues. A woman might not reveal her domestic life to someone from outside. In the first place, she does not have access to such counsellors,� she added.

The journey, however, has been far from smooth. �At first, we operated from informal setups like an open field, from beneath a tree, or even from the living rooms of the counsellors. But in some cases they had to face threats and even assaults from anti-social elements. Gradually, three grameen mahila kendras (GMK) were opened to give a more formal and functional setup to the counsellors. The centres are now becoming rights-based centres for women and also for adolescents,� she added.

Apart from addressing the cases of crime against women, the centres hold cultural programmes and even work for promoting financial independence among women, providing them threads for weaving, etc.

Working at a small level, the GMKs can be replicated in other districts, where a large number of cases of crime against women are not reported due to fear and social stigma associated with them.

Other than cases of domestic violence, the centres have also handled some cases of rape, trafficking and community violence.