Written by Siobhan Ali
Rape has been a persistent and prevalent issue in India with more than 32,500 cases brought to the police in 2017 alone and many more going unreported. According to data compiled by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), the state of Madhya Pradesh has the highest number of reported cases in the country, earning it the title of India’s ‘rape capital.’ This has serious repercussions for women in the region, restricting them from carrying out routine, daily tasks such as walking around their villages unaccompanied or attending school. Women with disabilities such as visual impairment feel this fear tenfold as they are more vulnerable to an attack and struggle to defend themselves. Research conducted on the prevalence of sexual assaults amongst individuals with and without visual impairment demonstrated that visually impaired women have higher rates of assault than the general population.
It was with this understanding of the plight of visually impaired women and a desire to empower them that international non-governmental organisation Sightsavers launched free judo lessons in 2014. Working in collaboration with local charity Tarun Sanskar which supports disabled individuals, local Madhya Pradesh police and the Department of Crime Against Women, Sightsavers began training blind, or partially blind, young women in self-defence.
Beginning initially with 20 students, specialist instructors offered coaching that catered to the women’s visual disabilities using physical touch, clapping sounds and clear instructions. The classes had an immediate impact on women’s confidence with Jayashree Kumar, Programme Manager at Sightsavers noting that women’s voices had ‘become so strong’ and they were able to walk independently and ‘interact with the villagers’ in ways they were not able to before. Many women who had been forced to drop out of school due to fears for their safety were able to go back and continue their schooling. Programme participants have gone on to pursue higher levels of education and vocational training to become teachers, volunteers and activists. Several women have felt empowered to speak about their disabilities and the challenges they face, becoming spokespersons not only for the programme but also for other charity organisations designed to support visually impaired women. Therefore, through this programme, young women have been placed on a path of greater societal and financial independence where they can not only defend themselves against attack but also support and sustain their lifestyles.
Witnessing the startling and transformative change, other women were encouraged to get involved. Over the last five years, the programme has grown, touching the lives of nearly 60 women. Many women have gone on to compete national and international blind judo competitions, such as the Commonwealth Judo Championships, winning medals for both their region and country. In this way, these women have come to serve as role models for other visually impaired women around the world. Some girls in the programme also felt encouraged to qualify as judo trainers themselves, continuing the support and guidance they received. Many have taken younger women under their wing, supporting their quest for autonomy and independence. The programme has had lasting effects on these women, shaping the course of their life and empowering them to explore new possibilities and countering their previous mind-sets that they are limited by their condition. It has also supported the families of these women as it reassures them of the security of their mothers, daughters, wives and sisters. Over time, the project has also worked towards addressing abusive community attitudes towards disabled women.
While there is a much larger, nationwide issue of sexual assault against women which requires direct addressing, self-defence projects such as the one offered by Sightsavers canform an important opponent of this response. Sightsavers has not only improved women’s sense of safety as they can defend against sexual assault, it has also allowed them to break away from the societal constraints and restrictions of their disability towards greater self-sufficiency and freedom. It has improved their self-esteem, equipping them with the knowledge that they can protect themselves and tackle the challenges that come their way. The programme is extending to other neighbouring regions in India with hopes to expand to a national level.
Photo courtesy of https://www.sightsaversindia.in/