The establishment of Gramin Mahila Kendras (GMK) or Rural Women’s Centre is a result of NEN’s long-felt need for creating a safe space for survivors of gender-based violence as well as for community women. In 2012 NEN conducted a study on domestic violence in rural Assam. 1200 survivors were interviewed in 8 districts. The findings had drawn considerable attention as it highlighted the internalised, invisible and unreported aspect of domestic abuse which has been violating women’s human rights in the form of a silent pandemic. The study also revealed the gaps and challenges in accessing support services including the justice system. After the study, NEN felt the urgent need of providing support to aggrieved women. NEN built capacities of grassroots women leaders to become barefoot counsellors, who encompassed the role of change agents and rights-based campaigners in their communities. In 2016, NEN in association with MIND India (https://mindindia.org/home) trained a cadre of 8 community women leaders, as barefoot counsellors.
Different awareness programmes conducted by the Barefoot Counsellors inspired aggrieved women to approach the counsellors for support. In 2018 NEN established three Gramin Mahila Kendras in Darrang, Golaghat and Kamrup (Rural) districts. The eco-system has been envisaged as a tool to engage with different stakeholders at different levels, from the home to the state. The strategies used by GMKs include generating awareness through home visits and community meetings, creating support groups of survivors and peer leaders, engaging with youth and men in advancing gender equality through creative mediums, organising interfaces with appropriate government agencies and educational institutions, casework services, building referrals for casework and providing economic support through weaving and farming activities to women. In 2021, due to growing demands, another batch of 12 community leaders was trained in barefoot counselling and two more GMKs in Udalguri and Dhemaji districts were set up.
These centres are recognized by different communities as safe spaces for rural women. The Women and Child Department, Government of Assam has given recognition as Service Providers to the GMKs under the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005.
From January 2018 to December 2022, the GMKs have provided counselling to 658 women survivors of domestic violence. 724 cases were regularly followed up. 131 cases were referred to other support services, such as Protection Officer, police, One Stop Centre, Shelter Homes, District Legal Services Authority and 181 Women Helpline etc. After our intervention and support, violence has stopped in the lives of 266 survivors.
The trained community leaders started enhancing the capacities of select women in the villages they work in. These women have emerged as peer leaders and the network has strengthened further. Such an approach is hoped to sustain the concept of GMK on a long-term basis. These trained women leaders are not only providing psycho-social care and counselling, but also taking part in decision-making by becoming members of different local bodies like the Village Defence Committee, Village Organisation, and Child Welfare Committee etc.
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