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How rap is empowering young women in India

A group of young women in Delhi hit the headlines recently when they created a music video about their experiences of violence and suppression. The video was co-produced by Dr Ayona Datta, from the Geography Department King’s, and a team of local research assistants and music/film producers in Delhi. Here, we find out the story behind the song and the King’s project aimed at improving the lives of women in India.

Dr Ayona Datta began a project in India in February 2018, which set out to investigate the use of technology by young, female millennials, mapping how they use, experience and navigate their city. As well as giving important insight in to lives of these women, who live in slum resettlement colonies, border towns and urban villages, the project aimed to produce knowledge and information to improve urban infrastructure and gender specific safety in the city.

Working with local NGO’s, they identified a group of 12 women, aged 17-26, who were asked to document their experiences throughout the day as they moved across the city and when they arrived home. They did this through audio, text and video diary entries shared on a Whatsapp group.

Dr Datta explains: ‘Many of these women are survivors of sexual harassment and abuse – something that is relatively common in these areas of Delhi – and sharing details via Whatsapp provided them with a safe space to talk about their experiences and communicate with other people who may have seen, heard or felt the same things.

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From the diary entries, the research team gained new insights about the infrastructure of the city; what they had and what they were lacking. They could also see the multiple, complex ways that infrastructure and violence against women come together to further marginalise young women living in slum resettlement colonies.  

With the help of an app called Safetipin, the women were then asked to rate the areas they travelled through across the city noting factors such as, the levels of lighting, the proportion of males and females present and feelings of safety. From this, the team created digital maps of the city that could be accessed by others to inform of the issues to be aware of if they were also travelling through those areas. These maps were also turned in to a month-long exhibition in Delhi’s Mandi House Metro Station.

Dr Datta says: ‘The technology allowed us to see that these women had quite a lot a freedom to move around the city but still with some clear restrictions that reinforced their traditional gender roles, including tight curfews and high levels of harassment in public places.’

As well as creating the diaries, workshops were held where the women wrote out their experiences. These were put together and formed the rap song that appears on YouTube

Treated like celebrities

The video for the song took 5 days to create, filming in the neighbourhood within the resettlement colony that the women lived in.

‘So many people from the neighbourhood came to watch us filming,’ Dr Datta recalls, ‘and little boys and girls started following us singing the words: ‘The city is for you and me, it’s no-one’s property’.

‘Initially, the girls were apprehensive about filming in their street in front of friends, family and, sometimes, abusers but as soon as they saw the positive reactions they were getting they didn’t want to film anywhere else.

‘The filming went on quite late and, for some of them, it was for the first time that they had stood up against their family curfew hours. There was a real sense that their voices were being heard.

‘The feedback we’ve received from the women is that, their parents and siblings have been sharing the video YouTube clip with other relatives and it’s starting to transform their family’s thinking about the challenges faced by these women in the home and the city.’

‘The women in the film were fantastic and, even when I thought they might feel uncomfortable, they were passionate that they wanted to create the video and tell their story. This passion continued when they first heard the finished song and some of them were so filled with emotion that they started crying.

‘They’re now receiving messages of support from across the world, which is a huge boost.’

What has the project achieved?

Traditionally, policymakers have tried to solve safety issue for women by installing CCTV cameras and increasing police surveillance. But, this work has shown that connecting women and empowering them to share their stories can have a more positive impact. This suggests there is real potential of inducing change from the ‘bottom up.’

The team are now planning to roll out the scheme in Bangalore and already have willing participants lined up who have seen the original women on YouTube and in the news. Based on the project, NGOs are also looking to use the WhatsApp diary methodology and creative arts practices to connect women who have been survivors of abuse.

Dr Datta says, ‘Through our project, we have gained lots of interesting insight in to technology use by women in these areas of Delhi, but, more importantly, we’ve also had a positive impact on the women that we worked with.’

Apart from being featured in all national newspapers in India, the women did a live performance during the One Billion Rising (OBR) day in Delhi, and were consulted on gender sensitive Delhi Masterplan 2040. To coincide with this year’s Indian elections, a major news channel NDTV also featured the women and their rap song in a film about Delhi’s gender safety as an agenda for the elections.

‘These women didn’t think their voices mattered but now they’ve realised that that they do and, together, they are supporting other women like them across India.’

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