My Choices Foundation has been actively doing legal empowerment work through its “Operation PeaceMaker” program since its inception in April 2012.
What is your organization’s mission?
My Choices Foundation aims to give women, children and families choices to live lives free from violence, abuse and exploitation. We aim to see the transformation of India into a safe, peaceful, and encouraging place for women and girls by empowering women and girls with the awareness, education, and support they need to become their own change agents.
We do this by:
By empowering women and girls to become change agents in their own families and communities.
By educating at risk women and girls, families and communities.
By providing free, grassroots support to victims and their families.
What kind of issues does your legal empowerment work address?
India is a vastly diverse and unique country. Part of this uniqueness is the dichotomy between the rise of the status of women amidst simultaneous rising rates of violence and discrimination. While India is changing and making strides for good, it has yet to shake the harsh reality that it is the most dangerous place on earth to be a girl.
An Indian girl child aged 1-5 years is 75% more likely to die than an Indian boy, making this the worst gender differential in child mortality for any country in the world. Around 50% of women in India face domestic violence in various forms such a physical, sexual, financial or emotional. Over 50% of men and women believe that a man hitting his wife is a normal sign of masculinity. Domestic violence is not just relevant to the dependant and illiterate women from India, many women despite their education and earning capacity become the victims of domestic violence. A woman’s home is supposed to be her safe space. Although in reality behind these closed doors many women are being harassed, tortured, beaten and even killed for dowry.
How are you using legal empowerment to address the problems?
As an organisation we firmly believe that every woman has the right to lead her life with dignity, freedom, respect and care; a life free of abuse and violence. Unfortunately, this is not the reality for around 50% of women who are subject to painful abuse and violence at home. We at My Choices Foundation address violence against women and girls through prevention and intervention, using a community-based approach.
Seek Out and Provide Victims With In Field Support: We train and hire PeaceMakers, local women who work within their own community, providing in-field counseling, rights education, and basic legal aid to victims of abuse. Many women have no access to education about their rights. They rely on word of mouth knowledge on everything from where to buy local produce to which school to send their children. Information about a right to a life without abuse never reaches them. A PeaceMaker goes door-to-door, educating women on their rights and protections from abuse, and helps prevent abuse by running awareness workshops for whole communities and schools.
Counsel Women and Families Facing Abuse: Operation PeaceMakers provide free counseling and case management to victims of abuse and their families. We provide counseling to the victim, the perpetrator, as well as to the extended family in order to not just end the abuse, but to break the cycle entirely. Couples and families who have found peace in their homes become advocates for change for their communities.
Most of the women we work with have no idea about the rights available to them. Educating them about their rights as guaranteed by our constitution is half way through in empowering them. As a counselor our main focus is on sensitising women to the rights available to them under various provisions of law vis-à-vis Domestic Violence Act of 2005 (which included remedies such as maintenance, right to residence, child custody, protection and compensation for the trauma and abuse they have been through), Sec 498A of IPC, Right to Conjugal Rights, Judicial Separation and Divorce. We explain all of these remedies in detail under their personal law. There is a social stigma attached to going to the police or attending proceedings in court - women are often scared of the judicial system as a whole. Through step-by-step counseling we help them understand the law. This understanding gives them a clearer picture of the system and they are better prepared to move forward. We then explain what remedies are available to the client, help her decide what course of action would best suit her case. After helping her decide, we educate her about the procedure, timelines, and expectations. We counsel our clients regularly before filing of their case, and also during the pendency of the case to give them a better understanding of the bureaucracy of the courts. As an average citizen it is difficult to follow and understand the complexity of how the courts work, and it’s even more challenging to women who lack basic education.
Lawyer / Advocate
Through consultant lawyers we provide free legal support to our clients by helping them file cases under the PWDVA of 2005. Our lawyer spends a number of hours on a single case. This not only includes the filing of the case in court, but also preparing the clients for their hearings in the court. The lawyer and the counselor work together in preparing clients for the court proceedings.
Our lawyer follows up with the case regularly. This is paramount because any lag on the lawyer’s part will delay justice for our client.
We now operate 5 Counseling Centres in Secunderabad, Hyderabad and Warangal, with more scheduled to launch.
200+ PeaceMakers have been trained as paralegals and counselors to work within their own communities as agents of change. Currently 70+ are actively working with My Choices Foundation.
6,960 cases of domestic violence have been successfully managed and peacefully resolved.
60,583 women have been trained in community workshops on their rights and protections from abuse, and provided a linkage to services in case of need. In at least 1 in 3 of our workshops for community women, a woman or girl comes with a case of abuse in need of immediate help.
31,810 adolescent girls have been trained in school workshops on their rights and protections from abuse (including violence at home, child sexual abuse, trafficking, and child marriage), and provided a linkage to services in case of need. In at least 1 in 14 of our workshops for adolescent girls, a minor girl comes forward with a case of abuse in need of immediate help.
Super Smart Shakti -safety network program for girls: This program is designed to mentor adolescent girls, living in underprivileged and disadvantaged communities through year-long engagement. This Program holds adolescent girls’ safety as the utmost priority and helps these young girls understand and access the resources and protective mechanisms available to them. It consists of a multifold approach to helping girls, where girls are: connected to a peer network; supported and empowered to recognize risks and develop strategies to resist pressures of child marriage, dangerous work, and being pulled out of school; provided access to services; trained to negotiate for themselves; supported to articulate aspirations and take steps towards achieving their life goals. Since 2017, we have equipped/equipping girls in 29 communities to execute a self-determined community safety project. For example, one group of girls determined that they needed a bus shelter in their slum community to help make waiting for school transport safer. We partnered with the girls, local village leadership, and transport authority to get the budget sanctioned and the shelter built.
Asli Champion- safety network program for boys: Since 2018, we have also started engaging adolescent boys to reduce the incidence of harm and risk of harm faced by them in high risk locations. This program is empowering them to believe in gender equality and build their own idea of masculinity, connect them to safe people in the family or community who they can rely on, increases awareness of government child protection laws and schemes, and link them to opportunities through education and training that ensure their future safety and financial security.
November, 2018 Operation PeaceMaker of My Choices Foundation also started a short stay home (Lotus Safe Home) for the women who are facing domestic abuse and looking for shelter. It is always crucial for women to voice out against domestic abuse since they have no safe place to go. We are trying our best to make “Lotus Safe Home” a wonderful place where women can feel safe and make choices for their life with the help of counsellor and legal support.
Through our mentorship program for adolescent girls, we have equipped girls in 10 communities to execute a self-determined community safety project. For example, one group of girls determined that they needed a bus shelter in their slum community to help make waiting for school transport safer. We partnered with the girls, local village leadership, and transport authority to get the budget sanctioned and the shelter built.
Entire communities have been transformed through the work of our PeaceMakers. Falaknuma is the first community we began our work in. It is well known as being one of the most impenetrable communities, with oppressive social norms for women and backward thinking about education. Domestic violence is rife throughout its homes. Now, the work of our PeaceMakers is so well known that we constantly have women telling us that the “big difference” between now and 5 years ago is that they know there is some place where they can come for help, people who will listen, and a team who will support their need to get help.
The largest signpost of systemic change has been our official partnership with the Police Central Crime Station (CCS) and Women Police Station in Secunderabad, Telangana. The police have partnered with My Choices Foundation to divert their domestic violence cases to our Counseling Centers for assessment and legal counseling. While nationally the police have a poor reputation for mishandling cases of abuse against women, refusing to file cases, punishing women for speaking out, empowering the abuser, etc, in the state of Telangana they are beginning to change this reputation.
Do you have any advice for other organizations about achieving scale?
The PeaceMaker Program is highly replicable. We have already conducted trainings for other organisations, including Samhita (microfinance) and programs of Naandi Foundation. We have prepared a training curriculum available for any organisation seeking to establish their own, similar program.
We often respond to requests for training or capacity building from NGOs to Consulates. We tailor training based on the requirements of the group requesting it.
The scalability of the program relies on its foundations in individual empowerment. The fruit of empowerment is self-fulfilling. While a strong core team with experience in psychology, law, and program management has been essential to our impact, the core of our program and subsequent impact has been the local community women themselves. Our PeaceMakers are not highly educated, and most of them have been victims of abuse themselves. It is the deep investment in the transformation of their lives through empowerment that leads to impact in their communities. Our advice to any organisation seeking to work within local communities, and to end abuse would be to empower individuals from within the community. This has long-lasting and incomparable impact.
Innovation- Is there an aspect of your legal empowerment work that is particularly innovative?
Operation PeaceMaker is an innovative approach to ending domestic violence by harnessing the power of local women to become their own change agents. Operation PeaceMaker aims to reduce domestic violence in India through thousands of PeaceMakers who are trained in family and marriage counseling and all aspects of the Domestic Violence Act. Our innovative approach using local women has proven extremely successful.
What is a PeaceMaker?
A PeaceMaker is local woman who has been trained and equipped by Operation PeaceMaker to work in her community counseling, educating, and assisting victims of domestic violence. A PeaceMaker presents women with Choices that will allow them to live a life free from abuse.
Why a PeaceMaker?
Three out of every four women who are abused do not seek help and in fact rarely even speak to anyone about the abuse they are facing. Abuse is a taboo topic that brings up feelings of guilt and shame. A PeaceMaker is not a policeman, a magistrate, a foreign NGO worker, or even an involved relative. The PeaceMaker is a woman from the community: she is a sister, an auntie, a friend, a neighbor. She is someone who earns their trust and encourages victims to share their stories.
The PeaceMaker is the most effective option for reaching women and encouraging them to access help. In Indian society, there is a lack of awareness and misinformation regarding what constitutes domestic violence, the legalities surrounding domestic violence, and in many cases, the practicalities of mending a broken marriage. A PeaceMaker can lead women to answers and eventually to a positive outcome – most importantly, with the victim’s permission and support.
In the women we encounter, change in their lives must begin at home. It is here that sons learn to become abusers and daughters learn to accept abuse. It is inside the home where the seed of inequality is planted and grows to complete a cycle of oppression which has been flourishing for generations. Operation PeaceMaker aims to overturn this gender inequality rooted in centuries of patriarchy, but we will start simply by deploying PeaceMakers who work one-on-one, woman-to-woman to educate and equip violence survivors to live a life free from abuse.
An aspect of our work that is particularly innovative is our strategic inclusion of men and boys in all of our processes. We believe that men and boys are at least 50% of the solution and working with them is critical to creating long-lasting, truly transformative change. Boys who witness their fathers being abusive towards their mothers are 5 times more likely to grow up to become abusers themselves. There is no data yet to show what happens when children who witness abuse also witness transformation. This is because too few organisations are focussed on holistic and inclusive transformation.
Vivian Huelgo, Chief Counsel to the Task Force on Human Trafficking and Commission on Domestic & Sexual Violence of the American Bar Association (ABA,) visited our work and highlighted this as the most significant innovation in our approach to address domestic violence. According to Ms. Huelgo, most domestic violence programs assume that separation from the abuser is an absolute. Our approach, however, focuses on equipping the survivor to make informed and empowered choices about how to address abuse. Typically, this choice will include counseling and working with the abuser(s), allowing us to create deeper, systemic change and transformation.
What are the strategies you employ to ensure the long-term sustainability of your work?
My Choices Foundation partnership with police is already having systemic impact on the police’s sensitization towards female victims of abuse, support of victims, and the public perception of police.
The PeaceMaker model, which focuses on long-term client support through counselling, and is inclusive of men and boys, has become a celebrated model. Many NGOs, researchers, and representatives in government seek us out for training and knowledge sharing. Our model is innovative, but replicable.
The PeaceMaker model is at its core, community-based. We are committed to training as many paralegals (PeaceMakers) as we can, whether or not they become long-term team members with our organisation. The mission of each PeaceMaker is to train as many adolescent girls and women as possible on their rights, to transform communities from the inside out. Even if our organisation was to end its work today, we have already trained 191 paralegals, and over 67,000 women and girls on their rights and how to take action within their community. Every PeaceMaker is a part-time employee only. This ensures that they are active members of their community, often having a second job in a beauty parlour or sewing unit that gives them access to more women in their community. They are experts in grassroots support, and that is the most sustainable aspect of our work.
Do you have any tips for other practitioners?
When legal rights education and aid is combined with counselling, it achieves faster results. Since legal processes are procedural, lengthy and tiring, without empowering the client, there are greater chance to lose the legal battle.
Paralegals (PeaceMakers) are very helpful to provide strong support in registering cases and follow ups with police. Community, especially women, are very afraid to seek help from the police.
Through the use of paralegals, it is easy to create an ”rights-based approach” environment in the community. It helps the communities to be rational rather than only adhering to customary practices which are not necessarily in line with human rights or legal frameworks.
Legal empowerment is a process and it takes time to sink in, especially for those groups who are marginalised/vulnerable. Paralegals are engaged continuously to have dialogue with communities at risk. They are creating an environment of hope through awareness and intervention. They minimise the distrust with communities and law enforcer agencies. They are the ones who can provide regular insight to law enforcers about communities fears/hopes to bridge the gaps.
Does your organization exhibit courage in the face of extraordinary challenges?
Our Founder, Elca Grobler, calls the PeaceMaker team “Dragon Slayers.” It requires immense courage to wake and love the world again each day, after the world has hurled every stone and dagger your way. Our PeaceMakers have counselled abusive husbands, while they hold chilli powder and knives as weapons, they have battled with police to ensure clients receive due protection, they have been disappointed by safe homes who exploit women rather than provide shelter, they have stayed up all night in hospitals with women rescued from life-threatening abuse, they have planned midnight espace plans for women and children put in danger by the one who is supposed to protect them; yet, each day they get up more determined than the last not just to face the world and all its abusers, but to truly love it. They bring hope each day, tirelessly and relentlessly. They believe in the “impossible”.
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