Updated: Sep 21, 2020
With Spurthi's Collaborative efforts to pen down the journey of Durga. The first article"The Metamorphosis of Durga" of the series The Chronicles of Durga" takes us through the initial days of Durga.
Durga India, based in Bangalore, a non-profit organization, works with the ultimate goal of creating gender equal spaces in India, deterrence of sexual harassment, and working towards women's safety. With 5000 plus member initiatives and a team of facilitators working with women across all segments of society, Durga is equipping women on how to respond to harassment in public spaces. The skill of awareness and preparedness is imparted. What makes Durga unique is the work is not restricted to women but also includes all gender proactively in deterring sexual harassment and achieving gender equity.
DURGA introduced DURGA ALARMS - a panic alarm for women’s safety. It was installed in 163 BMTC buses in Bangalore and a pilot of 5 alarms installed in Delhi, which gave way to the rule of implementation of panic alarms in public transport. Today the organization has created over 8000 DURGAs and 275 DAREs (active bystanders) and 6 Voice Labs across the city.
Today, a full-fledged organization working with 5000 plus members, came about when Priya Varadarajan, the founder of Durga, started her blog - I'm Every Woman in 2009. She was a chartered accountant by profession and worked for British Government leading Life Sciences at the time. Priya, while at her regular day job, began to write about women who broke several barriers and passed various hurdles to achieve anything little or big in their world, women who fought valiantly against the existing system, women who fought patriarchy and took responsibility for their own lives. Priya looked up to them as her heroes.
Through her writing, Priya captured a sense of achievement in every woman she wrote about - those coming from different backgrounds and strata of society, and pushing boundaries to become independent and self-sufficient women. Her blogs weren’t about celebrities but about ordinary women. Priya’s intent was to inspire readers of her blog and instill inspiration in other women to achieve things similar to the characters that her stories portrayed. Through ‘I’m Every Woman’, Priya was able to build sisterhood among her readers who bonded over stories and cherished each other's success. The online community eventually started meeting offline where they would share stories, engage in discussions and much more. With women coming together, realizing the potential among them, multiple collaborations erupted - from giving financial advice to one another to starting a new business to helping build a business together.
During her conversations with several women entrepreneurs, Priya discussed obstacles on their way to becoming autonomous. One of the most important and debated stumbling blocks that all of them battled with was patriarchy and its different manifestations in our society - violence, subordination, freedom to do what a woman wants to without seeking permission, and making women invisible or reducing her to household work. One example that she vividly recalls was a woman couldn't apply for a loan by herself to start her own business and had to get her husband or father for surety but not another female friend of hers. Soon, she realized that gender bias exists deep within the roots of our society, even though she didn't clearly understand the depth and breadth of the problem. Yet it was certain that it manifested in multiple levels that hindered many of us. And one of the most prominent manifestations was VIOLENCE AND SEXUAL HARASSMENT.
As a chartered accountant working in a capitalistic world, traveling worldwide, she could still see that it's a man's world, and women had to make compromises to make a mark of her own. She scuffled with the fact that gender equity and women's safety is still a huge problem all over the world and in different strata of our society, including urban spaces. Despite all this, how do women claim their space in our community? With a fire in her belly and passion in her heart towards women safety and equity, Priya steered ahead! She didn't know exactly how to approach a complex issue like this, so, Priya joined a theatre group at the end of 2011, as a facilitator. The group was called, Theatre of Oppressed, an art form of theatre for a cause. That was a turning point.
In 2012, working on sidelines about sexual violence and women's safety in her small way, she realized that women are dealing with it from a defense perspective but not proactively engaging in conversations in how to deal with such situations. Around this time was when the Nirbhaya incident took place in Delhi. Priya was taken aback; hearing the incident made her blood run cold and to this day she's not entirely over the unsettling incident. She changed her whole perspective and realized that she had to get on her feet and start working on women's safety and sexual harassment on an everyday basis. Immediately, two days after the incident, Priya found a Trust ‘I'm Every Woman’, and there was no looking back from there.
In early 2013, Priya and her mother, Dr. Shanti Varadarajan, Professor & Head of the Dept. of English at RBANM's First Grade College, came about with the name of their NGO as Durga. Hailing from a Hindu family, having celebrated Dusshera on a grand scale each year, Shanthi and Priya thought it to be apt to address this movement after the Goddess who represents power of the supreme being, one who preserves moral order and righteousness in the creation. Durga is also an acronym for Dare to Understand behavior, Respond appropriately, and Guard Ourselves Ably. With the ultimate goal of women's safety in mind, Priya didn't originally intend to build an NGO but wanted to expand on her thoughts and wanted every girl to feel confident to do whatever she wants to and go wherever she wants to and is married to that belief.
Unless a woman feels safe at home, workplace, or neighborhood, how can she venture outside the world and stand on her feet with independence? - Dr. Shanti Vardarajan
With a background in Theatre of Oppressed, Priya used dramatics to convey ideas of safety, created modules and delivered workshops. The aim was to equip women with essentials, to detect and deter harassment by forging an atmosphere that ignites courage and nurture capability with an undefeatable spirit, and to create a constructive environment that helps women discover their true potential. It took a long time to arrive at the final product but Priya managed to go around in her circles and educate women and young girls to take control of their safety, all this in the little time she got apart from her day-job and as a mother of two children. During her initial workshops, Priya met Meenakshi Giridhar, with whom she hit it off and soon Meenakshi joined Durga to help run the organization. As a duo, they began working in cafes, ran meetings in their car, and expanded their audience for workshops to underprivileged girls and low-income groups. Through their workshops, they met more enthusiastic women who would eventually become a vital part of Durga's operation.
During Priya's quest to expand her audience's cohort, and while socializing with women of all ages, she understood that the vast majority of women use public transport. And a staggering percentage (almost 90%) of women feel violated or threatened or are prone to mishaps such as groping, unwarranted touching, chain snatching, and eve-teasing. She wanted to have a device on vehicles that will help women call for help and garner attention whenever they suspect an untoward incident, instill a sense of security and make the attackers feel less confident. During one of the safety workshops, Priya had the chance to interact with a bunch of youngsters from M.S. Ramaiah Engineering College. She asked them if they could come up with a device that allows a woman to alert others if she faces threat while traveling on buses or allows anyone else to inform relevant authorities if any inappropriate behavior or incident occurs in buses. With multiple trials and errors, the students came up with a prototype model that had a switch and an alarm when pressed. It rang on pressing and emitted flashing lights. Priya felt excited, took this product to various authorities, and asked for an opportunity to be heard. Her unavailing results didn't stop her from propelling her alarms. Meenakshi and Priya would stand in front of government offices for hours to propose their ideas. They persisted. Finally, with a great deal of endurance from the duo, they inaugurated the alarms by installing it initially in five buses for the pilot run in 2015.
Priya slowly started to build her team, took her alarms and workshops to every nook and corner possible with exiguous funding but immense zeal in her and her team. They managed to install 163 alarms in buses in Bangalore and were also invited by Aam Aadmi party from Delhi government, to help them create similar models in their public transport. Much to Priya's surprise, she was told that she will have to raise funds on her own to bring these alarms to life. Priya astounded them by accepting their offer and went back to procure funds. With hiccups, she successfully installed a pilot of 5 alarms in Delhi, paving the way to the rule of implementation of panic alarms in public transport in Delhi.
To be continued…..