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The ‘barefoot counsellors’ of Assam who tackle women’s problems anywhere, anytime

From sexual harassment to domestic abuse — Assam’s barefoot counsellors are lending a ear to a gamut of issues faced by women living in small towns and remote villages.

Written by Tora Agarwala | Mirza, Sipajhar (assam) |
Updated: November 19, 2018 3:49:55 pm
Barefoot counselling, northeast network, Assam Meet Assam’s barefoot counsellors or grassroots level counsellors whose job is to “provide emotional, psychological support to aggrieved women.” (Express photo by Tora Agarwala)

Usha Devi’s phone rings off the hook but she doesn’t mind. “It could be 2 in the morning but you will never find my phone switched off,” says the 50-year-old of Sipajhar in Assam’s Darrang district. “Often people ask me what my work timings are. The truth is I don’t have a timetable — if you’re doing social work, it’s a 24/7 commitment,” says Devi.

Last month, she got a call around midnight from a shopkeeper in a village nearby. “He told me ‘Baideo (sister), a woman, with hair open, is roaming around the road in tears’,” she recalls. There was no time to waste, says Devi, who immediately alerted her network, made a few calls to the nearest police station and got the woman back to safety. “She had been thrown out of her house by her husband in a fit of drunken rage,” Devi explains.

Barefoot counselling, northeast network, Assam Usha Devi — a barefoot counsellor — at the Sipajhar centre. (Express photo by Tora Agarwala)

Calls of this nature to Devi aren’t a rarity. Sometimes the women sob, sometimes they speak in hushed undertones. Devi, who studied up till Class 12 and grew up in the village of Joljoli in Mangaldai, is a barefoot counsellor, or a grassroots level counsellor whose job is to “provide emotional, psychological support to aggrieved women.” In 2016 — trained under an initiative started by women’s rights organisation North East Network (NEN) headquartered in Guwahati — Devi would counsel women, from villages near and far, out of her living room.

She was not the only one. In Mirza, Junumoni Das — also trained by NEN’s barefoot counselling initiative — would meet survivors in her drawing room. Then a year back, some miscreants threw stones at her window. “People get threatened when they see women talking to each other — the village is small, and so is the mindset. I guess that is why they attacked,” says Das, 43, and a mother of one. Soon after the incident, the organisation decided to set up dedicated counselling centres realising that ‘counselling from livings rooms’ was no longer a viable option.

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Barefoot counselling, northeast network, Assam Mondays, Wednesdays, Friday are designated counselling days but visitors flow in as and when. (Express photo by Tora Agarwala)

Today the initiative functions out of three counselling centres in part of rural Assam: Sipajhar in Darrang, Doigrung in Golaghat and Mirza in Kamrup. And it in these spaces that women, from villages near and afar, come to discuss their problems.  “It’s a variety’ of issues — trafficking, sexual abuse, alcoholism, domestic violence. Whatever it may be, our job is to listen,” says Das, seated behind the desk at the Mirza centre.

Located in the same property as Das’s own home, the centre — officially referred to as Gramin Mahila Kendra — has two rooms: one is the reception area, with a desk, a bed, and photos of flowers and birds on the thatched walls; and two, a more private space where the victim meets the counsellor. While Mondays, Wednesdays, Friday are designated counselling days, visitors flow in as and when. On a September morning, a victim of trafficking and her mother are at the centre.

In the workshop the 12 barefoot counsellors from 8 districts in Assam underwent with MIND India (a Guwahati-based organisation that works with mental health), they were told that the first thing they should offer anyone who visits the centre is a glass of water. “We then ease them into a conversation, and once they start talking about the problem, we just listen patiently. Writing it down and giving advice comes later,” says Devi.

Anurita Pathak of NEN who headed the project, says these spaces are more “dialogue centres” than anything else. “The women need to feel assured the moment they enter. The fact that we have a bed there is also an indication that the woman can come relax in this safe space. The pictures we have put on the walls are not of women getting beaten up but of flowers and birds. The intention is to make women feel at peace, an image of a flower might want them to open up,” says Pathak, adding that the Gramin Mahila Kendras offer other facilities too. “Widows and the aged can come here to collect their pension forms, survivors of domestic violence can come here to collect yarn.”

Barefoot counselling, northeast network, Assam Junumoni Das at the Mirza centre. (Express photo by Tora Agarwala)

The barefoot counsellors are also in touch with rural support groups comprising women in remoter parts of the district. “This is our ‘network’ — always active, always alert, and always on the lookout for trouble,” says Devi. Pramila Nath, part of a support group in Narikoli village near Sipajhar, has been trying to fight rampant alcoholism in her village for three years now. “Every evening us women take sticks in our hands and go around the village to see if any intoxicated man is causing trouble,” says the 50-year-old, “Now they are afraid of us.”

But it’s the smaller, pettier and isolated incidents that are the toughest to tackle. Visiting the Sipajhar Centre for the first time, a 42-year-old mother of two says that she has been blackmailed by a neighbour who is falsely linking her to another man for two years now. “In our villahe, ura baatoris (rumours) spread very quickly and no one ever takes the woman’s word for it. A few month back I passed this centre, seeing the signboard I got curious. That is when I decided to visit.” she says.

Till June, 2018 the three centres have received 57 cases of domestic violence: 20 cases were solved and 7 cases were referred to police, protection officers and district legal service authorities. “We work as facilitators. It is the community (the village women) who have taken ownership. We cant stop the violence or take up roles the government is supposed to,” says Pathak. According to reports, out of 6,799 cases of crimes against women in the state till June 2018, 5931 are domestic violences cases alone.

Barefoot counselling, northeast network, Assam The centres are officially called Gramin Mahila Kendras — here widows and the aged can come here to collect their pension forms too. (Express photo by Tora Agarwala)

Recently in Kamrup, 15 young boys took up their own initiative to resolve a domestic violence case. Off late, some men have started accompanying women to the centres. “At the outset, most view us sceptically. ‘Who are you to advise us? How will you solve this?’” says Das, “Some come around, others don’t. But the good part is that the women are totally free with us — whether it is a problem in their private parts, or a problem in the kitchen — they tell us everything.”

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