Prajnya Gender Talks, December 2020 || The Swayam Journey: A 25-Year Celebration by Anuradha Kapoor


December 2020

Rapporteur: Suhasini Udayakumar

Swayam’s Origins

Anuradha Kapoor started Swayam in 1995 right after the release of the Beijing Platform for Action. She had realised there were not that many organisations addressing the issue of GBV. The ones that did were invisible and provided limited services, as a result of which women survivors had to go to many different organisations to get the different kinds of support they needed. 

There was also a dearth of literature on the subject. In the early stages, Anuradha learned from talking to other women and activists and paying visits to local organisations, which led to her creating the first resource directory of GBV organisations in the country. Swayam published several books on the subject which were taken up by UN Women as part of their programmes. More organisations followed Swayam’s lead and more research, publications, and resources emerged. 

Swayam’s Purpose and Methods

Swayam’s goal was to fill both resource and support gaps. They began to provide mental health services, counselling, and legal aid, and also worked with the police and courts to improve survivors’ access to justice. 

A. Support Groups

Survivors tend to feel isolated, believe that their circumstance is unique and blame themselves for their situation. Swayam knew the silence around violence needed to be broken and for women to understand that the problem is systemic and not individual. Thus began Swayam’s support groups with women of different ages and backgrounds, each inspiring the other, bringing about solidarity in the consciousness that change is possible.

Now, Swayam has 15 different group activities, which have evolved through the survivors voicing their own needs. Most of the survivors are victims of trauma, depression, and anger and to norms that are internalised and ingrained. Through these support groups, the survivors work on healing themselves, moving on and becoming agents of change. 

A few of these support groups evolved organically into theatre, music, and dance movement groups which serve as therapy as well as prevention campaigns. The theatre group is now 22 years old and the music group has released two CDs on DV. Workshops help the survivors introspect – a luxury most of them haven’t experienced at any point in life. They understand the roots of violence and learn not to stigmatise survival. Swayam also conducts intergenerational workshops, working with children and the families of survivors. Its magazine Prayas has published 75 issues so far about DV. The survivors are a key part of Swayam’s campaigns – many of them are trained to do what Swayam does; they provide the first level of support in their community to other survivors and then introduce them to Swayam if necessary.

B. Research and Advocacy

Anuradha stresses the profuse networking and collaboration at the local and international levels that have supported Swayam’s preventive work. Swayam’s Aman Global Voices for Peace in the Home brought 156 organisations into the network, and Bhavna created a West Bengali network against child marriage. Swayam carries out training and capacity building for the police, state, schools, and other institutions. Its judicial training programme which is 8 years old now is carried out in association with Sakshi, Delhi, to change prevailing patriarchal judicial attitudes. It was the first organisation in the country to begin the 16-day campaign against GBV – a culmination of awareness-raising throughout the year – which is now held by 250 organisations nationally. 

Swayam also expanded to other centres in West Bengal to provide increased access to survivors. Many women approach Swayam for help but so many do not have the mobility to do so. Swayam’s centres bring together groups of women who in turn become agents of change in their communities. Swayam has also worked with groups of men and boys to show them what they stand to gain from equality. 

Anuradha closes her talk by touching upon Swayam’s prolific research, publication, and advocacy work. For over a decade, the organisation played a key role in the formulation and implementation of the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act. It has published a study on the misuse – or rather the lack of use – of Section 498A of the IPC. It contributed to the chapter on violence against women in CEDAW’s 2014 shadow report. It has served as a rapporteur for UN Women on women’s experiences of domestic violence during the pandemic. Swayam has also published research on young people’s perceptions of sexual harassment (“eve-teasing”) and a book on the judgments under the PWDV Act. 


During the Q&A session, Anuradha reflects on how DV became more intense and frequent during the pandemic. One new phenomenon was that of calls from young unmarried women (college girls) who had moved back home and were facing abuse at the hands of their parents. Post-COVID, Swayam receives 2-3X the number of calls than before. Swayam’s team has learned and leveraged digital tools – WhatsApp, Zoom, and conference calling – to provide counselling and support to women across the country. 

Anuradha highlights that counselling exclusively through the telephone requires a very different approach; so the organised provided training to all caseworkers to keep up with the changing times. Overall, the phone proved to be a useful tool for mental health services: survivors were comforted by the distance it provided, and the organisation channelled new kinds of services to new locations. 

Swayam also conducted Zoom workshops for those survivors who had access to technology, communicating and addressing COVID-specific dangers. It distributed voice messages recorded by doctors about COVID, circulated an in-house video on the support it offers, and even carried out relief work by giving out rations. 

When asked about how service providers can grow the capacity to meet higher demands (1 in 3 women suffer DV), Anuradha first expresses disappointment at how the state failed to provide support to service providers and survivors during these difficult times. The state’s one-stop centres were not properly functional and nor were its helplines. She says that Swayam has responded to the crisis by maximising helplines, launching social media campaigns, and communicating through media and film.

She winds up the session with advice to other younger organisations working on the same cause. She urges them to stay committed despite all odds and retain the hope that change is possible – as is evident from Swayam’s rich 25-year journey. 

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