Caseworkers have turned lexicographers for the Dictionary of Violence and its expanding vocabulary
Some of the words that come up while discussing gender-based violence include samjhauta (compromise), bechari (helpless), hinsa (violence) and nyay (justice). Viewing these through the binary of “good” and “bad” leaves little scope to explore other meanings and make sense of individual experiences. Samjhauta, for instance, can manifest as sauda (bargain), ghutan (suffocation) or nirnay (decision).
In an effort to explore the different aspects of gender-based violence in a context more suited to India, feminist think tank The Third Eye (TTE) launched the Caseworker’s Dictionary of Violence in July, starting with the word samjhauta. It is being written by 12 caseworkers, from Lalitpur, Lucknow and Banda in Uttar Pradesh, who have been working as first responders to genderbased violence in rural and urban areas for decades. Available in a digital-only format, it can be accessed through TTE’s website.
An initiative of Delhi-based Nirantar, a centre for gender and education, TTE is a bilingual digital publishing platform focused on rural and marginalised communities as producers of knowledge. The dictionary builds the case for a uniquely Indian vocabulary to discuss gender-based violence and see caseworkers as holders of knowledge. The caseworkers have homed in on close to 75 words. Each word opens up new facets to how various forms of violence occur, and are internalised.
“The idea emerged from our curiosity about what justice looks like on the ground for women,” says Dipta Bhog, head of research, innovation and partnerships, at TTE. So far, a lot of the knowledge-building on gender-based violence has been done by researchers, most of them urban feminists, who bring a certain format and language to these issues, she explains. TTE wanted to go beyond this and draw from the experience of women who actually handle such cases on a daily basis.
The team began work in April 2022. Each word, linked to a compendium of stories from cases as well as incidents in the caseworkers’ own lives, aims to show how a word’s meaning can change depending on the context in which it is used. “If we take samjhauta as an example, it embodies many compromises that women have to make—whether it is in her natal family or at her in-laws’ home after marriage. Even if a woman decides to leave and be independent, the shadow of compromise doesn’t leave her. Then there are samjhautas, or bargains, that we also witness happening in society over the untimely deaths of women,” says Pushpa Devi, 55, a caseworker with three decades’ experience. The dictionary uses text pieces, podcasts and videos titled “Meet the Caseworkers” to explain the varied meanings.
For, caseworkers “are at the frontlines of the justice system but have also seen it crumble at times,” says Astha Bamba, assistant editor at TTE. The 12 caseworkers from three organisations—Vanangana in Banda and Chitrakoot, Sahjani Shiksha Kendra in Lalitpur and Sadbhavana Trust in Lucknow— are in the 35-55 age group. Many have experienced violence in their own lives. The initial work on the dictionary was unusual.
The plan was to have free-flowing in-person and online conversations and discussions with the caseworkers using prompts and pedagogies from different practices. They knew what they didn’t want: the mainstream heroic narrative. Theatre-based methods were used to enable open conversations on the contradictions caseworkers work with, and the way they navigate structures of caste, class and identity in their practice every day. “Often caseworkers end up navigating cases where women are not keen to leave a violent husband but also want to work out some kind of protective ‘bargain’,” says Apeksha Vora, facilitator of the project with TTE. It’s these nuances that the dictionary aims to capture.
“The caseworkers have fought legal cases and won, which is important to acknowledge. However, what is equally important in the dictionary was to explore how caseworkers’ own experience of gender-based violence powered or impacted their engagement with the issue. Clearly, what we were looking at was not just spectacular acts of violence against women but the everyday-ness of it,” says Bhog.
One of the aims of the dictionary was to break out of set formats in which cases are written and told, focusing on frontline workers who have been “informants” or those who provide “case studies” in most of these efforts, Bhog explains.
One of the questions that almost immediately grips the mind is: Why do caseworkers do what they do? So, I asked Pushpa, a survivor of domestic violence, what keeps her going and she smiled, “When I see another woman in a violent situation, I revisit my own suffering and that gives me the strength to carry on and keep on doing this work. I don’t want anyone else to go through what I have gone through. So, no matter what time of the day it is, I leave whatever I am doing to tend to the woman who needs our help,” she says. “Casework comes from the heart; it’s the heartbeat.”
Through the dictionary, the caseworkers raise questions about access to justice, explore how ideas related to feminism and social justice work and navigate empowerment beyond the established meaning in rural areas and explain how they do this. TTE aims to start conversations about gender-based violence where caseworkers are seen as producers of knowledge.
They plan to release all 12 interviews with caseworkers in the next two months. A short mixed media film directed by Hansa Thapliyal focused on discussing the contradictions within samjhauta, is also in the works.