A tightrope walk: Countering backlash from gender programming

Location IconThane district, Maharashtra
This is the third article in a 6-part series supported by Rohini Nilekani Philanthropies. This series is part of a three month long campaign that highlights the need to include men and boys as participants in programmes focused on gender empowerment.

View the entire series here.


We began working in Dombivali, a large informal settlement in Mumbai, in 2012. Vacha believes in empowering adolescent girls to bring about a change in their lives as well as in the lives of their communities. And so our programme focuses on creating a safe space for girls to express themselves—we impart skills-based training to build agency and support girls as they take on projects that address local issues. Through this process, girls develop resilience, even as they understand that change occurs gradually and can invite backlash from community members.

Thus, when we enter a locality, one of the first things we do is to seek permission from the local political leader to use the community space—for instance, an Anganwadi centre. We had received this permission in Dombivali, and the girls had decided that their community project would be focused on examining the condition of toilets. There were just four toilets for 5,000 girls and women, and they weren’t functional. They had curtains instead of doors, broken windows, no dustbins, no source of water, and no tube lights.

The girls planned to survey 100 households, but after 60 interviews the local leader learned about their project and shut it down, concerned that it would expose lapses in the areas under his purview. We were warned not to continue, and our permission to use the local space was revoked. Then began the slow process of continuing to support these girls while ensuring not to aggravate the local leader any further. As a nonprofit, we often have to walk a tightrope between helping girls exercise their agency, while dealing with inevitable backlash, and managing the local authorities that enable us to work in these communities in the first place.

In this case, though we set the project aside temporarily, the girls’ mothers learned about it and decided to take it forward. We held many meetings with them to offer our support, but this time we could not lead from the front. We helped the girls file an RTI to get data on the status of the toilets and the underutilised budgets. Finally, by reaching out to the Kalyan Dombivali Municipal Cooperation, the girls got the toilets fixed. This took three to four years, because we had to carefully manage the situation in such a way that it did not result in us being banished from working in the community, which would have defeated the purpose of our work. It’s something we have had to become especially astute at no matter which community we work with, as navigating the potential fallouts from changing gender norms and challenging the status quo are a key part of the work of most nonprofits. 

Know more: Learn how organisations working to address gender discrimination often face resistance from within the communities, and what they can do to tackle this. 

Do more: Connect with Steffi Fernando at [email protected] and Yagna Parmar at [email protected] to learn more about and support their work.


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