Interview | Ram Devineni (Priya’s Shakti)
Michael (TLF) was very fortunate to interview Ram Devineni, co-creator of Priya’s Shakti and a documentary filmmaker. The World Health Organisation estimates that 1 billion women worldwide have or will experience either intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence in their lifetime. The idea to create Priya’s Shakti came after the horrible gang rape and murder of a young woman on a bus in New Delhi in 2012. As a result, Ram and his team created a new Indian comic book superhero, Priya, who is a rape survivor with the capacity to inspire others and promote change. UN Women has honoured the character as a ‘gender equality champion’ and there have been nearly 500,000 digital downloads!
I swear I could go on and on about how amazing you and your team are at Priya’s Shakti but let’s go right back to where it started. What particularly motivated you with the horrible gang rape and murder in New Delhi to get Priya’s Shakti going?
I was in Delhi when the horrible gang rape happened on the bus in 2012, and was involved the protests that soon followed. Like many people, I was horrified by what had happened and angered by the indifference exhibited by government authorities at every level. There was an enormous outcry in particular from young adults and teenagers — both women and men. At one of the protests, my colleague and I spoke to a Delhi police officer and asked him for his opinion on what had happened on the bus. Basically the officer’s response was that “no good girl walks home at night.” Implying that she probably deserved it, or at least provoked the attack. I knew than that the problem of sexual violence in India was not a legal issue; rather it was a cultural problem. A cultural shift had to happen especially views towards the role of women in modern society. Deep-rooted patriarchal views needed to be challenged. I think those protests were a turning point in India to address gender-based violence. Of course, violence against women have always existed in India prior that, but I think it was tipping-point, especially by young people.
You use Augmented Reality in your comic book and art exhibitions – the first of its kind with international outreach and social engagement. You actually animate real-life stories and voices of Indian women who have survived assaults. How do you believe this has more of an impact breaking down social stigma?
We hope to create empathy for survivors and challenge the patriarchy surrounding this crime. The goal of the comic book series and our partnership with the World Bank’s WeVolve program is to reach teenagers. The comic book format and use of augmented reality technology through the Blippar is perfectly designed and popular with teenagers. We hope to distribute the comic book in schools for free in the future. Teenagers are at a critical age when they are learning about relationships and developing their opinions of each other. So, this comic book series is a powerful tool to talk about gender issues.
One big AR element we created in this chapter is called the #TheLastMask which allows you to put on a transparent mask like Snapchat and share that on social media. We want people to show solidarity with acid attack survivors and tell everyone that this is everyone’s struggle.
Has the Indian legal system made any reform in response to the impact of Priya’s Shakti?
I think Priya’s Shakti and many other activities and the protests were part of a massive momentum that happened around that time. And helped to change public opinion and perceptions about gender-based violence in India. The Supreme Court of India setup a special panel to look into changes in the legal system and how police should address rape cases. There were a lot of changes implemented including special courts focused on rape, and to make survivors more comfortable and safe.
In all your amazing work in the gender equality space, what have you found to be the most interesting or shocking revelation?
Interviewing survivors of acid attacks was very difficult, but I was inspired by them because the ones I interviewed were all activists, so they wanted to talk and be out in the open. Of course, this is not true for everyone, but I think is a global movement and coalitions forming with acid attack survivors making them more open and public.
In general, acid attacks survivors have the same victim blaming problems that rape survivors face. Often, they do not tell others they were attacked with acid because the stigma surrounding it. Rather they say they were burned in a cooking fire or something else.
I think the power of the comic book series is that we are presenting very difficult topics – gang rape and acid attacks — in a very approachable and empathetic way. Readers can relate with the characters and story, and especially the main character — Priya and understand these problems without being turned off by them. Creating a female superhero and using the genre of “superheroes” provides readers with a familiarity and accessibility to the comic book and these problems.
Time for you to save the world – what innovation in our society’s way of thinking would genuinely help address gender-based violence?
I think the most important thing we want to emphasize with the comic book and with Priya is that change is possible. Trying to create a cultural shift is incredibly difficult, but not impossible. India is going through some remarkable and monumental changes in a short period of time. People’s views have not caught up with the speed in which things are changing in India. But, what was clear to me from the massive protests that happened all over India after the horrible rape on the bus is that we want things to change in our country. There were so many teenagers and young adults at those protests, and they will be the future catalyst and leaders who will define India, which is a hopeful sign.
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