WINGS: a novel approach to reducing violence against women

By Pemu Bhutia

Pemu Bhutia, from the India HIV/AIDS Alliance South Asia Technical Support Hub, on a novel approach to reducing violence against women.

When people look at violence against women they often only look at physical violence, sometimes psychological violence, but violence can also be social and economic. Some of the women we work with do not even realise they are facing violence. Being called bad names, being harassed; for them, it’s a way of life – they cry over it, but they live with it – they see it as normal.

Women access individual counselling at the Samara office. © Gitika Saksena for International HIV/AIDS Alliance.Women accessing individual counselling © Gitika Saksena for the Alliance

WINGS, or the Women Initiating New Goals for Safety programme, uses social cognitive theory to address intimate partner violence and other forms of violence faced by women who use drugs or engage in heavy drinking. One of the many reasons for this is that women who experience violence are up to three times more likely to be infected with HIV than those who have not. Women who use drugs are particularly vulnerable to violence and to HIV, yet programmes that link these issues remain rare.

In partnership with Sahara Aalhad Centre for Residential Care and Rehabilitation, we ran a six-month pilot of WINGS in Pune, India, with technical support from the Alliance Harm Reduction Centre in Ukraine and Columbia University in the USA.

WINGS enables women to identify the violence they experience in their daily life and come up with personalised safety plans to minimise its impact in ways that work for them. WINGS also connects women to services for HIV testing and treatment as well as harm reduction services relating to drug-use.

For instance, one woman who participated in the programme was being forced to give all of the money she earned to her partner. He harassed her every day, sometimes physically, sometimes verbally. We asked her what she needed and she told us that by living with the man she was safer than she would have been on the streets but she wanted to save her money and have her partner be less physically violent towards her.

We carried out a mapping exercise to look at the nearest people she could turn to for help and support. We learnt she had neighbours who were worried about her because they could hear the chaos but felt unable to support her because she never asked for help. We encouraged her to make an arrangement with them so that if she made a sign, such as knocking on the wall twice, they would know she was in need of help.

We also asked her what the setting of her room was like and whether there was anywhere she could put her money where her partner wouldn’t find it. We put these tactics into a plan, which we reviewed every 30 days, and slowly things began to improve.

The beauty of the WINGS model is that it works with people at an individual level.

The women are speakers of their own lives. WINGS gives them the space to speak about what they have gone through and are going through, as well as what they want and need. This is very rare for programmes relating to women who use drugs.

It also means WINGS can be adapted for any group and for any country. The model has proved so successful we are hoping to support its implementation in Senegal, Myanmar, Viet Nam, Indonesia and Malaysia in the near future.

By naming the violence they are facing – for instance being permanently harassed by law enforcement – we’ve also seen how WINGS has helped women come together. Informal groups began forming during the pilot, and when such incidents happened women went to the police as a group and lodged their complaints together. WINGS helped them to unite and bring oneness to fight against violence.

The pilot has helped a small group of women in Pune. 50 began the pilot and, due to the transitory nature of some of these women’s lives, 38 finished it. We know the need is much greater and want to expand WINGS in Pune, including setting up a shelter for women who use drugs fleeing violence, and establish the model in Indian cities such as Calcutta and Delhi.

We hope more women will be helped by WINGS in the future – in India and beyond.

The WINGS pilot ran between December 2016 and May 2017 and was funded by the Alliance’s harm reduction programme.

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