Not very long ago, when Sushma needed to help in getting away from an abusive husband, she approached her friend Neela. Not knowing that to do, Neela looked up the Yellow Pages and found the name of three shelters. When she called them, she was told that there was an indefinite waiting period to get in. Besides, they had no one in their list of volunteers who spoke Hindi, the language that Sushma was most comfortable in. Neela turned to her friends, one of whom said she would give Sushma shelter for a few days until her husband returned from an extended business trip. Sushma moved in only to go back to her husband a few days later when the allotted time was up. Nothing had changed. It was 1987.
In 1993, when Sushma finally decided to end her abusive marriage, she called Neela again. This time Neela knew exactly what to do. She referred Sushma to a newly formed organization that helped abused South Asian women. Sushma spoke with a volunteer who spoke Hindi and who had no difficulty understanding some of the cultural and social dilemmas that Sushma was facing. Over three long years. the volunteer helped Sushma cope with the incredible struggle of rebuilding her life. Today Sushma works part-time and is enrolled in a community college studying to be a travel agent. She expresses her deep gratitude to the “behen (sister)” who was there for her when she had lost all hope of living a life free from abuse.
Less than a decade ago, South Asian women like Sushma had very few places to go to for help. They either depended on friends and relatives for help or braved the indifference of mainstream agencies that did not understand her unique cultural background Because of the aura of secrecy and shame that hung around the issue of abuse, efforts to help were sporadic and non-cohesive.
All this began to change in the late 1980s with the phenomenal growth in the South Asian population through immigration. Cases of domestic violence began to surface with numbing regularity, and were harder to dismiss as aberrations. On the national scene, domestic violence prevention movement was gaining force and attracting media attention.
Seeing this large movement against violence in the country, South Asian women were asking, ‘What about us? Where are the services we need?” says lnderpal Grewal, founding member of Narika, an organization based in Berkeley, CA
Several women’s groups formed in the areas where South Asian populations were significant, namely the New York Tri-State Area and California Organizations with reassuring and comforting names like Sakhi (Friend) and Apna Ghar (Own House) extended their hands to help women in need. Most of these organizations started out with a core group of five or six women who had informally helped friends or relatives in abusive situations. The services offered were minimal, most of them restricted to direct referrals or temporary shelters. Some groups also made emergency loans to women in need from their meager funds. It was all very low-key and on a case-by-case basis.
Soon, however, taking their cue from mainstream American agencies which acted as mentors, the fledgling South Asian groups changed their casual character. They organized themselves, created boards, opened phone lines, trained volunteers, and applied for non-profit status in a remarkably short period of time—all on shoestring operating budgets. Women who called found help in a variety of South Asian languages and began to be referred to lawyers, counselors, shelters, and other services. They were also assured of culturally sensitive help. Says a woman who called Narika’s toll-free number, “It was such a relief to know that I did not have to explain to the volunteer what an arranged marriage was or why I had to live with my in-laws.’
The calls that began as a trickle are today flooding the phone lines from San Francisco to New York as the number of South Asian women’s organizations continue to grow. Older groups like Sakhi in New York, NY, and Manavi in Union. NJ (the oldest South Asian women’s group in the U.S.), or Apna Ghar in Chicago, IL. are glad to see this trend. In the past, they had often received calls from areas in which they had no resources to offer.
Most organizations report that the volume of calls handled is increasing every year. Saheli (Austin) and Daya (Houston) in Texas, both of which have information and referral lines, say they receive 15-20 calls a month. At Raksha in Atlanta, Georgia, Project Coordinator Sonia Sharma says the calls come in from a large geographical area including Virginia and North Carolina. “Our calls have gone from a total of 400 in four years to 250 in just 1996,’ says Sonia Pelia of Maitri in Sunnyvale, CA.
“The increase can be traced to better outreach and education, better reporting, and also to the range of services we have been providing,” emphasizes Naheed Shaikh, outreach coordinator for Narika. “It is no longer enough to just help a woman through a crisis situation. What happens to her afterwards? She needs a job, a place to stay, to be with her kids.”
Lata Deshpande of Asha in Washington DC, says, “Though a lot of our work is in domestic violence, we provide any kind of help that a woman might need.” The organization gives emergency loans, helps women with immigration problems, and works closely with a shelter in the Washington metro area.
At Manavi, Shaliru Gujavarty, Legal Program coordinator” says, “We now call ourselves a full-service organization for women.”
Manavi has begun operating a transitional shelter, and runs a free legal clinic.
Other organizations observe that the type of calls they receive have changed over the years, “Of course. domestic violence calls still come in, but we see other kinds too—domestic workers in bad work situations, teenagers, abortion issues, job searches, second gener-ation women being forced into marriages by parents, or sexual harassment,” says Kamala Mantha of Sakhi. Maitri volunteers say that they have handled almost 12 calls relating to abandonment by Spouses this year alone. At Raksha, men and women call with immigration problems and Daya board member Lakshmi Parameswaran says that their volunteers help with any family crisis situation, be it an accident, domestic violence, or death. Narika’s outreach has yielded calls on second generation issues, date rape, same-sex violence, and child abuse.
What has been the response from he Indian and other South Asian communities? “When we started our organization in 1991 we had very little support from the community,” says Pelia of Maitri. “We were called marriage breakers and other names like that. Domestic violence was a taboo subject and here we were talking about it openly. It was tedious, slow, grass roots work. Now, when we set up a booth, at least half a dozen people will stop by to say that they think we’re doing an excellent job. Their monetary support has also been generous.”
Organizations like Aasra (Fremont) and Sahara (Artesia) in California say that commu¬nity support has never been a problem and that most of their financial support comes from the community. Aasra has even been able to find funding for a shelter, becoming one of only two South Asian groups to do so. The other being Chicago’s Apna Ghar. Quamrun Nissa, Project Director of Aasra, says that their shelter is almost always full. “The women who use our shelter are provided with counseling services and licensed child care, and we try to see that their special needs—for example, many are vegetarians—are met. All this is done within the Aasra philosophy that women must be made self-sufficient and do what they think is best for their lives.”
Realizing the pitfalls of operating in a vacuum and duplicating services that already exist in the mainstream, some South Asian women’s groups have joined hands with their sisters in other communities to share re sources. For example, Apna Ghar’s child visitation center in Illinois is often recommended to parents by family courts in the Chicago area. Saheli has also successfully reached to Korean clients. Others have become a part of larger advocacy groups to empower women.
A recent path-breaking conference in San Francisco organized by the Asian Women’s Shelter Collaborative stressed the need for an organized response to domestic violence, a social problem that cuts across all classes, cultures, and races. Titled “Gathering Strength: Coming Together to End Domestic Violence in Our Asian and Pacific Islander Communities,” the conference was attended by over 500 women and men representing health and domestic violence organizations from all over the world including India, Cambodia, Japan, Indonesia, and the Philippines. The importance of working together across national and international lines to end domestic violence was also emphasized.
October has been designated Domestic Violence Awareness month, and is an occasion to throw the spotlight on a problem that many believe is one of the leading causes of death among women in this country. It is also a time for education and outreach in every community. South Asian women’s organizations say they plan to be very visible with awareness creating programs ranging from street plays and skits to seminars and community events. “We have speaking engagements every day of the month.” says Deshpande of Asha.
“We have to help each other as much as we can,” sums up Kamlesh Chauhan of Jagruti in Artesia, CA. “But in the end, the strength to stop violence against ourselves and our children comes from within. The is the true role of a women’s organization-to awaken that strength.”