“I called a local domestic violence hotline and told them about everything that was going on in my home, and the response I got was, ‘Why don’t you kick your mother-in-law out of your house?’” Stories like this compelled a group of South Asian women in Berkeley to start Narika, which would provide culturally sensitive assistance to victims of domestic violence.
Prior to Narika’s inception, a core group of 15-20 South Asian women had been congregating for Divali celebrations, Christmas dinners, and occasional brunches. At these gatherings, they began sharing notes about friends and acquaintances, and realized that the incidence of domestic violence in South Asian families was alarmingly high.
“Women faced language barriers, felt fearful of calling help lines and just did not know where to turn; many did not even realize they were being abused,” explained Shobha Menon-Hiatt, one of Narika’s founders.
One of the members, a lawyer, filed for 501 (c)(3) status; another opened up a bank account and each member donated money out of their pocket; and Narika was officially founded in April of 1992. Soon after, Narika established a helpline and the organization received its first grant from Bank of America of $1,000.
In those early days, the helpline was used to direct women to support groups. These support groups were based on the prevalent Western model. Though they provided a safe space, many women felt uncomfortable processing aloud while others listened. Oftentimes, the conversation was dominated by English-speaking women. After several attempts at restructuring the program, the founders decided to focus their efforts on individual cases.
Menon-Hiatt remembers a particularly difficult case that brought about the greatest change in Narika’s ideology. “It pushed us to navigate the interlocking systems of immigration, women’s shelters, and transitional and permanent housing,” Given their lack of experience and absence of formalized procedure, each member of Narika wore several hats and helped the client navigate her way through the system. With Narika’s help, the woman safely returned to India.
“Years later, a Narika volunteer saw her with her husband. He had gone to India to bring her back and had not laid a hand on her since. She was really happy it worked out in the end. However, this case really challenged our emphasis on women leaving abusive relationships permanently.” Menon-Hiatt explained how it changed Narika’s ideology and helped shape future Narika programs, including the South Asian Economic Empowerment and Development (SEED) program. Although Shobha Menon-Hiatt no longer works for Narika, she is still an active Narika helpline volunteer and heads the advisory board.
Today, SEED is open to all South Asian women, regardless of their relationship history or history of abuse. Narika has learned that empowering women with life skills (financial, computer literacy, ESL, career resources) increases their self esteem and shifts the power structure in their relationships.
Over the past 15 years, the Narika helpline has received over 10,000 calls and assisted over 2,000 women and children to reclaim their right to an existence free of violence and abuse.
“This year two initiatives were launched: a poster campaign and the recently developed ‘Healthy Families, Healthy Communities’ seminar series, which offers classes on topics ranging from healthy cooking to self-defense classes for women,” says Atashi Chakravarty, Narika’s executive director.
As Narika looks forward to the future, their ultimate goal is to not be in business anymore. “Narika wants to work to prevent domestic violence and ultimately to end it altogether,” Chakravarty adds.
Alyza Jehangir is the special projects coordinator of Narika.
Narika Turns 15
Narika serves women who originate from the South Asian countries and diasporas of Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. Narika promotes the empowerment of women to confront and overcome the cycles of domestic violence and exploitation.
This year, Narika commemorates 15 years of service to the community with a gala event: “Fifteen Years of Sharing Aspirations, Creating New Visions.” Join them in taking a stand to end violence against women.
Saturday, May 19, 6-10 p.m. St. Mary’s Cathedral, 1111 Gough St., San Francisco. www.narika.org, or Office: (510) 444-6068. Toll-free helpline: 1 (800) 215-7308.
Ticketing and sponsorship info: Alyza Jehangir, Special Projects Coordinator, [email protected], (510) 444-6068 ext 3