(In exclusive conversation with Dr. Nayreen Daruwalla, Programme Director,
Prevention of Violence against Women & Children SNEHA)

By Shivangi Sharma

With the dawn of a new century, a non-profit organization in Mumbai SNEHA started its ‘Centre for Violence Against Women and Children’ in Asia’s one of the largest informal settlements called Dharavi. The program aims to prevent violence through community mobilization, ensure access to protection and justice, and empower women to claim their rights. The program not only provides counselling to survivors of violence, but works with a holistic approach with a focus on community engagement with multiple stakeholders. It encourages critical thinking about violence against women and girls, its consequences and reduce tolerance against such violence. Lockdown as a safety measure against COVID-19 pandemic has definitely uncovered the horrific truth about domestic violence in India. As government and other private helplines are recording a surge in distress calls, helping measures have also taken the online route. To understand the issue of domestic violence in our society and learn the effective strategies to help address the problem, team womb reached out to Program Director of Prevention of Violence against Women and Children at SNEHA, Dr. Nayreen Daruwalla.

SNEHA’s program on Prevention of Violence Against Women and Children (PVWC) started with opening a Counselling and Crisis Intervention center in the extension of a large public hospital in Dharavi. The program works on primary, secondary and tertiary prevention of violence encouraging critical thinking and educating communities to stand up against violence. On being asked about how the program expanded to its different branches, Dr. Nayreen tells us that initially the purpose was just to counsel women and children about violence against them in the household, but women were not so keen on being counselled. 

They were more worried about their day to day survival and would ask for financial help. “We realized that we will need the right strategy to approach these women, so in the first year we started with sensitizing doctors and police officers as these are points where women generally come” she says. But a major incident in the second year of starting the center proved to be a watershed moment leading the program where it stands today. Some community members approached the center asking to help a woman whose 21 year old recently married girl was murdered in broad day light. “We were just two people trying to counsel women about domestic violence and here, a girl was murdered. We were not confident as we didn’t know what to do in such a situation but we thought that if we are working on violence against women, we are taking so much effort, how can we not help this woman?” On visiting the community where murder took place, the center found out that the girl was burnt alive by a local goon in her house and no one came to rescue her. Dr. Nayreen says that this was the time for them from where they began community mobilization. The center started with talking to people in the community and forming groups of people to help them understand that violence is unacceptable. They got in touch with the Investigating officer, the Deputy Commissioner of Police of that  area and the  Public Prosecutor ensuring that a robust charge-sheet is filed and the accused doesn’t come out on bail. The only witness to the crime was an old grandmother of the deceased, who was helped by the center to prepare for her statement in court and finally after 4 years of legal battle, the court convicted the accused persons. This also led to collaboration of the Center with District Legal Aid Services and they initiated a free legal aid center at SNEHA which has been up and running for the 19 years now.

In the journey of helping survivors of domestic violence, the program has devised effective interventions that not only creates awareness but also focuses on community mobilization and primary preventions. “Our primary intervention is to focus on awareness about violence as a human rights issue and a public health concern. It is based on understanding the law, different aspects of violence and gender. We teach women and expose them to bank, police station and judicial system to show that there is a world beyond their households.” Dr. Nayreen tells us that when they work with a new community, it takes almost three years for people to understand that violence is unacceptable. 

“In the second tier we focus on making women take action. Women who are in a women’s group can actually take action and help other women who are survivors of violence in their community.” Forming groups of men, women and adolescents and providing them with group education works effectively in engaging locals. “Third tier is focused on leadership. When you work with people for two-three years, you will see some men and women show leadership capabilities. They go out of their way to help other women, they are proactive in mobilizing communities, they are clear cut leaders. So, we invest in their leadership to become volunteers with SNEHA. They then identify women and children survivors, intervene and refer cases of violence to the counselling center.” 

The ultimate goal of prevention is to stop something from ever happening, but even after making so much effort you never see an end to violence. The problem is so endemic that it requires a change in attitude and practices.  Dr. Nayreen says “Although slow, it happens. It is battle that has to be fought every day. When the first time we did the intervention, we reflected about what women said about their lives. So they said “haan abhi meri life ka kya” it is over. I have nothing to look forward to except for my children. We realize how important it is that they bring about a change in community. Unless you don’t bring a change in yourself, how are you going to motivate to bring change in other people’s lives.”

SNEHA’s PVWC center has based their work on a socio-ecologic model to reach the goal of prevention. They have also added a layer of mental health to the program as mental health and violence go hand in hand, they are not mutually exclusive. On the days when center is shut, Sanginis who are the volunteers of the organization do the ground level identification and provide primary intervention. They keep the survivor with them and deliver first response to help her out and brings her to the center for counselling when it reopens. 

“Ours is a step-care model wherein we are looking at linkages from community to the counselling center where immediate secondary interventions are provided, which gives her respite, help the woman from her situation and make her understand the situation. And then, with the help of the counsellor, she starts making choices of her life. Because the ultimate goal is to empower her to make choices and decisions in her life that will empower and enable her to decide the future course of action. Almost 90% of the women prefer going back to their homes. So, the whole secondary intervention is based on psycho-education, giving her a sense of what her situation is” says Dr. Nayreen. But in the process of empowering women, the burden of bringing change is not entirely put women’s shoulder. In fact, after taking survivor’s consent, the center also counsels the husband, family members who are perpetrators of the violence to make them understand how some practices are unacceptable and they can affect them as well. If it is a case of sexual violence, be it inside home or outside, the center is very clear about taking refuge in law. She categorically says “If a woman is harassed or raped in the community, you are not going to counsel instead make sure that the person is punished.”  

Secondary intervention also includes ensuring that survivor’s environment is safe for her to go back, carry out suicide assessment and take care of her mental well-being. The tertiary interventions are more long-term intervention. Restoring balance in her life, helping her with litigation process, long-term mental health counselling and also talking to the perpetrator and help them work out a relationship that is respectable to her. The model also requires system to work efficiently for it to work. Thus, police, lawyers, shelter homes also play a big part in bringing in change. Community also plays a big role as after the counselling, the woman is empowered, she has to go back to her community and if there is no change in her society, she is not going to be easily accepted. “Although you have changed their attitudes, community intervention and solidarity is very important. When a survivor from an area where we have women’s group, she goes back and reintegrated into her home, we also ensure that she is also reintegrated with women’s group working there. So, we are looking at social empowerment as well as psychological empowerment” says Dr. Nayreen.

Sexual violence in matrimonial couples and intimate partners is very common. Hardly even discussed, the question of marital rape is outright dismissed by not only society but law makers as well believing that criminalizing it will break the institution of marriage. Even though the Prevention of Domestic Violence Act, 2005 recognizes sexual violence in a domestic setting, the attitude of system is averse to dealing with such complaints. SNEHA is working constantly to bust that myth and make survivors open up about their experience of sexual violence. “With regards to counselling, when the woman gets comfortable, counsellors talk about sexual violence and women have a lot to tell. Women have spoken, given testimonies about husband being oversexed, wanting sex 5 times in a day, not even bothering to see who are the people around” tells Dr. Nayreen. “We have been providing them respite in PWDVA cases. I remember when I used to do counselling, a woman came to me and she told me that her husband used to have anal sex and her entire back, rectum was torn.  she had fissures. In such cases, counsellor have to talk to husbands and tell them that this is without consent and you have no right to do it and we have to do a lot of role education to completely stop it. We are successful in counselling in some cases and not in some. Then finally the woman also says I want to have a legal intervention.”  

Domestic Violence as a general notion is not just physical assault on a woman but also includes emotional abuse. A society so dismissive of mental health, it is even harder to explain and intervene in cases of emotional abuse. On being asked about how SNEHA works to make people understand what emotional abuse looks like, Dr. Nayreen says that they have campaigns running throughout the year on mental health and violence so that issues become more visible. “We have a big campaign that we do in the community where we show movies and street theatre. Then we have smaller campaigns which are called nukkad campaigns where we talk about mental health. And thirdly, all our modules with groups of men, women and adolescent, they all have integrated mental health interventions.”

 In addition to this, SNEHA also does case interventions where they educate women groups by way of case study. For example, if there is a woman with mental health condition facing abuse, after the case is resolved, counsellors rope in community women group members or sanginis to make sure they take it forward to other members in the community. 

SNEHA also runs “Little Sister Project” which trains local women known as Sanginis to identify and report gender-based violence using an android application. Some of their work is mentioned earlier in this piece, Sanginis are trained by program officers starting with group education. They are taken to police stations, hospitals, legal aid cell for exposure and make them learn about the system that have been established to help survivors. “We have always told them that we are working in a social field on a social issue.” The community team takes demonstration and modeling approach to train Sanginis. Every new Sangini is inducted in a group and is taught by way of practical case interventions by taking her to the community. They also have a buddy system where they pair an older Sangini with a new one and they help them with the intervention or any other kind of help. About the Little Sister Project, Dr. Nayreen tells us that it is a simple ODK platform wherein there is a set of very simple questions with images. “We give smart phones to Sanginis with the installed app. So, whenever a Sangini meets a survivor, she fills the information after getting her consent. When the information comes to us, our team, the counsellor coordinates with Sangini and check with the survivor. If she wants to come to the center or have someone come to her house etc. Our team members, the counsellors have a case sharing meeting wherein we don’t take names but we share cases to train Sanginis how to handle a particular case.” 

Currently all of SNEHA’s work has moved online. They already had a helpline and a crisis email facility in place which has been used quite frequently during the lockdown. The COVID-19 situation has led to women using discreet mediums of reporting which are not easily discernible in their homes. She further tells us “In lockdown period, as compared to normal period, people have reached out to us more through the helpline and email. And our counsellors have been providing intervention on the phone. If woman has asked for support, support networks are explored, women are asked for numbers of other women who can help them.We have the contact of land-based community volunteers and our counsellors immediately call them and tell them in which house support is required. That has really been helpful. Our group meetings are happening on whatsapp. Our counsellors coordinate on the phone with police also. So, we have been able to do 40-50% of our work which we would normally do.” 

The health crisis looming over us has widened the gap between survivors and the system. It was anyway harder to complain about domestic violence pre-pandemic, the lockdown situation made it near to impossible to reach out for help. Private organizations like SNEHA has played a major role in bridging this gap and changing the attitude of public systems towards domestic violence. 

Dr. Nayreen says that “The biggest gap in public system is that domestic violence and intimate partner violence is not recognized. It is considered a private matter. It is the same with public health system/doctors also. That’s why most of our work all these years has been to push domestic violence and intimate partner violence as a public health issue and a human rights issue.” It is important that these systems are willing to help survivors and make use of power that are given to them through law. And a lot has changed in the city of Mumbai where SNEHA predominantly works. Police are more willing to take up such cases and help out the survivors.  “Our goal is that all women issues are taken seriously by police and for that we have to keep working. And secondly, there is protocol. A lot of our work has led to making of protocol police and hospitals are using. These protocols are about when a woman/child goes to the Police Station, what does the police has to do to help them. Same with health care providers, what to do when a woman comes to seek help.” 

SNEHA runs women’s Out Patient Departments in public hospitals. These departments provide counselling and crisis intervention services to women and children survivors accessing the hospitals for medical treatment.  In addition to referring cases to hospitals, the organization also receive referrals from the hospital. If through the course of treatment physicians recognise that the patient needs counselling or is a survivor of violence, then they write a note and refer them to the Women’s OPD. The counsellors keep the doctor in the loop on the case throughout the subsequent intervention, which includes social investigation, counselling, legal support, rehabilitation, and providing shelter if necessary.

The work that the members of SNEHA team do is very heavy and overwhelming. It is not easy to listen to such horrible realities of people’s lives and then counselling them out of it. That is why it is very important to take care of one’s own mental health first. SNEHA organizes compulsory debriefing sessions for their counsellors. They take regular workshops of counsellors on wellbeing. Dr. Nayreen tells us that “Every counsellor decides counselling and crisis intervention, we give them secondary roles as well to break the monotony of the work. These are the measures that help. Sometimes it becomes really overwhelming, we get tired. The team is big they have a good coordination amongst them, they take care of each other as well.”

In addition to the helpline and email service, SNEHA is also coming up a chat-bot service. Even with a team of 24-25 counsellors, there are chances of missing calls as on 24×7 helpline service, calls may come anytime, especially in the lockdown situation. “The whole chat-bot facility will be introduced so that when a woman calls and a counsellor is unable to take the call, the woman can interact with the Chat-Bot asking her questions and that it will take the query to counsellor.”

SNEHA’s program on Prevention of Violence Against Women and Children has proved to be highly effective especially in areas where the reach of institutions and awareness was abysmal. People have not only responded well to their approach, they have shown leadership in taking forward the objectives of the program. Public institutions which are generally averse to taking up cases of domestic violence have seen a change in their attitudes towards such cases after awareness campaigns organized by SNEHA. The approach of not just helping the survivor get through her situation but empowering her and rehabilitating her in the society shows that interventions in domestic violence cases are not over till the environment is safe for the survivor. Engaging community members and mobilizing them to eradicate violence completely shows that group education and solidarity go a long way. 

The model does not put the burden on bringing change in the community on survivors instead counsels perpetrators as well to make them understand how violence and emotional abuse is not just harmful to the victim but also to them. SNEHA has also taken their model to rural areas of Jharkhand and replicated community mobilization and secondary interventions. 22 villages have a given a positive response to the program and other NGOs have also collaborated with them to reach out to a larger population. News of sexual assault and violence have become an everyday affair. People have become comfortable with old norms of society that chooses to stay silent in matters of abuse but SNEHA’s model has reminded the community that cases of domestic violence are human rights issue and not some personal family affair which can be neglected by others.We thank Dr.Nayreen Daruwalla for talking to us and giving us such important insights on how to address  and prevent domestic violence from our society.

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