When I Took Action: 3 Individuals Share Stories of Helping Victims of Domestic Violence
22 May 2020 3:57 pm
It took a pandemic to make us realize how helplessly vulnerable women and children are in their own homes. Globally, as countries instated stay-at-home advisories and lockdowns to contain the spread of COVID-19, a majority of women and children were forced to live with their abusers. Within the first 15 days of the lockdown, the data from National Commission of Women had made it clear that women were as much at risk within their homes as they were outside. UN Women called violence against women, a “shadow pandemic.”
As we continue to fight COVID-19 and prepare for a new post-pandemic world where social distancing might become a norm, we can no longer afford to overlook the violence in our homes and neighbourhoods as a “private matter”. If we are to beat this “shadow pandemic” we must build solidarities, gear up for community action and proactively take steps to get women the help they need. Today, when women are unable, more than ever, to access safety, legal aid or even a confidant, as friends, neighbours and witnesses, taking action has become imperative.
We spoke to three individuals to show you why your action matters and how it can help a woman break the cycle of violence.
“She finally opened the door. She had bruises on her face, hands and legs. We asked her if she’d like to talk to us.”
Ishita Roy, 24
Media professional, New Delhi
Ishita and her two flatmates woke up in the middle of the night to loud noises coming from their neighbour’s house. “We didn’t know what to do. At first, we thought should call the police, but we were scared because we didn’t know what was going on inside.”
They decided to ring the bell and knock on the door. Nobody answered. However, the noises slowly subsided and stopped. When Ishita reached out to the neighbours again the next day, they simply refused to talk.
Then one night, their fight turned extremely violent. Ishita and her flatmates could hear things break and decided to intervene again. They rang the bell and this time, after a little wait, the door opened. “She had bruises on her face, hands and legs. We asked her if she’d like to talk to us,” says Ishita. They spoke for more than three hours. This was the first time the woman had opened up to anyone about the violence.
Since the couple weren’t married, the woman felt hesitant to report the violence and was even worried about not having a place to go to during the lockdown. Despite their own fears, Ishita and her flatmates kept intervening every time they heard distress sounds. Once the man even called the police to complain about them. “When the police arrived, it was clear that there had been violence. The girl had bruises and their house was in a mess.” The police counselled the couple and left. The couple is still living together, but Ishita is staying vigilant, reaching out to the survivor as a friend whenever she can.
As Ishita advises,
- Assess the situation, involve someone else if you do not feel confident in helping alone
- Keep emergency numbers handy and call the police if things get out of hand
- “Don’t unhear things” – acknowledge and reach out
“A woman abused by her in-laws was texting me, and because she couldn’t reach out to her counsellor, I was mediating and telling her what to do. We are now trying to find her a lawyer.”
Surabhi Yadav, 29
Development Professional, Bengaluru
Surabhi has been vocal about domestic violence on her social media and in her personal network. A few days after the lockdown was imposed, she came across an Instagram post. “An acquaintance from Delhi had posted that her domestic help was beaten badly by her husband and had come to her house to seek help.” Despite living in another city, Surabhi reached out to understand the help they needed. Her husband had broken her phone so she could not contact anyone for help. Surabhi raised money for a new phone and connected her to Shakti Shalini, an NGO that she was in touch with in Delhi. They are now finding her legal help.
“I connect the dots to get help. Make calls that they can’t make and arrange money for them to help them leave their houses. Find them lawyers, counsellors and other resources.”
After living in a safe place for more than two weeks, the survivor decided to go back home earlier this month. She is still in touch with the NGO and Surabhi, who has become her support system to reach out for help whenever required.
In another case, a survivor was texting Surabhi for help, while her in-laws were abusing her. Unable to reach a counsellor for help, the survivor reached out to Surabhi who helped her reach someone. “A lot of times, survivors don’t feel safe talking to a lawyer or a counsellor directly, I try being on call with them or help them open up to speaking to others about it.” This, of course, happens after a sense of trust is established with the survivor.
Surabhi says survivors taking action to secure their safety is a gradual process. “You are asking them to take action against someone they deeply love and you are an external actor that they may not trust. We are putting the burden of sensitive decision-making on the survivor in her moment of despair.”
Reporting violence is not the end-all and be all. Bystander action does not need to only be directed towards reporting violence. In fact, a large majority of women choose not to report. In many cases, women want someone they feel safe to talk to, someone they can trust with intimate details of violence and someone who does not justify the violence. This listening and validation helps them deal with the guilt they often feel for thinking or feeling bad things about the person they love, and can help break the narrative that normalizes domestic violence as a “part” of their relationship. It may also eventually give them the confidence to report.
“She speaking out is in itself a big action. Because for her to be able to do that, someone created a safe space,” says Surabhi.
After having helped multiple survivors, here’s what Surabhi suggests:
- If someone reaches out to you, don’t shut them down because of your own worries or fears. If you cannot help, gently direct them to someone who can or just hear them out.
- Check-in on your friends and family, drop in a message. Sometimes cases of domestic violence are closer to you than you think.
Constantly being exposed to details of violence could take a toll on the one helping and lead to secondary trauma. Surabhi often feels exhausted and takes a break to take care of herself too.
“My immediate gut feeling is to intervene, but if I am suggesting that to someone I have to be very aware and conscious about what their capacity for risk is – those who are helping can be deeply impacted by this as well,” she says.
“I talk to her every day to make sure she is alright and we have set a protocol that if I don’t hear from her on any day, I will at once inform the police.”
Abhishek Gupta, 28
Development Professional, Gurgaon
Abhishek runs a non-profit that trains underprivileged youth with computer programming skills. A young girl in his programme had been facing domestic violence for over five years before she chose to leave her home. After she found a job in Mumbai, she tried to go back to her husband and make her marriage work. However, while she was in her husband’s home in Jahangirpura, Surat, the lockdown was imposed, almost instantly trapping her there. The violence soon began. Her husband beat her, broke her phone and deleted all her contacts from other systems so she couldn’t reach out for help. Somehow, she was able to reach out to Abhishek through Facebook.
“She messaged saying, ‘I need to figure out a way to leave this place’,” says Abhishek, who at once started looking for help. Even though the lockdown made it hard for people to personally visit her, a lot of people came forward to help. They offered her a safe place to stay nearby. However, with a 6-year-old child to take care of, the survivor feared moving to an unknown place, especially amidst the threat of the virus and the lockdown. Some even reached out to their contacts in the police to assure her safety. The police pressure ensured her husband would stop harming her.
While Abhishek is concerned about her safety and wants to get her out of there as soon as possible, he understands that in the end, it is her decision.
“She may leave or she may not. We tell her what we believe but we also respect her decisions,” he says highlighting that the consent and choice of the survivor must be respected.
Abhishek who has been working with at-risk youth, including a large number of girls has never felt hesitant to act. His word of advice is, take the first step. ”The first time is tough, but once you’ve reached out and seen what it can do, it becomes easier for you to act again.”
Author: Fatema Diwan is the Communications Officer at Amnesty International India.
Featured image is a shot of a street theatre performance on domestic violence. Photo taken by Biswarup Ganguly | Wikimedia Commons