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By Annie Rani

A Woman's Friend Speaks

Sakhi is here to say, “Don’t look back”

Two decades ago, five women worked unnoticed to establish their dream of helping victims of domestic abuse in the United States. They aptly named their organization Sakhi, meaning “woman friend,” and became only the second South Asian-American women’s organization founded to promote women’s rights.

"The founders were visionaries in seeing that we needed an integrated methodology – programs which both provided services for survivors and community dialogue to address attitudes and behaviors which result in violence," says Purvi Shah, Executive Director of Sakhi. "Their vision was to work on gender justice issues first to break the violence faced by women in the community and then to really create an avenue and forum to enable women's equity and a community free of violence."

To make that dream a reality, Sakhi adopted a unique integrated approach along with a community-based approach. While the integrated approach combines support and empowerment through service delivery, community engagement, media advocacy and policy initiatives, the community-based approach relies on the community at large to come to the aid of domestic violence victims.

Sakhi shares information on its services at a local conference. Photo copyright: Sakhi. Photographer: Jacques Cornell.

“We work in an extended family structure where we think our families and communities are very significant,” Shah observes. “Therefore, while family members or institutions sometimes force women to accept the situations or compromise, those same influences can make a remarkable difference in a woman’s journey to empowerment.”

This journey begins when a victim of abuse or a Good Samaritan puts in that crucial call to Sakhi. The staff work to ensure that the caller receives and understands the basic information that’s vital to safety planning, and then help the caller identify the different options that can be pursued. “It can range from access to health care and benefits, if needed, to access to public benefits, to access to shelter or attorneys,” Shah says.

But not all survivors of abuse see divorce or a new life as a way out of their situation. The reality is that many women choose to stay with their abusive partners. “Sakhi has worked with survivors who might stay with their abusers their whole lives,” Shah says candidly. “While there’s a number of reasons, like it might not be economically viable to be independent, or there’s such immense family or social constraint that leaving is not an option, Sakhi innovatively provides avenues for other kinds of responses.”

Making this possible is strong support from the victim’s community. “What we’ve witnessed is that when women have support from family or friends, they are much more equipped to move forward in their journeys,” Shah insists. “And we’ve been able to develop a partnership with community institutions and members and supporters.” With more than a thousand members on their community list, Sakhi also has police precincts, hospitals, social workers and children’s services, among others, contributing to their efforts to ensure safety for battered women.

Sakhi and its supporters march in the annual India Independence Day Parade to raise community awareness to end violence. Photo copyright: Sakhi.

Proof that this community-based approach is a success is in the volume of calls the organization receives. "Our call volume has more than tripled since 2001, and we feel like that's because we've done more outreach or education in the community where people now agree that domestic violence does not need to exist," Shah says. "And in 2006, eight percent of our new requests for assistance came from men – both for those calling on their own behalf and those for women in their lives who needed resources. This figure was nearly 12 percent in 2007, which again shows the power of having a community-based approach."

Sakhi’s outreach has undoubtedly played a decisive role in securing their vast community resources. From conducting awareness events like fundraising dinners to marching in the Indian and Pakistan Independence Day parades and organizing peace rallies, Sakhi has refused to let the public conscience avert its gaze from the harsh realities.

“Domestic violence is a core issue but obviously it’s related to other issues like sexual assault, child abuse and incest,” Shah points out. “This topic has really touched a nerve and resonated within the community, which is another reason why the community-based approach has worked for the South Asian community.”

Like so many other things in a rapidly changing world, domestic violence is no longer a secret, a hidden truth borne by countless women in painful silence. So, the legacy begun by five dedicated women continues to light candles for millions of battered women living in darkness.

Annie Rani graduated from the University of Southern California with dreams of being an author (because that's what high society calls Arundhati Roy wannabes).

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