MAITRI is a domestic violence agency in the Bay Area that primarily helps women and families from South Asia. Many are immigrants who are dealing with emotional and physical abuse, cultural alienation, or human trafﬁcking. They often don’t know anyone or where they can go for help. In addition to traditional services, we help them overcome social isolation and assimilation.
To support these women and families even further, we started Maitri Boutique – a clothing store that helps us fund our economic empowerment programs at MAITRI. At the store, we get donations and gently worn items from other retailers. We’ve also formed partnership with local boutiques and artists, and even recently had a fashion show at Google. We try to do fun things and host events to get more and more people interested and engaged.
I run the boutique and also do outreach and awareness. Anyone can walk into our store. And each time that someone comes in, we talk to them about what MAITRI does and give them an overview of the programs that we offer. We get mixed responses. Some people are really surprised and want to become an advocate or get involved. However, just like many survivors don’t know what services are available to them, the general public is also unaware of how they can help and get involved in the issue of domestic violence. Volunteering at the boutique is a good place for them to start. Survivors can also work at the boutique. It gives them the chance to learn new job skills, socialize, practice their English, and overall feel more independent and empowered.
We get a lot of customers who have low self-esteem or body issues, and part of our responsibility is to make them feel beautiful by the time they walk out. In India, dark skin is not considered beautiful. There was one woman who came in and told us that she felt she had missed out on opportunities in life just because she was dark-skinned. I told her that doesn’t matter. Everyone is beautiful. I showed her a white outfit, and she said no it wouldn’t work because of how it would look against her skin. She became a regular customer, and after three months of talking to her, she finally became comfortable enough to buy a white outfit. We want women to feel strong and beautiful. Our priority is that they feel good when they leave our store.
Domestic violence doesn’t discriminate against any race or socioeconomic status, so it’s our job to educate the broader community. There’s a lot that’s still needed, especially when it emotional abuse – if you don’t have any scars or damages, it’s harder for others to see and understand, and therefore harder for survivors to speak up and ask for help. There’s also still a big social stigma around domestic violence, and the guilt and weight that comes along with it. Especially in our cultural, there are many elements involved – your parents don’t approve and aren’t supportive, it’s unacceptable to leave because you have children, you’re living in a new place and don’t have other support systems, younger siblings will suffer if you get a divorce, etc. Beyond cultural barriers, some people don’t even have the self-esteem to leave an abusive situation because after so many years of abuse, you start to believe all of the negative things that are being said to you.
My dream is to live in a world without domestic violence. In order to do that, we have to get started early. You have to educate your kids; teach them what respect and healthy relationships look like, and how to stand up for themselves – especially girls. I feel really good that I’m at least helping to get that conversation started.