I grew up witnessing domestic violence in my own community - among my dear ones and friends - and I realized that something was wrong. I thought: this needs to be stopped. We were told “You are a girl and you need to stay home.” I always felt very different. I have always had the intention and belief that something needs to change in this world and somehow I could help. That led me to social work, where I felt for the first time that I could stand up for others - my rights; your rights; everyone’s rights. I wanted to work for an organization that’s helping people and educating them about their own rights.
What I saw and felt while growing up in my community - the struggle to be a girl with my own wishes and choices; to be myself and present my own opinions - that’s what empowered me to be who I am today. I started my career working with street children and would teach them in the evening so that they could work during the day and still get some education. I realized then, when I visited and got to know their families, that their mothers were often being abused. The way they were being treated was unacceptable, but yet it was accepted. The women still felt that it was OK, or even normal, to be abused. In my culture, women are often taught not to defend themselves, and there is also a big taboo around divorce. The general trauma that these social pressures create is very high in South Asian culture, and in many others.
I really love working here and being in a position where I can empower and educate the community – so that others can raise their voices against the injustices they’re experiencing or seeing around them.
Being a woman, being a girl, you aren’t allowed to say “no.” In my day to day work, I try to encourage and empower them to say no; to say “I have the right to say that this isn’t OK.
When I leave my house in the morning and I know that there are clients who are waiting for someone show them what it’s finally like to be heard. I feel really grateful that I’m able to be there and listen to their untold stories. I let them know that this is a safe place and I’m not going to judge them.
Here at MAITRI, I am often the first person who meets these women without judgment. We talk to them and make them feel supported without pushing them to share or asking “why.” They open up slowly, we build relationships, and they begin trust us. They think “These women are hearing me truly, instead of judging me.” It requires a lot of time to be able to open up like that and recognize their own true self, and it also takes courage. Many of our clients are immigrants. It’s hard to reach out when they don’t know the language because they don’t feel comfortable. They don’t know that there are language access lines and interpreters. There are a lot of steps and bravery needed before a survivor decides to call 911 or finally get help.
This work is not easy, especially in terms of how it affects your own emotions. You are not only involved with one person, you are helping a whole family – their kids and their partners. Working at MAITRI, I feel grateful that I am one small light that can help empower women so that their girls don’t have to face what they faced or are facing. I keep that thought in mind. It’s not about helping just one person. We need to educate and empower whole families, whole cultures and communities, so that abuse doesn’t continue from generation to generation.
Domestic violence presents itself in every community and every culture. We need to keep talking. We need to talk more about gender equality and patriarchy. If there weren’t expected roles and accepted ways that men treat women, and there was more work on social strata, we would see the cycle of violence and disempowerment gradually begin to break.