Newsletter March 1984
It was the demonstration organised by Stree Sangharsh and Manushi to protest the burning to death of Tarvinder Kaur in her in-law’s house, that brought many of us together in Model Town onl June, l979.
Our attempt to speak to the public on this burning issue emerged in the form of a street play- “Om Swaha". We performed in colleges and residential areas north, south, east and west of Delhi, among the rich and the poor. Each time, women came forward to speak of their personal sufferings. As a small "consciousness raising group" however, we did not have the infrastructure to help them with their problems individually.
On 8th March, 1980 many more of us marched together demanding the reopening of the Mathura rape case. The Supreme Court had acquitted the two constables involved in the case. Demonstrations in Bombay, Bangalore, Hyderabad, Kanpur and Ahemdabad could not bring justice to Mathura, but the Law Commission was forced to look into the laws concerning women.
It was at this point of the women’s movement in Delhi, that some of us felt strongly the need for a women’s centre. A group of 9 women came together and in August 1981, Saheli, Women’s Resource Centre was started in a garage at 10, Nizamuddin East, New Delhi
We did not start with a manifesto. Too many groups had fallen apart on ideological differences before they could get started. There were (and are) different levels of feminist consciousness in our group, but all of us share a common concern. We had become acutely aware that our actions in cases of bride burning and rape, were undertaken when it was too late for the woman concerned. We felt the need to reach out and link our own personal struggles at work and in our families with those of other women seeking new ways of regaining their self worth and identity. Together we have gained confidence and strength in getting and giving support to one another.
More and more, we have begun to realise that our problem is not our own misfortune, predetermined by fate or nature. The ideals of female docility and unquestioning submission to male authority have been nurtured and preserved by a culture of silence, justified in the name of tradition But today, women all over the world are beginning to speak out and bring these issues to the public consciousness.
Saheli is open to all women, seeking protection, advice for legal counsel or wanting just to share. In the last two years we have provided legal assistance through our panel of lawyers; negotiated reconciliation outside court; acted as a panchayat in resolving marital discords; provided temporary shelter to women in our own homes at a time of dire need and found jobs to enable them to take steps towards independence and a life of dignity. In this process many of us who came to seek help, began to help others.
In the process of working and building a collective, we have started by dispensing with hierarchical structures and designations. A restructuring of the form of organisation and some rotation of tasks and responsibilities we feel are essential for building a genuine collective.
Saheli is a place where we meet other women, share our experiences and collectively seek solutions to our problems. A women’s desire to confront her situation and assert herself, is half the battle. We give courage to every woman struggling to emerge from the crisis in her life, to stand on her own in the knowledge that she is not alone.
We are not marriage counsellors or psycho-analysts or trained social workers. But we do have the time and interest to listen with concern to those women who come to us at a crisis point in their lives. We have learnt that the strongest of women are crushed in an oppressive family or work situation. Our attempt is to respond to a woman’s need to confide, and unburden herself of her pent up feelings of being wronged.
Women who are harassed, beaten and otherwise victimised everyday in their homes, have nowhere to go to. And this is by no means a problem confined to poor women alone. In almost every case in which a dowry death has occured, we find that the woman, harassed by her husband and in-laws, fled for shelter to her parental home, only to be returned to her “rightfuly place", her “Sasuraal", which proved to be her death trap. It is in this context that we are setting out to start a Short Stay Home, to provide an interim shelter, a brief respite to enable a woman to gain confidence to make decisions regarding her life and seek new alternatives.
We began in a very small way. We did not expect that our work would grow to the extent it has in such a short time. Nor did we anticipate the response we have received or the immense need for this kind of a centre. Till now about 300 women have come to us. Every week 4 or 5 new women come to us with their problems. The small garage where we started does not have enough space for all of us. So we now move to our new oifice under the Defence Colony Flyover (South side), rented from the DDA at concessional rates for voluntary organisations.
Today there is no going back. The demands on us and expectations from us have created a continuing need not only for our existence but for our growth. Our future plans include:
1. A larger short stay home to provide shelter to needy women.
2. Referral centres in the different areas spread over North, South, East and West of Delhi.
3. Special interest groups to research and produce material for educating women of their rights and creating public awareness on the womens question.
4. Building a network of volunteers ready to be on call for any action or investigation concerning injustice done to a woman.
5. An employment and training information service.
6. A creche for working mother`s children.