Since we started in 1981, it has been seven years of struggle, excitement, disappointment, small achievements, solidarity! Nevertheless, seven years of experience with ordinary women. We write this today because of a need to share this experience with others, to move ahead.
Origins: Eight of us put our ideas and energy together to start Saheli. We had been involved in agitating for women’s rights and had come to the realization that agitating alone was not enough, particularly in dowry death cases. We were aware from our experience that a lot of women were being subjected to extreme violence and oppression. We felt that these women had to stand up for their rights and live a life of dignity. Yet, to say no to violence, women needed much more than slogans and until more and more women learnt to say no, the movement would flounder.
When we started, we had no special skills to deal with women in crisis. We had little knowledge of law. A number of complex tasks confronted us:
Providing shelter to women forced out of their homes.
Finding jobs for women with little skill or experience.
Organizing legal advice and aid.
Helping women in dealing with police, while fighting police harassment as well as corruption.
Providing emotional space to women in crisis.
Organizing medical help.
As most of us held full time jobs and had limited monetary resources, we were quite overwhelmed by all this. Before we opened our doors we had to decide that our first objective would be to listen to the woman, provide her with space and assurance that she had the right to take her own decisions. Our own experience had shown that many of us could not exercise any choice, in respect of our education, job, marriage or any other important aspect of our lives. When we challenged any authority, we were made to feel guilty and in the wrong. This seemed to be the case with most dowry victims as well. Many had begged to be taken away from their in-laws’ homes and had been turned down by their families. So we started by listening to women who needed help and sharing our own experiences with them. If they needed shelter, we would take them home with us. If they needed jobs, we approached our informal network.
We pooled in our own money, printed a brochure and set our in our own neighbourhoods to introduce Saheli, which then functioned from a garage. Each of us put in a few hours of our time every week to keep the office clean.
Sharing experiences and taking control: Listening to each other seems very easy and useless but is neither. To listen, withour passing judgments, to share without feeling ashamed, is a sensitizing process. In our society, it is the norm to blame a woman victim. It is the norm for a woman to privatize and internalize, to keep up family honour. Whether it be rape, wife beating or harassment, the dominant opinion is to suggest that the woman victim herself is responsible, ‘she asked for it’. Most women bear extreme oppression and violence in silence because even crimes which cut across classes and religion such as battering, rape, dowry are all supposed to be private matters. While hundreds of women are affected by these and the rest live in constant fear, they are still not deemed to be political matters. This is the attitude we wished to fight. A victim needs support, not condemnation. However, years of socialization do not disappear in a day. Similarly the choices which such victims can exercise have a lot in common, the laws of the land are common yet the victim suffers a sense of isolation and finds it difficult to make her private dilemmas and conflicts public.
The fear of judgment is so strong, that often women hide or distort the truth to gain sympathy. A husband who has a drink or two may get portrayed as a drunkard which society understands. But a woman will find it much more difficult to talk about mental cruelty or sexual incompatibility because society does not expect her to have a sense of self. This distortion is not new for Saheli but that does not make it easy for us to do anything. However we need to proceed on the basis of trust, making it clear that decisions and their conseqeuences rest on the woman alone. This helps to clarify issues and bring out the truth. Our jobs is to help clarify and discuss alternatives with her which will restore her dignity. Many a times, we are called marriage breakers, we are not. Most women with marital problems come to us after the marriage has reached a point of no return. After her family and friends have made attempts to keep it going and have failed. Even in such situations, sometimes we have been able to restart a dialogue if the woman has so decided. Our success at this is not because we are special, it is an outcome of an unbiased third party intervention. But this does not mean that we advocate continuation of a dead marriage against the wishes of the woman. The decision is entirely hers.
Women often change their minds and appear fickle-minded. This is extremely frustrating particularly when we are negotiating with husbands. But we should not expect a passive observer to become an actor overnight and assume control over one’s actions. Sometimes, anger leads to impulsive decisions which seem unsuitable when full realization sets in. Choices are unclear and steps seem faltering, particularly because no option is clear and painless. For most women, living as a single person and facing the world is as frightening as living with a bad husband. Walking out of a marriage without children is as bad as taking them along when even food and shelter is not assured.
Dealing with the legal system: Family laws are biased against women. Women have little to gain by going to courts. Legal battled mean endless postponements and appeals. Thorough Saheli women re now able to secure good lawyers and get legal aid. But the harassment means an unequal battle with unequal laws. Despite our support many women find the courts tough going. We can ensure honest and capable lawyers but cases which land up in court are beyond our control. Women suffer locational displacement with the end of married life, often are in new jobs when they cannot take time off fro court appearances. Over the years, the women’s movement has sought and effected changes in law and set precedents in various judgments; but in legal battles these have not really had much impact. Various laws have been modified but there has been no change in their prevalent attitudes. Laws against rape may be changed but the judge can dismiss rape cases on the grounds that ‘a married woman should know better’. A dowry death case be dismissed because according to the judges, ‘an educated woman would not subject herself to such treatment’. Similarly the law for maintenance is not easily enforceable. Cases can take long. There is no machinery to deal effectively with non-complaint husbands, even in cases where maintenance is granted. Most of the cases can not reach this stage because, given the extent of tax evasion, non-availability of employment records, no documentation of agricultural income etc, a woman cannot supply proof of income which forms the basis of maintenance. These are only a few examples.
For us, using the law enforcement machinery is the last resort. In Saheli, we are talking to the second party. This not only helps in ascertaining the truth but also in arriving at settlements. Using social pressure against the man is yet another way out. Custody of children, settlement of maintenance etc, are best done out of court. Divorce is the easiest when sought by mutual consent.
Working only t the level of broad agitations one often misses out on these intricacies. In fact, our knowledge also remains incomplete. Only when we tried to register an exchange of gifts for a marriage, two years after the dowry prohibition act had been amended, did we find that there was no set procedure to do this.
Legal struggles of individual women are of great importance to them, particularly when the mss of women is still not aware of the laws.
Dealing with the police: In the beginning the police would often refuse to take a woman seriously if she complained against her in-laws’ or husband’s violence against her. We were told repeatedly that the woman would turn around and withdraw because it was a ‘family matter’. Police response is obviously better in the case of upper class women. Women are equally hesitant to deal with the police because o the prevalent world view that ‘no good woman is seen at the police station’. We work hard with women as well as with the police to establish the right we can expect of the latter. Delhi police now has a special cell to deal with crimes against women. The working of this cell is far from satisfactory as yet.
Police attitude varies from officer but is never without patriarchal biases. There is little or no sympathy for a battered or raped woman. Even after knowing that the husband is violent, they compel a woman to go back to him. Medical examination is done perfunctorily for most medico-legal cases, including rape, even as police hospitals. The attitude of the police, compounded by the cumbersome procedures, make the victim undergo sheer agony. Incomplete records mean injustice for the victim in the courts. Rather than enforcing the law according to its spirit the police tries to dissipate the issue by assuming the role of a moralistic counselor.
Providing Shelter: Often women and children have no place to go to when they are thrown out of their homes. Sometimes, young girls also have to leave parental homes to escape marriage, or to study further. All these women need a safe place to live in while they decide their futures. Not having the resources, in the beginning we took such women home with us. As the number of women approaching us increased over the years, it taxed our emotional strength. We took a room in a nearby basti, which we use as an emergency shelter, but our homes continue to remain open and we are in contact with other organizations who run larger shelters of different kinds.
In between we took government funds for running a shelter but were not able to get any one to rent us an appropriate space. The government has refused to provide us with space. There is no lack of lacunae in the government scheme. For example, the provisions for rent, food, salaries, etc are all too low. A woman can stay in the shelter only for three months regardless of the situation she is in.
Employment: We get a lot of requests for ayahs, cooks, etc , some for typists, receptionists and sometimes for a field investigator. Some are factory jobs, mainly in garment export companies. Hence there seems to be a strong prejudice that marital problems occur more frequently with the poorer women. This aspect of our work is really very weak. But it is difficult to strengthen it. Most people who approach us with jobs are themselves ready to exploit women with less pay, long hours of work etc. We have made attempts at income generation for riot victims but that too was not economically viable. Women mostly do not have any marketable skills. For us it is really difficult to place middle-aged middle class women in jobs. This is not surprising because the rate of unemployment, among the eligible population itself, is so high, that jobs probably need to be created rather than referred to.
Our Politics: We do not see our work as ‘social work’. We work within a political framework. To describe it briefly: (1) We as a group do not see ourselves as doing charity or social work from others. We do not have our lives under control while we help ‘less fortunate sisters’. As a group we believe that women of all classes of present society are oppressed and therefore we are fighting our own battled. All of us live with the constant fear of sexual harassment, discrimination at work and threat of family violence. Helping individual women assumes importance in the context of the movement. We need to change social values as well as help individual women to stand up with dignity. (2) We do not offer any instant solutions, since none exist. Linking women’s problems to larger social processes is essential. This awareness helps women to see their own problems in perspective and highlights the need for collective struggle. (3) We do not see any real solutions to women’s problems in a capitalistic society. Some upper and middle class women may derive some benefits such as jobs and financial security; but to wipe out inequalities in our society, we need to work towards major structural transformation. Not only does discrimination against women have to stop, men and women of all castes and classes must have equal access to employment, education and other national resources.
Campaigns, agitations, awareness raising: From the beginning, we have tried to maintain some balance between stress on individual women’s problems and issue-oriented work. These two aspects of our work are vitally linked. We begin many of our campaigns from individual instances. Wife battering, police inaction are examples of this. This is not the basis for all work. Our understanding and demands are rooted in reality, some work is grounded in the environment: EP drugs, NET-EN, sati, Muslim Women’s Act, etc. The rest comes from our understanding of strategy and issues requiring sustained work and awareness raising. Many of these campaigns are being reported in this souvenir along with what we see as our perspective.
Challenges ahead: Many a times we are asked. ‘Are you really able to help women? How many have you helped?’ We never have an answer to these questions. We can see the results only when women respond to our calls for campaigns and when hey bring new women along. We also see the results when they feel confident to sort out their problems, or more so when they volunteer to help other women.
But this is not enough. Our own volunteers have been in utter states of dejection with court cases running for 6-7 years. We can see women returning to violence even after being offered shelter and a job. For a long time we have felt that the very concept of help has to be changed drastically. We need to develop stronger links among women who need support. Since work and housing is scarce, Saheli cannot offer adequate solutions to individual women. We have to find answers in structural change.