Souvenir 1988 

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 of 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 to 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 at 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 issues by assuming the role of a moralistic counsellor. 

Providing shelter: Often women and children have to go to when they are thrown out of their homes. Sometimes, young girls also have to leave parental homes to 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 organisations 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 with space. There is no lack of lacunae in the government scheme. For example, the provisions for rent, food, 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 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, 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 for others. We do not have our lives under control we help ‘less fortunate sisters’. As a group we believe women of all classes of present society are oppressed and therefore we are fighting our own battles too. 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: E.P. 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 they bring new women along. We also see the results when they feel confident to sort out their own 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.