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June 8, 1999
In Defence Of The Battered
Apoorva Mandavilli in New York
Zakira Dhanani spoke haltingly, explaining that because her husband often choked her during their 19 years of marriage, she has difficulty articulating words.
"In our culture, men sometimes treat women like a slave," she said. "I want those women to know there is a lot of help and organizations like Sakhi."
Dhanani was one the many people who spoke last Saturday at the 10th anniversary celebration of Sakhi, a New York-based organization that is committed to ending the exploitation and violence against women of south Asian origin. The first major organization for abused South Asian women, the success of Sakhi has inspired over a dozen similar organizations across North America.
For the nearly 200 guests at Diwan Grill, a popular Indian restaurant, there was dinner, dancing and survivor stories -- sobering reminders of the evening's purpose.
"Sakhi is a great example of a grassroots action that has become an organization that still retains its integrity," said Shuva Paul, Deputy Director of Victim Services, Domestic Violence Division.
What started as an informal group with few women working out of their homes and offices grew into the volunteer-based organization it is today, and made its presence felt in the community. Sakhi now has two full-time staff and 50 volunteers. Activities are almost entirely funded through private grants, community fund-raisers, and individual donations.
In 1997, the domestic workers' committee, which had been functioning autonomously within Sakhi, disconnected from Sakhi to form Workers' Awaaz. The two organizations still refer women to each other but are completely independent.
A non-profit organization, Sakhi is committed to ending violence against Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Nepali and Sri Lankan women. It has helped more than 2,000 people fight domestic violence. Sakhi offers survivors information on their legal rights, coordinates support groups and legal clinics and helps women find safe housing, employment and legal services.
"Sakhi has helped me by referring (me to) an attorney, expert witnesses for trials, translators and support groups," said Hema, 32, a survivor who did not want to reveal her last name because of current legal matters. "Through Sakhi, I've met other women in my situation and I realized that I'm not alone."
Hema first called Sakhi in 1993 because she was "scared that I would not come back alive (from an Indian sojourn with her abusive husband)." She continues to be a part of Sakhi because, "I feel Sakhi is a great organization and I'd like to help so that other women don't go through what I went through."
Sakhi was conceived in response to a number of calls "from women seeking assistance who had gone to local agencies, who were South Asian, and who had not received the assistance they needed," said Megha Bhouraskar, the evening's emcee, recounting the organization's history.
Bhouraskar, who has been with Sakhi since its conception, was honored for her contribution to Sakhi. The other honorees of the evening included Margaret Abraham and Sakhi founders Romita Shetty, Mallika Dutt, Anannya Bhattacharjee, Geetanjali Misra, Tula Goenka, who gave the organization its name, and Prema Vora, program director at Sakhi.
Sakhi also honored Syeda Sufian, who recently won a legal battle against her husband Mohsin Mohammed. Mohammed was accused of setting Sufian on fire and leaving her to die. Sufian suffered severe burns all over her body and continues to need medical treatment. On May 13, 1999, a jury at the Queens Criminal Court unanimously found Mohammed guilty of attempted murder in the second degree and two counts of assault in the first degree.
Vora, who has been with Sakhi since 1992, said of Sufian, "Syeda represents the true meaning of Sakhi's 10-year anniversary slogan: 'Celebrating Survival, Strength and Sisterhood'."
Sakhi also recognized Davanand Singh, the assistant district attorney who prosecuted the case against Mohammed, for "his untiring efforts in pursuing justice on behalf of survivors of violence." Applauding Sufian's courage and determination, Singh said, "She developed the strength inside her to go on and she should be a role model for all abused women."
Three survivors shared their stories during the evening. Sheila Soorya, who was in abusive marriage for 12 years, is grateful for Sakhi's support. "Without Sakhi's help, I would not have made it through," she said. At Sakhi, "we talk, listen, support and comfort one another and celebrate our small victories." Soorya also expressed her sympathy for all the men who may be the victims of psychological or other abuse, because it may be even more difficult for them to be taken seriously.
"It takes a lot of courage to come out and speak about something that's so hidden in our community," said Vora, thanking the survivors for speaking at the event.
To raise community awareness about domestic violence, Sakhi publishes a quarterly newsletter, conducts presentations in schools, hospitals, cultural and community centers, and religious places, collaborates with other domestic violence groups, immigrant rights coalitions, and other south Asian organizations both locally and nationally. Once a year, Sakhi volunteers and supporters also march in Jackson Heights, a predominantly south Asian shopping center in Queens, to protest domestic violence.
At Saturday's event, there were as many men as women, most of them friends and family of Sakhi survivors and volunteers. Rashmi Dalal, 55, who is in the country for the wedding of his daughter Urvi Dalal, a Sakhi volunteer, said, "Sakhi is a good group but I'm surprised that this kind of thing is happening in this country."
Anish Rajparia, 28, is not surprised that domestic violence is so prevalent. "What we know of is probably just the tip of the iceberg," said Rajparia.
Sandeep Kalantry, 27, and Nimish Doshi, 28 were "persuaded" to attend the event by their friends, who are volunteers at Sakhi. "I didn't have much interest (in Sakhi) before I came but I was impressed by the (survivors') stories," said Doshi. "Now I'm really glad I came."
Although Sakhi is committed to helping women of South Asian origin, Shetty, one of the founders said, "there is no discrimination when it comes to domestic violence. Sakhi is committed to all (survivors of) domestic violence anywhere."
Contact information for Sakhi, and other organizations for south Asian women across the United States:
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