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'Don't take a woman's financial, emotional independence for granted'

February 24, 2014 20:13 IST

Maitri, which provides free and confidential services to South Asian-American families facing domestic violence, at its 23rd annual gala, raised half a million dollars. Ritu Jha reports

About 400 people -- comprising the who’s who of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and Venture capitalists -- attended Maitri’s annual gala at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California on February 8.

The evening raised over half a million dollars for Maitiri, a 23-year-old organisation in the Bay Area that provides free and confidential services to help South Asian-American families facing domestic violence, emotional abuse, cultural alienation, human trafficking or family conflict. Maitiri offers peer counseling, transitional housing programs, legal advocacy, economic empowerment programs and more.

“We have to think like entrepreneurs to run Maitri,” Ram K Reddy of Maitri’s board of trustees told India Abroad. “Because we are responsible not just to ourselves but also to the donors in terms of how we optimise their dollars.”

In the last couple of years, Reddy said on the sidelines of the gala, Maitri has grown significantly.

“There is such demand, a need for intervention,” explained Reddy, who is also on the board of directors at the India Community Center and the Foundation for Excellence and the Bay Area chair at Akshaya Patra, besides being founder, chair and chief executive officer of Global Industry Analysts, Inc.

“We have to work with our resources in a very intelligent way,” he added.

Vinita Gupta, chair, president and CEO, Digital Link Corporation, who also serves on Maitri’s board of trustees, said in her speech, ‘In 2008 (Maitri) raised $600,000 and it helped raise $1.3 million US government grants to buy a 19-bedroom transitional home.”

The money from the gala, she said, will go to the Maitri Vintage Boutique, which employs destitute women.

Maitri, Gupta pointed out, also serves men, seniors and children.

‘We want to move Maitri from crises management of domestic violence to take a step forward towards prevention of domestic violence,’ Gupta said. ‘This is a very important consideration for our next generation.’

One of the biggest donors at the evening was S Suresh, senior executive, Informatica Corporation, who donated $100,000. Suresh told India Abroad that he became aware of Maitri in 2009 when his wife Jaya started working for the organisation.

“Over time, I got a better appreciation of the work Maitri focused on,” Suresh said. “In the second half of 2011, I really started getting involved in Maitri. I realised that while the problem of domestic violence cuts across all demographics -- education, race and ethnicity; it predominantly affects women. Domestic violence leaves those impacted in total shambles. It left me in complete disbelief that human beings could do such acts to anyone, leave alone domestic partners.”

“Every woman must have both financial and emotional independence; something every man takes for granted and has the luxury of enjoying all through his life,” Suresh said.

“As the father of two girls, this ranks high among the causes I believe in. I can only hope and believe that my contribution and story will make a difference in the attitude of some, including the educated Indian Americans.”

Shamik Mehta, co-chair, Maitri, told the attendees: ‘96 percent of every dollar we raise goes to serving the people. So that can tell you how lean the operation is.’

Among the attendees was N Parthasarathi, India’s consul general in San Francisco, who is incidentally working a book based on domestic violence. He told the audience that what made him choose the topic was the realisation that domestic violence ‘is pervasive.’

‘What made me feel very sad and wonder, is the lack of awareness,’ the diplomat added.

Domestic violence, he said, is not specific to any community, race, religion, country, educational or economic level, but most of the time the victim is a dependent on the perpetrator.

‘My intention,’ Consul General Parthasarathi said, ‘was to talk to community leaders and the people and make them understand this is not an issue of woman or man.’

‘What we are concerned is the issue of a behaviour in the community that is not acceptable. It is not against any gender or person, what we need to do is to create awareness and provide support to anybody who is a victim… It is no more a personal problem. These are all problems of society; we all have to join hands and solve it.’

Zakia Afrin, legal program manager, Maitri, told India Abroad, “At the legal programme itself we’ve had 165 clients in the last year. All of these had one or more legal issues, it could be family law issues, it could be immigration issue or employment issue…”

“Majority of cases are of physical violence and then emotional and immigration related abuse that we see a lot, especially with dependant spouses. It’s a challenging job but it’s satisfactory because we are helping a lot of people make their life secure. The average age group that comes for help are between 25 and 59 years old.”

Dr Mukta Sharanpani, Maitri board member, recalled the dedication of Anjali Dujar, co-founder of Maitri, who died at age 48 when a rogue wave washed her away in Baja California last July. Dr Sharanpani urged the audience to become agents of social change.

To create awareness about domestic violence among young people, Maitri last year started its Teen Workshop. The four-hour workshops are held monthly at schools in the San Francisco Bay Area, where students like Nisha Uppuluri and Simran Lubana talk to high school students on this issue.

Nisha, 17, a junior at Mountain View High School, joined Maitri through the Girls Scouts.

“I really liked the idea but I think the workshops weren’t able to get off the ground because it’s kind of hard for teenagers to listen when the adults were telling them everything,” Nisha told India Abroad.

“So I reached out to them and asked if I can be a part of it, and thus the workshops by me and Simran started… I learned that if I am passionate I can do something with it and get other people passionate about things.”

“Through the workshops I make so many connections to people of my age and of my culture and my generation. The workshop is not just focused on any particular group; it’s about teenagers across the Bay Area. There might be teens at the workshops who are struggling with things at home,” Nisha said.

Simran, 16, a sophomore at Menlo Park Atherton High School, said when she attended a workshop offered by Maitri President Sonya Pelia, “I got super interested and passionate about bridging the culture gap between South Asians and America.”

Image: Maitri’s annual gala at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California.

Ritu Jha in California