The world may have changed over the last ten years, but immigrant women from India and South Asia continue to face domestic violence and sexual assault, according to one of the oldest women’s support groups in this country.
That is what brought hundreds of guests and donors to the annual fundraising dinner organized by Manavi, one of the oldest women’s support organizations helping Indians, Indian-Americans and South Asians.
The April 22nd gala at Mirage Banquet Hall in Edison, New Jersey, saw one of the organization’s longtime supporter, Congressman Frank Pallone, D-N.J., who lauded Manavi’s work in his impromptu speech.
“Congressman Pallone is our big supporter. Specially, in Congress, he tries to ensure that Washington does not cut grants to organizations like ours who survive on federal and state grants,” Shruti Devi, a board member of Manavi, told Desi Talk.
Chief guest Deepa Iyer, activist, author and former head of the advocacy organization South Asian Americans Leading Together, pointed to continuing gender bias in Indian-American and other South Asian communities, and called for continuing to raise awareness about domestic violence. Quoting the late Rev. Martin Luther King, Iyer said there was today that same “fierce urgency of now,” which King pointed to back in the 1960s. “We cannot wait for tomorrow.” Manavi, she noted, has always been at the forefront for women facing abuse and violence, and urged attendees to open their hearts and wallets to support community based, grassroots organizations like Manavi.
Founded in 1985, Manavi staff members who interact with “survivors” of domestic violence on a daily basis, told Desi Talk, dialogue on sexual assault and sexuality remains very tricky in the community and people are reluctant to come out about it.
But the world has changed even over the last ten years, as has the demographic of South Asian immigrants. But domestic violence or sexual assault including disturbingly, cases of child abuse, continue.
“Today, Indian women who come as immigrants have been already exposed to the world through TV or social media, about life in America,” Devi says. But Manavi’s clientele “runs the whole gamut, from highly educated, those with medium education, or women with no surviving skills – right from language to other. So it’s more difficult for them to navigate, plus their fear of reaching out to law enforcement,” Devi added.
Several staff members at Manavi told this correspondent that over the years, more women are likely to seek services than before. Because of its outreach work, Manavi has its ears to the ground and hears more about cases and more people know the organization exists.
There’s been progress through events like “Community Chai” where women are more willing to share their experiences and vulnerabilities. Legal clinics where attorneys offer services pro-bono, are a regular feature through the year to help women navigate the court system, and outreach staff and advocates employed by Manavi, regularly accompany women to the courts to explain the system and even help translate if necessary. In 2016, 34 legal clinics were held to serve 79 women and 96 legal referrals were made.
In 2016, Manavi helped 322 survivors, and that included 6 men, Devi noted. It was a very good year for Manavi, she said. “We started a dedicated Sexual Assault Program,” no longer clubbed with domestic violence, a federally funded program.
Since 1997, Manavi has operated a “Transitional Home” called Ashiana, which is different from a shelter. As opposed to a shelter, Ashiana, does not make women leave until they are on their feet, and that could take months. All services are custom-tailored to each survivor – for instance, some women could have an MBA degree while others may have just a high-school certificate. Eight women passed through the halls of Ashiana in 2016.
Of late, Manavi has been interacting more than ever with local police, providing sensitivity training. “Police are more aware of us and when they need, they call us,” Devi said. Training first responders to what kind of situation they may face entering a South Asian household is crucial. “We tell them not to walk away if the husband, or even the wife says ‘nothing is the matter,'” Devi said. “Instead, look for signs.
In more recent years, Manavi has seen a rise in “transnational abandonment” cases where a husband takes his wife back to India and leaves her there cutting off all ties with her. “She can’t get in touch with him, and they contact us for help,” Chandana, who uses only her first name, told Desi Talk. In such difficult cases, Manavi links with women’s support groups in the relevant South Asian country, but also with immigration authorities in the U.S. “In some cases, depending on the visa, we can bring the wife back.
Satrupa and Navneet, two advocacy staffers at Manavi, spoke about the multitude of services the organization offers in a range of crises, especially cultural and linguistic support
Manavi works closely with other South Asian organizations and mainstream women’s groups and state offices. “Cooperation is the name of the game, as is good networking,” Devi said.