South Asian Women’s group urges more community support during pandemic

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Navneet Bhalla, left, executive director of Manavi, the women’s support group in an interview with ITV Gold’s Aditi Lamba. (Photo: ITV Gold)

Manavi, the oldest organization to support Indian and South Asian victims of domestic abuse in the United States, is urging the community to extend more support during the time of the COVID-19 pandemic which has prevented it from holding its annual fundraiser.

Navneet Bhalla, executive director of Manavi, a New Jersey-based organization, told ITV Gold of Parikh Worldwide Media, that women’s organizations around the state have discerned a rise in domestic abuse, and that efforts to continue to meet the basic needs of survivors had been stepped up.

“Funding is the biggest challenge,” Bhalla said, among the many other challenges facing the organization during the pandemic. “Like most agencies, we have some state funding but also get support from our community,” especially from the annual fundraising gala, an event that most advocacy and social services organizations have been unable to hold. She praised the support Manavi has been receiving over the 35 years of its existence, and said donors could go online to Manavi.org and give.

“Manavi is only able to do the work we do with your support,” Bhalla said.

She described how all the services Manavi had offered before the pandemic had gone virtual, including meetings with survivors, legal support, mental health counseling, and a 24-hour hotline etc. It is also making sure that groceries, rent, and other resources are being made available to survivors of domestic abuse.

“Domestic violence is an epidemic where the abuser is exercising power and control … that escalates over time,” Bhalla noted. “Very often, especially in our community, there is a misperception that domestic abuse is only physical,” she said. But in fact, it includes verbal, emotional, financial, freedom of movement, sexual (where the victim has not given consent), are all part of domestic violence, she said.

Asked if she had seen an increase in domestic abuse during the pandemic, Bhalla said all women’s organizations including Manavi have been discussing the occurrence. “Although we know there’s been a significant uptick, there has not been a significant increase in calls,” Bhalla said.

“If you are in a quarantine with your abuser during a pandemic, you have very little options, or choices, or opportunity to reach out for help,” Bhalla said. She also indicated that there may be “more intense form of abuse taking place” and although in more recent days, the calls have seen an increase, that was not so through the last few months of the pandemic.

“At the best of times, our survivors are in fear of being cut off, fear of isolation,” apart from not wanting to approach law enforcement for various reasons including immigration status where the abuser is in control of the visa, and financial security. “In a pandemic … things get worse.” It is a situation where survivors may calculate that it is harder and more dangerous to suffer the pandemic than the abuse, Bhalla said.

Manavi has been working “very, very closely and very actively” with various state agencies and the New Jersey Coalition to end Domestic  Violence and the Department of Children and Families, to get the support for South Asian survivors and their children.

Bhalla also cited an example where the abuser has cut off Internet access and Manavi has stepped in with providing it. She also gave tips on how those in trouble could make a safe space for themselves, an escape route, as well as a code-word message with a neighbor for friend they trust, so that they can reach out if things escalate within the home.

Asked what message she had for anyone facing domestic abuse during the pandemic, Bhalla said, “You are not alone. We are here to support you,” not only as an organization, but across the state and the country. She urged those in need to visit manavi.org and call 732-435-1414.

(The full ITV Gold interview is available on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E-mhDYyjNvU)

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