The world has taken a giant leap since Sept. 5, 1995, when the then First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, declared that “Women’s rights are human rights,” at the United Nations Fourth World Women’s Conference in Beijing. I was there when she said that.
Today, a quarter century later, those words ring true in light of the #MeToo movement, but seem almost a given for all those activists around the world, both women and men, as well as organizations that have played an important role in our own neighborhoods and families.
Many in our community who were initially suspicious of Indian-American organizations that fought for women’s rights and against domestic violence in those days, today espouse “women’s empowerment” as their priority.
Almost every U.S.-based Indian-American philanthropic organization puts dollars into projects that have a mission to empower the poorest of poor women and children in India, such as Share and Care, or Pratham.
And Indian-American women activists remain passionately engaged with women’s rights in the family and beyond, in this country. There are leaders in civil rights and human rights, in the justice system, in business, politics and in the non-profit world, who have been in the forefront of women’s rights in this country.
In addition, 2020 is a landmark year when organizations like Manavi in New Jersey and Apna Ghar have surpassed 30 years. Numerous states in the U.S. have South Asian women’s organizations supporting those in need (See List). And many others recognize and award the achievements of women in various endeavors, from business to the arts.
Manavi in New Jersey, turns 35 this year. and Apna Ghar, Chicago turns 30 on May 2, 2020. And they have much to celebrate in their achievements in supporting Indian and other South Asian women.
Manavi’s Executive Director Navneet Bhalla, told News India Times, that as the first organization in the United States to address violence against South Asian-origin women, the organization’s mission remains to end all forms of gender-based violence in this diverse community.
“Over the past 35 years, Manavi has provided culturally specific and linguistically accessible direct services to South Asian survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault, dating violence, and stalking,” Bhalla said in a statement. Manavi does not just address immediate needs but also embraces a long-term vision of establishing peaceful communities free from gender based violence.
Today, Manavi not only has a ‘safe-house’ Ashiana, and provides a 24-hour hotline with language accessibility, but has also managed to move to bigger and better premises in New Brunswick, to serve its clients with legal services, court accompaniments, legal referrals. The organization also trains law enforcement in culturally sensitivity, engages youth, and has hosted mental health and sexual health workshops .
“At Ashiana, we support women and children to build a socially and financially viable life free from gender-based violence. Ashiana is the only culturally specific housing available on the East Coast to South Asian women and only the third such home in the country,” Bhalla pointed out.
However, “Although we have made progress over the years, we still have much work to do,” Bhalla qualifies.
The #MeToo movement has shown violence against women is a deeply embedded social phenomenon and found in every demographic, be it celebrities or housewives in every culture. And like the women who have come out about it many years after the fact, South Asian women are also loathe to report or reveal it. The difference being some South Asian women face added cultural and linguistic as well as immigration status barriers, Bhalla said, and urged all community members to engage and speak out on the issues of gender bias and inequality.
“Each of us can have a significant impact in addressing gender-based violence …,” Bhalla said, urging community leaders, public officials and religious and cultural leaders to stand against it, and to support organizations like Manavi. “We owe a responsibility to our children and the next generation to step up and take action today …,” she added
Chicagoland’s “Apna Ghar has reached over 100,000 survivors and community members as we strive to turn the spotlight on this most hidden global human rights violation and public health concern,” says the organization on its website.
Neha Gill, the executive director of Apna Ghar says the organization is needed even more today than before partly because the population of Indians has grown, and different issues are emerging. Plus, “The longer we are around, and people know about us, the more women who face problems are willing to talk to us.”
Asked if more Indian-Americans are willing recognize the work of Apna Ghar, Gill said, “Yes, and no. Yes, as compared to the 1990s when they would be upset at the formation of such an organization. But no, in that they may have come around to at least talk to us. … They could do more. Most of our support comes from outside the community.”
The government and foundations have been the major source of support. “None of these foundations are Indian-American,” she revealed. “It is a situation where the community is recognizing our existence but distancing itself from the issues. Change is going to come from them not from us,” Gill asserted, also noting that violence against women was not restricted to Indian-Americans and was a mainstream phenomenon as well.
Gill conceded that Indian-American foundations and other organizations are doing much for women in India. “The dollar goes much further there.” But also, she qualifies, “The word ‘Empowerment’ sounds much better than ‘addressing violence’. We are taking issues head-on but others are skirting around them.”
While the focus of these various organizations may be different, their goals are nevertheless cannot be weighed against each other.