Earlier, Sunita D’Souza, 28 would think that violence was her lot after marriage. Married at the age of 14, she would be beaten black and blue by her in-laws everyday and would suffer their taunts silently.
After associating with SNEHA in 2002, she became a sangini and since then helped a lot of women turn their lives around. From being a girl who wouldn’t step out of the house, she now confidently approaches authorities and tackles issues in her locality such as sexual harassment in public and other forms of violence and abuse.
“Now when I see a man molesting a girl on the road, it feels like a bomb blast in my brain. I cannot tolerate any girl being abused in any way.” said Sunita.
Sunita is among the 150 sanginis trained in crisis intervention during occasions of violence in the community, counselling women and family members and even filing complaints with the police. These sanginis (meaning friend in Hindi) handpicked by SNEHA work voluntarily in the community.
When SNEHA began its work on prevention of violence against women and children, it would conduct regular meetings with women. These meetings helped build perspective on gender, violence, and sexuality in the community. More importantly, the women had to be told that talking about violence in a home is not an issue of shame or dishonour.
“Some of the women in these meetings emerged as leaders. We took them in our fold to build sustainability of the programme, local capacity and leadership. Also, we needed someone on the ground at times of emergency. These women became the eyes and ears for SNEHA. They also work as a group that puts pressure on the community,”said Preethi Pinto, programme co-ordinator, advocacy and communications, SNEHA.
Like Sunita, most of the sanginis had suffered violence themselves. They can relate to other women in similar situations and help them cope with the situation better. “We suffered so much. We do not want other women to go through it,”said Shubhangi Gaikwad, who is in her late 30s. Shubhangi suffered violence from her husband for over seven years, before she approached SNEHA. She later became a sangini.
There is also an obvious shift in the thinking that women should not talk openly about violence. A few months ago, Rashida Shaikh risked hurting herself by trying to save a woman in her locality.
“That woman was being dragged by her drunk husband by cloth tied around her neck. People told me not to intervene in what they said is a family issue. I fought with them and told them that I will get the police if he doesn’t let go of his wife. People do not realise that just because I fought with the man, the woman’s life is saved,” said Rashida.
Most of these women are homemakers, from very conservative backgrounds and not very educated. It is a huge deal for them to step out of the house, confront people and try to rescue women. They now go to the police and demand that complaints be filed. The experiences with SNEHA has empowered them to confront their own problems with authorities, instead of suffering in silence.
“A policeman was refusing to file a complaint when my daughter lost her cellphone. He kept saying that the children are spoilt these days and own cellphones. I told him its none of his business and insisted a complaint be filed. Finally he had to file a complaint,” said Shobha Janga, who is a sangini since 2002.
These women have come a long way since they first engaged with SNEHA. They have empowered themselves and are now in the position to empower other women like them. One of our sanginis is even pursuing a Masters of Social Work (MSW),” said Bhaskar Kakkad, programme co-ordinator, Prevention of Violence against Women and Children, SNEHA.
Many of these women have even started working with SNEHA. “I used to be in ghunghat (veil) earlier. I have barely completed my eighth standard. I never even imagined I could work earlier. I started as a sangini and now I am a programme officer. I feel my sanginis should also become strong,” Bhanu Dedhia, who has been associated with SNEHA for 12 years.
The sanginis find strength in each other. “I would not utter a single word outside my home earlier. Now, I tell people that if they try to harm me, my sanginis will get together and teach them a lesson. I am not afraid of anyone any more,”said Rashida.