Saheli Boston Advocates For the Safety and Health of South Asian Women

Most South Asians living in the United States wish to give back to the country which has given them extraordinary opportunities for success. Immigrants from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepalamong others, have distinguished themselves as engineers, physicians, teachers, scientists, entrepreneurs, lawyers, and exemplary employees in both the for-profit and non-profit sectors. Their children have succeeded in institutions of higher learning and achieved the American dream. Their economic success has allowed parents, siblings and relatives to enjoy higher standards of well-being both here, in the US, and overseas. But how many South Asians have successfully translated the desire to give back with concrete actions and community service?

Well, a group of women in the Boston metropolitan area did just that. They established a non-profit organization that addressed a serious community need and created volunteer opportunities to help survivors of domestic violence. Saheli, Support and Friendship for South Asian Women was established as a non-profit 501 © 3 organization in Burlington,Massachusetts in 1996. Their mission was to enable a safe and healthy life for South Asian women and their families in the US, a life free of domestic abuse.Eight South Asian women, mostly empty nesters, joined with the India Association of Greater Boston to meet the urgent cries for help from women in households with serious domestic abuse, violence, abandonment, homelessness and immigration concerns.

In the early days, it was difficult to get buy-in from a conservative community to discuss domestic violence, an intimate family issue. Many women did not join Saheli as they feared the stigma of being associated with a “battered women’s group.”However, most South Asian men and women had seen abuse, neglect and the poor treatment of women in some form or other: in their own lives, the lives of mothers, sisters, cousins,both here andin their native countries. There was deep empathy for the cause, a desire to donate money but breaking barriers, talking publicly, or joining Saheli, remained difficult.

It took roughly a decade of hard work to break down barriers. Saheli board members and volunteersmet ceaselesslyevery month and talked publicly about empowering women at every community event.Rather than just talk, they offered free workshops and classes in public libraries on anunfailing basis: there were workshops on immigration, financial literacy, computer classes and English conversation for the less proficient. There were exciting seminars about the epidemic of diabetes and heart disease among South Asians, intergenerational conflict in joint households, trainings for the local police departments on cultural issues, and explorations of doctor patient relationships among South Asians. This visible and “good community service” accomplished three difficult goals—more donations, more familiarity with the work of Saheli and a visible increase in volunteerism.

A decade of hard work allowed Saheli to aim higher and take on more difficult issues related to thestatus of women. By 2005, Sahelis became advocates and thought leaders focusing attention upon issues of access, opportunity and barriers to a safe and healthy life for South Asian families. Domestic violence prevention advocates started a support group for women called “Gup Shup”; they organized workshops to discuss the challenges of modern arranged marriages, the difficulties of older parents in adapting to life in the US, how violence in the home affects children and discussions of how South Asian diets impair good health.

Workshops, led by professionals from the Indian and Pakistani Medical Associations, brought significant positive attention to Saheli's community education and advocacy. Mainstream American groups and South Asian community organizations acknowledged the key role that Saheli had played in over a decade of reliable service to South Asians. In turn, the Saheli Board showed remarkable commitment to their mission of “enabling South Asian women to lead safe and healthy lives in the US.” They remained stable, networked persistently with domestic violence agencies such as Jane Doe, Reach, Casa Myrna, and Lahey Hospital,among others. They sought support from every South Asian cultural and community group that showed interest andinvested in hiring staff, building databases, donor lists, volunteer lists, and outreach materials, created a newsletter, offered training to board and staff member and acknowledged the contributions of community volunteers.

Behind the scenes Saheli accomplished many successesboth large and small: legal advocacy- many lawyers, paralegals, judges, and court officers, do not understand the significance and sanctity of Asian marriages and families. Saheli advocates acted as witnesses in civil and criminal cases of domestic abuse, showed that the Western model of divorceis not acceptable to many women, instead mediation and counseling worked better.We clarified how laws about child custody work in the Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi court systemsand developed partnerships with lawyers overseas. We translated, accompanied women to trial, and in situations of severe emotional stress and linguistic barriers, were often allowed to speak on behalf of plaintiffs.We negotiated difficult cases of child custody, division of marital assets, fraud and theft when a criminal spouse escaped the American legal system.Many women had trouble understanding what lawyers and judges ruled, Saheli advocates translated for them and supported them in traumatic litigation. The most challenging areas for Saheli remains international kidnapping, abandonment and trafficking and Saheli seeks skilled professionals in this area. In a global society we imagine that theseareas of abuse will continue to escalate.

In 2014, Saheli’s strategic plan focuses upon ways that men can speak out against abuse and violence against women using a well-known Indian anti-violence model called Bell Bajao. In addition, Saheli has received significant funding from the Blue Cross Blue Shield, Harvard Pilgrim Health Plan, the Saffron Circle and Lahey Hospital to explore the nature and extent of depression, anxiety, substance abuse and other mental illness among South Asians.

Usha Vakil
Usha Vakil
President and Board Member, Saheli
Saheli is an organization dedicated to supporting Soth Asian women and families. Their mission is to empower South Asians to lead a safe and healthy life. Saheli provides services in domestic violence, physical and mental health and safety.