As some of you might remember, I spoke here about a year and a half ago, before I left for India. Many of you helped make my trip possible, for which I am so grateful. I just got back in mid-September and I wanted to tell you all a little bit about my experience.
I was in India with a program called the World Partners Fellowship with American Jewish World Service. For those of you who are not familiar with AJWS, it is a charity run by Ruth Messinger, which gives grants to grassroots local organizations in Africa, Asia, and the Americas. The grants are to support hundreds of organizations in their efforts to alleviate poverty and realize human rights, especially for the poor, women, religious minorities, sexual minorities, indigenous people, and people in areas of conflict or natural disaster. AJWS support these organizations through grants and by sending American Jewish volunteers.
The World Partners Fellowship was one of these volunteer programs. 12 recent college graduates or young professionals were selected through a rigorous process and were sent to India for a year, because that’s a site of many of AJWS’s local grassroots partners.
AJWS placed me in the capital of the poorest state in India, at an organization called [AJWS has asked that we not mention our host organizations, so I will refer to it as NGO1]. NGO1 was based in a city, but ran service programs in rural areas throughout the state. With contracts from the government of India and from international charities, NGO1 ran an eye hospital, elderly care, village health camps, midwife and childcare training centers, literacy and employment training, and women’s shelters and helpline.
My first tasks at NGO1 were writing, because the only other person there who spoke English was the president. So I wrote the Annual Report and the content for the new website. I also edited a lot of the written material that came out of NGO1 while I was there. When that work was done, I was given free range to pick one of NGO1’s programs and try to improve it. I chose the one of the women’s shelters and helpline.
Because I knew little about women’s issues in India, AJWS staff put me in touch with a number of government agencies and non-profit organizations in the area that worked with domestic violence. I spent several weeks meeting with experts and bureaucrats, learning about the violence against women in India and the different policies and programs to combat it.
What I learned disturbed me. Before moving to India, I’d read a book written in the 1980’s that detailed the lives of several women in India. Most of the stories involved village girls who, in their early teens, were forced by their fathers to marry older men. They moved in with their husbands’ families, where the in-laws often beat the young brides because they wanted more dowry from her family. When their husbands were angry, drunk, or just wanted to provide instruction, they would beat their young wives. They would have several children before they turned 18. If she gave birth to girls, she was tortured and sometimes even thrown out of the house, because the dowry for those daughters could put the household into debt. Sometimes, if she’d had several daughters, her mother-in-law would make her poison or abandone a newborn if it was also a girl.
These stories were horrible, but I assumed that the book was written in the 80’s about particular women and that this kind of thing didn’t really happen anymore in India.
After my two weeks of meeting with experts and reading reports, I was shocked to discover how wrong I was. Those stories were not unique in the 80’s and they are not unique today.
Nearly half of married women in India were married before they turned 18. More than half of married women in India are beaten by their husbands and many are beaten by their in-laws. There are half a billion women in India – so the scale of this kind of abuse is almost impossible to fathom. These numbers, combined with the high rates of female infanticide and neglect of daughters due to the tradition of dowry, along with high rates of maternal mortality, sexual assault, sex trafficking, and employment of girls in hazardous conditions have led Reuters to rank India as the fourth worst country in the world for women, after Afghanistan, Congo, and Pakistan.
Fortunately, the government of India has noticed that its women are suffering and has created a number of policies to reverse the trend. Dowry and child marriage have been illegal for decades. In 2005, the government passed an act to provide shelter and legal redress to victims of domestic violence.
NGO1’s shelter and helpline that I sought to improve were contracted by the government as part of this 2005 act. It was supposed to be the source of support for all women in that county – so about a million women. The contract of the government stipulated that the shelter should have beds for 30 women to stay for anywhere from 3 months to 2 years. The shelter was to have an administrator, cook, maid, vocational and literacy teacher, guards, and psychological and legal counselors. The contract said that NGO1 would pay for the costs and salaries would be paid with money that would be released from the state to the county administrator and then to NGO1.
After hiring a taxi and a translator, I drove 4 hours to the shelter. What I found was nothing like the government contract I’d read. The shelter, intended for 30 women, housed only 3, despite the fact that there were were probably tens of thousands of women who might have needed it. These three women were there because they could not tolerate the abuse from their husbands and because their parents refused to take them in. The women probably needed counseling and diversions, but none were available. They did not leave the dark bare shelter except to go to the hospital. The TV had been broken for 8 months. There were no activities except for informal reading and sewing lessons several hours a week. They didn’t know how to read.
Most of the staff required by the government plan (including lawyers, a psychologist, and a vocational trainer) had not been hired in the 2 years this program had been running. The two women who worked there had not been paid in a year. Also surprising was the Helpline. As part of the Domestic Violence act of 2005, each county was to have a helpline for women in distress. Depending on the needs of the caller, the Helpline could recommend a lawyer or shelter or it could invite the woman and her husband in for counseling.
The same woman who was stretched thin managing the shelter was also in charge of the helpline for this county. She told me that she received several calls a week, mostly cases of domestic violence. She said she would always try to get the couple to come in for counseling. If they agreed, she would conduct two sessions with the husband and wife. Then, usually by the 2nd meeting, she would get the husband to sign a sheet of paper promising never to beat his wife again. Then she would send them home. I asked her if she ever followed up on these cases. She said she didn’t have time. I asked her if she ever followed up on the women who had stayed in the shelter and returned to their husbands (as is often the case). She said she tried to call them once or twice a year. Sadly, government agencies and experts told me that in most cases of counseling, the husbands resume beating their wives.
I made a list of recommendations for the president of NGO1 to improve the shelter and helpline. While I was not an expert on domestic violence, it seemed clear that NGO1 should hire the necessary staff, so that the women could receive some counseling and training to occupy their days and so that the director wouldn’t be responsible for everything in the shelter and helpline. I recommended that the new staff should prioritize follow-up, perhaps even with surprise visits to the women’s houses, to make sure that their husbands had not resumed the violence. I suggested that NGO1 plan excursions for the women to leave the shelter, maybe to visit other shelters or training centers so they could get fresh air and interact with other people. I told the president that he should repair the TV and pay the staff who hadn’t been paid in a year. And I suggested that NGO1 publicize the shelter and helpline so that women are aware of it.
Unfortunately, it looks like none of my recommendations, besides fixing the TV, will be possible. The president told me, and a representative from the state confirmed, that the county administration does not prioritize social issues and so was delaying releasing the funds that it had received from the state. NGO1 could not make the hires itself or receive the funds directly because the government decided that it was important to give the county Administration some ownership over the shelter. The excursions were not possible because the director of the shelter did not have time. At least the TV could be repaired with the president’s own money.
The representative from the state told me that this shelter is normal. NGO1 is doing nothing wrong, except that they could be more active in meeting with the county administrators and persuading them to release the funds. The president of NGO1 told me that “persuading” means “paying bribes,” which he was not prepared to do.
I was so discouraged. Not only had all my work been in vain, but I could not accept that, despite the great domestic violence law, the women who’d called the helpline and stayed in the shelter were likely to continue suffering. And millions of women across India were likely to continue suffering.
For reasons that will take too long for me to explain now, AJWS moved me to a different Indian organization in Delhi. This one researched implementation of public service programs like NGO1’s and made policy recommendations to the government based on that research. They also worked on gender equality. My work for this organization was mostly writing. What I liked the most about this organization was their 2nd mission, to stop domestic violence in a way that is actually working. The Delhi organization headed efforts to challenge India’s patriarchy by working with young men to change their attitudes and behavior in a program I will refer to as NGO2. With the help of local partners in villages, NGO2 identified young men who seemed to be already questioning the patriarchal system. NGO2 would work with these men to see how gender equality could improve the lives of their sisters, mothers, wives, and daughters, as well as themselves. Once convinced, these young men would bring their peers to weekly group meetings, where they would have discussions and training about gender equality. Gradually the groups would share with each other that they had stopped beating their wives, started sending their daughters to school, were now inviting the women in their families to eat meals with the men, playing with their daughters, and helping their wives with housework. I watched videos of the men and their wives describing how their new attitudes had completely transformed their lives. These groups would then do outreach campaigns in their villages, trying to reach more and more men. And they actually did. Initially, the other village men thought they were behaving strangely, but gradually, they started to question patriarchy too.
This is just a tiny sliver of everything I learned and experienced in India. And it’s just a fraction of the work that AJWS supports in India and around the world. I want to thank the synagogue and those of you who contributed to AJWS on my behalf for helping me get to India and for being a part of these incredible efforts for human rights and development.
Sophia's talk was followed by an enthusiastic round of applause, a series of thoughtful questions from our congregants. As Rabbi Schwartz put it, in this season of light, Sophia has spoken to us about how she shared her own light with others in need, and everyone present found her talk truly inspirational, a powerful example of tikkun olam from one of our own, to make us all very proud.