Series: The unconventional Women of SSMI | Written by Manvi Pant
Gender-based violence is one of the most notable human rights violations globally, prevalent across all socioeconomic strata. However, in India, violence against women and girls is more prominently seen in marginal communities. Despite having policies and interventions in place, we have, time and again, failed to tackle the problem of abuse effectively. We have been unable to look into ‘the why,’ provide suitable measures, and respond at the right time. India has progressed multifold over the last few decades, yet it plummeted to an all-time low in gender equality in 2021. But some organizations are striving hard to make a difference in the lives of women from minority backgrounds. One of them is Swami Sivananda Memorial Institute.
We spoke with two women workers of SSMI. Besides sharing a history of domestic violence, they both have fought back to live with dignity. In an open and honest conversation, they take us through their life’s journey and how SSMI helped them gain more control over their lives. READ ON!
“I was 15 when I got married. My husband and I came to Delhi to start our marital journey. From a village in Bihar to Delhi, life was filled with possibilities. My husband worked as a painter and earned enough for a good start. Within a year, he fell extremely ill due to a severe heart problem and stopped working because of his deteriorating health. We were left hand to mouth. So, I decided to step up and take a job as a caretaker for kids at a Balwadi school nearby. It had barely been a month when my husband started doubting my loyalty towards him and beat me up. I tried to explain, he didn’t listen and forcefully sent me back to the village against my will. He told me he would send money, but how could he have given his condition. After a few weeks of my time in the village, I got a call from a neighbor here in Delhi saying, “Come back. Else, your husband will die.”
I came back. Life had come to a standstill. With no money pouring in, I was drowning in uncertainty. Then, someone told me SSMI was setting up a kitchen in Punjabi Bagh and was looking for women workers. I applied and got selected but knew there would be repercussions. When someone doesn’t trust you, they look for ways to find fault in your actions. This is exactly what happened. My husband had been unemployed because of his health, so watching me go to work every morning made him very angry. He would abuse me, beat me up a lot. After we had kids, he started beating them too. Once my father-in-law beat me up, my mother-in-law threw me out of the house. I stayed at a hospital for two nights. My husband never intruded. I reported to the police, but they did not help much. They would take him, scold a bit and then leave him. My parents belong to the same village as my husband’s family in Bihar. They called me back, but I refused. Instead, I decided to stay back in Delhi, work hard, earn and feed my children. I don’t wish to be a liability to anyone and want my kids to learn the same.
After several years of working with SSMI, the institute has become my family. The management of this institute has helped me in my worst circumstances. They counseled my husband and in-laws and invited them to see how the ladies work together in the kitchen. They provided me with rashan, admitted my kids, and even got me a camera phone, so my children could study online without hassle during the pandemic. When my husband got extremely unwell and lost all hope for survival, SSMI gave me money for his medicines and treatment. They also put me into a Self-Help Group and provided me with financial literacy so I could operate my bank account.
If my husband had worked, I would not have stepped out of the house. But God had planned otherwise. Today, the entire house runs on my money. I feel happy to be financially independent. If I wish to spend on my kids, I don’t have to think twice. Now, my focus is entirely on their education. I want to give them wings to fly, the ones that I never got.”
“I started my journey with SSMI in 2006. When I look back now, it seems to be the best decision ever. Women like us don’t have cheerleaders or support systems in our families. Our entire life is about struggle – the struggle to make ends meet, first for yourself, then for your kids. But my battle was to live with dignity. The thought of being financially independent came much later.
I am from Kolkata. We moved to Delhi after marriage. My husband worked in a factory and earned enough to provide for our kids’ education. Life wasn’t rosy, but it wasn’t unstable either. After a few years, his factory shut down, leaving him with no work. The money stopped coming in. I started picking up a little bit of work from home, but that couldn’t add much to our thinning financial resources. Around that time, SSMI set up their kitchen in Jahangirpuri and looked for women cooks to join them. I wasn’t a great cook but I knew the nitty-gritty. So, I applied and got selected. By that time, my husband had also started working as a plumber. After a long time, I thought, finally we had surpassed our struggles. Little did I know, they have just started and what I am looking at is a storm ahead. My husband started drinking heavily. Gradually, it became a habit, and over time, an addiction.
Every time he drank, he would beat me to a pulp and take all my hard-earned money. Once, he threw me from the second floor and fractured both my arms. My sons rushed to kill him, but I intervened. It’s been decades since our marriage, he abuses and beats me even today – in front of my kids, daughters-in-law, and grandchildren. Now, kids don’t say anything. If they do, they get beaten up too. But they have stopped acknowledging their father’s presence not just in the house but also in their lives. Women ask me, why don’t you report the matter to the police? I don’t like exposing my family and related issues to the outside world. It’s humiliating. But I have tried speaking to my husband when he is sober, telling him how he mistreats me when he is drunk. He doesn’t say a word. One drink in, he goes rogue again!
SSMI is my family. I forget all my worries here. This is where I belong. From counseling my husband to providing me money to treat my injuries, to helping me open my bank account to emotionally supporting me during my ordeals, the institute has stood by me through thick and thin. They have instilled in me a hope to move forward. I don’t know what I would have done without them. But what I know for sure is – What happens to me, I will not allow the same to happen to my daughters-in-law.”
[Disclaimer: To respect the privacy and protect the identity of the women featured in the article, we have changed the names. We thank these women for coming forward and sharing their stories with the world. Domestic violence, intimate partner abuse, emotional and psychological abuse are deeply rooted in gender inequality. Unless we collectively fight back, condemn it strongly, raise our voice against it and respond proactively, policies and interventions may not help.]
(Content Exclusive for Real Life Heroes – By Manvi)