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Saheli: Its Journey Of Befriending And Helping Women

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By Priyanka Mittal:

For a country that boasts of having a total female population higher than the total population of various other countries, that’s where it ends. We certainly cannot boast about their treatment with the same zest. Starting from female foeticide to child abuse to domestic violence to sexual abuse; the list just keeps on getting longer. In such a scenario, it becomes vital for organizations to come forward and take matters into their own hands. To name a few among many that serve the women of the country are the National Commission for Women, Self Employed Workers Association (SEWA), Maitreyi, Majlis, Sakshi and Saheli: A Women’s Organization.

Each of these organizations sets out with its own mission which reconcile at the ultimate goal of upliftment of women in all sectors of life. One such organization which started back in the day was Saheli where reaching out to women victims of domestic violence was one of its main goals at the time of inception in 1981. It has been known both as a campaign as well as crisis centre. It has been involved with diverse issues ranging from rape, domestic violence, sex determination tests, dowry deaths, unethical sale of emergency contraceptives, vaccines against cervical cancer and other feminist issues. It continues as a non funded feminist collective and survives on volunteer power, individual donations and the strength of its convictions.

Saheli has never been a very large organization and the question for generations has been: is small a weakness? Can we still make a difference? The answer to this starts with them providing relief and rehabilitation to Sikh survivors after the assassination of Indira Gandhi in 1984. Their work with women in crisis was marked by direct action. From demonstrations outside homes where women had been murdered for dowry, to going and retrieving stridhan from her marital home, to shaming men who beat their wives up were some of the ways they responded to situations. Their work on rape has not been restricted to policy level alone. It involved the launch of a campaign, ‘DILLI CHUPPI TODO, HINSA ROKO’ (Break the Silence! Stop the Violence!) which saw reaching out to public by way of street protests, distribution of leaflets in crowded markets to change the culture of acceptance of rape as a ‘normal’ part of society.

Simultaneously, like other organizations, it has engaged with law reform using the judiciary. Its work against domestic violence has proved fruitful by the fact that today we have the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act 2005, which is recognition of the importance of the issue of domestic violence. Another example can be drawn from their work against hazardous contraceptives. The organization lobbied for ‘informed consent’ and the enforcement of ethical guidelines to be followed by the contraceptive trials which compelled the Indian Council for Medical Research (ICMR) to revise its guidelines in 2000.

In this direction, voices were raised by issue of a press release on World Health Day in 2010 regarding the unethical nature of HPV vaccination ‘projects’ being conducted in Andhra Pradesh and Gujarat by PATH International, in collaboration with ICMR and the State Governments.. The licensing of the vaccine in India raised various questions such as; who is to be liable for the debilitating effects of the vaccine? How did the Drugs Controller General grant approval to the vaccine without proper research in India?

Within the list of issues, they struggle for a fair and just portrayal of women through the media. In 1987, they blackened a hoarding which was trying to sell a brand of underwear sporting the tagline, ‘She’s got nothing to declare-not even her lingerie’. The campaign did not gather too much publicity until the movie posters of ‘Fraternity Vacation’ that showed women in pornographic poses were opposed and a complaint was registered under the Indecent Representation of Women (Prohibition) Act. The popularity of the campaign pressurized the government leading to framing of rules under the Act-nine months after the act was passed for implementation.

The organization, having completed almost 35 years serving and fighting for women’s rights, only seems to be getting stronger with each passing day. From dealing with cases of sexual harassment at work place, sex determination tests to being a signatory to the letter to the Prime Minister regarding the decriminalization of consensual same-sexual acts by reading down Section 377 of the IPC, it has seen it all.

It has gone from eight women, eighty rupees, a duster and a notebook to a vibrant and forceful team bringing about radical changes in women’s lives both individually and collectively. The list of problems only keeps increasing but the enthusiasm to implement change by supporting a just cause never ceases. Now that’s the sort of Saheli we would hold on to tightly and not let go in a hurry.

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  1. Adarsh Mittal

    Very well written. Kudos for highlighting ‘Saheli’, who is doing such a commendable job. May many more such organisations sprout and blossom.

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