It started as a verbal assault last year when her husband lost his job as a driver. Initially, Nilanjana* tried turning a blind eye to her husband’s corrosive behavior. She understood how stressed he was with the pressure of feeding their family and being jobless when the country was in a state of lockdown due to Covid-19 which added to their financial struggles.
In her cramped house in Jahangirpuri, New Delhi, she would think of ways to bring food to the table while he returned home drunk. She remained patient thinking, this was a difficult time, and it too shall pass. But things only worsened. He started belting out his frustration on her. He would beat her up, call her names, and physically force himself upon her before going out and sleeping with another woman. By now, she had slipped into a state of shock. She had broken down mentally and emotionally such that she barely registered the internal bruises and injuries that her body endured.
She recalls, “My husband would not stop. If the physical abuse were not enough, then he would tell me in great detail how he would continue to torture me if I did not do as he wished…I had lost all hope. I thought I would not make it.”
According to UN Women, Nilanjana is one among the 736 million women worldwide who have been subjected to Intimate Partner Violence (IPV) and Sexual and Gender-Based Violence (SGBV). Simply put, almost one in three women are SGBV survivors.
SGBV is a medical emergency, and survivors of SGBV require immediate care to limit serious consequences such as unwanted pregnancies, sexually transmitted infections, and HIV. It is easier to heal physical injuries that are visible in the light of the day. But the real challenge lies in treating the invisible devastation caused by the psychological impact of violence. Anxiety, depression, and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) are commonplace and often the bitter aftermath for most survivors. The domino effect of these can sometimes be seen on children, teenagers, and other members of the family and community.
Determined to give SGBV survivors a real chance to improve their circumstances, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF)/ Doctors Without Borders opened their first Umeed Ki Kiran (Ray of Hope) clinic in Jahangirpuri in 2015. Through its patient-centered approach, the clinic provides round-the-clock access to medical and psychological care to everyone suffering from IPV or SGBV, including and not limited to sex workers, children, adolescents, and those from the transgender community.
Meanwhile, MSF volunteers and aid workers are always out and about on the roads of Jahangirpuri. From driving awareness campaigns, conducting field engagement activities to undertaking door-to-door surveys, they educate the community on SGBV and its impact on survivors. Yet, their biggest challenge remains urging survivors to seek timely medical help.
Archana, an aid worker at the MSF Umeed Ki Kiran clinic, shares the painful stories of some SGBV survivors. She says on several occasions she receives panicked calls from women seeking help. Most often these women say, “I don’t want to live anymore. My partner has kicked me out of our home. I don’t know where to go. I don’t have anything to eat. I am starving.”
Survivors like Nilanjana cannot share the brutal realities of their life in broad daylight because fear and stigma prevent them to seek help and receive any form of treatment.
Archana says, “Women, particularly, find it difficult to talk about their trauma. Many choose to turn a blind eye and suffer in silence for months. Especially if they are going through emotional or mental trauma because that is how our communities and societies have conditioned them to think, they believe that you don’t need to seek any help unless you are physically assaulted. That is not true. We know women who have buckled under the weight of psychological trauma and taken their own lives. And that is why it is more important today that we create more awareness around counseling and psychological care.”
Reaching out to survivors in close-knit communities is always a challenge for aid workers. However, people like Archana are determined to make these resources available to the survivors; Archana sets out on her community engagement activities armed with packets of red bindis and MSF pamphlets. The bindi packets conceal the clinic’s contact details and all helpline numbers in case the pamphlets are lost or sometimes discovered by the families. Volunteers even map out strategic ways to get survivors out of their homes and bring them to the clinic where they can talk without any fear. They work with local NGOs, ASHA workers, dispensary clinics, and Delhi government clinics to ensure that they can reach maximum survivors.
On her first visit to the clinic, Nilanjana was diagnosed with internal injuries. Doctors, counselors, and aid workers at MSF helped her through an agonizing physical and emotional recovery over three months.
Dr. Nimrat Kaur, who is the project coordinator at the clinic, says, “We help provide survivor-centered, and confidential SGBV care, 24/7 and free of charge, across all age groups and genders.
“When a survivor walks into our clinic, we try to understand and assess their needs with high priority given to maintaining confidentiality. Every course of action we take is based on their immediate concerns, and the medical team takes charge from there. We don’t necessarily ask them to recount their horrors but at the same time, we know it is important that we ensure they are in a safe space not just physically but emotionally and psychologically as well.”
Based on the survivor’s conditions, Umeed Ki Kiran Clinic offers every kind of support from wound care, prophylaxis, diagnosis and treatment of sexually transmitted diseases, post-exposure prophylaxis for HIV, emergency contraception, and access to termination of pregnancy services and psychosocial support.
Nilanjana’s health has improved and she continues to seek counseling for overall mental wellbeing. She is grateful and happy that Umeed Ki Kiran field staff gave her the courage to seek help. She has one message for women who continue to suffer in silence.
“I know it is difficult to face your family, relatives, neighbors, community. I know that this is the story of almost every other survivor in some corner of the country. But speak up, seek help and live for a better future. There are organizations to support you. Counseling and medical help will pull you out of your darkest times. You are not alone in this.”
If you have been exposed to any harm or know someone who has, do not hesitate to reach out for help. For Delhi, please contact MSF’s Umeed Ki Kiran clinic at their helpline number: 1 800 102 1075.
*Name of the survivor has been changed upon request for anonymity.