The head of Sakhi addresses the need to address gender-based violence in the community
Kavita Mehra is the executive director of Sakhi for South Asian Women, which represents the South Asian diaspora when it comes to gender justice. Under her leadership that the organization recently amplified the issue through protests and rallies following the death by suicide of Mandeep Kaur, a resident of New York City. Mehra shared with SEEMA the prevalence of gender-based violence among South Asians, laying bare the myth of it being a model minority, and the effort involved in leading the organization through the pandemic, when cases of gender-based violence escalated alarmingly.
You have been involved with advocacy and community service for a very long time. Was this what you had always planned to be your career?
I wanted my life to be meaningful. I wanted to make an impact in the world and I wanted to try to leave the world in a better place than I received it. I also knew the experiences that I had as a child, whether that’s through the racism that we experienced in our town, or the instability that we experienced at home, to try to mitigate those experiences for other individuals. If I could have a positive impact in somebody else’s life, that would be what I aspire towards and that’s what I continue to aspire towards. I didn’t realize that I would fall in love with the nonprofit sector until I started working in it, which was about 20 years ago. It is this space that gives me such profound joy and being able to work in a space that intersects race, gender, and class identity which has always been really important to me. I would say it has been the overarching theme of my career.
Was there a particular incident or experience that helped you decide that you wanted to devote yourself to the South Asian community?
I often share that Sakhi has been a resource in my life, my mother’s life and my sister’s life. That is what always drew me back to Sakhi. It was actually the first organization I interned while I was in university. I was at NYU during the fall semester of 2002. I had such a positive experience, [I remember] turning to my partner, who’s now my husband, and saying to him, I want to one day lead this organization. Twenty years later I am, and am incredibly grateful specifically, given the high rates of gender-based violence within our community. The national average is that one in every four women experience gender-based violence. In our community, it’s two in every five. That is coupled to the economic inequity that exists within our community. So we represent the wealthiest of the wealthy, as well as those who are experiencing severe poverty. I think we don’t talk about the complexity of our community as much, so this work really brings all of that to the forefront. Intellectually, it is incredibly challenging, stimulating, and also deeply fulfilling.
What is the mission of Sakhi and who and how can one reach out to you for support?
Sakhi for South Asian Women works with survivors of gender-based violence. We’re the second-oldest organization of our kind in the country and have been serving the community in New York City for 33 years. The way that we imagined transformative change happening in the community is by three mechanisms working together – advocacy, community action, and our direct work with survivors.
Advocacy really thinks about systems change work, influencing policy, influencing the courts, and thinking about how we at the systemic level can make change. Community engagement is really mobilizing the community, educating the community and the experiences of gender based violence, and really recognizing that anyone can be a survivor of gender based violence, irrespective of their gender or sexuality. Our direct work with survivors is primarily what we are known for. When a survivor reaches out to Sakhi and asks for guidance, assistance or support they will be met with an advocate. Oftentimes they are looking for legal support or any form of custody support.
On top of that we work with survivors through our mental health program, where provide free mental health counseling to the community. Lastly, we have an element of economic empowerment and housing. Our economic empowerment program supports survivors through job coaching, job readiness, access to public benefits, and then a housing program where we underwrite housing for up to two full years for survivor and their family.
Sakhi is that space of stability and healing for a survivor through the course of their journey. We are survivor-led and survivor-centered. We don’t come from a place of judgment, we will never close a case and we are always there for our community. Our helpline is available Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. We work with survivors from the age of six years old until the very end of their life.
Even today, in the most developed country like the US, why do you think cases of violence against women continue to occur, as in the case of Mandeep Kaur?
This has probably been one of the most regressive years for women in the United States around gender equity. This summer was particularly tragic. It started on June 24, when Roe v. Wade fell. Later, we saw two deaths in the community. First, Sania Khan, who was no longer living with the person inflicting harm in her life, her estranged husband. He allegedly drove across state lines from Atlanta to Chicago with a gun, shot her and then died by suicide. Less than three weeks later, we saw Mandeep Kaur, who died in Richmond Hill, Queens. What that indicates for us is that survivors are not safe.
There were reports that during the pandemic there were escalated violence against women, not just physical but sexual as well. How did you respond to it?
Our role during the pandemic, made it clear that we are essential workers. We had to step up and serve our community in a way that was completely foreign to us but absolutely necessary. So the early days of the pandemic, in April and May of 2020, we actually saw a significant decline in helpline call numbers. We knew survivors were not safe. In New York City, we live in smaller spaces, so they did not have an opportunity to make a call. Survivors had indicated to us was that they were experiencing more extreme forms of violence, particularly as you’ve noted more extreme forms of sexual violence. We also saw an increase in housing insecurity, food insecurity and economic security. We as an organization stepped up and started to do a lot of direct aid work. We provided emergency cash assistance to survivors. Between the first six months of the pandemic, we had distributed over $50,000, in emergency aid. After that, we started our own version of a grocery delivery service. We hired a team to deliver fresh groceries directly to survivors’ doors. We were feeding people at the peak, serving about 100 families a week. During those dark and difficult days, we were there. We were serving the community because that’s our responsibility and that is what we needed to do.
What are some of the ways Sakhi manages to counsel and help women who reach out to you?
When survivors reach out to us, they work with an advocate to assess what particular needs they might have, whether that’s access to an attorney, access to public benefits, mental health counseling, food or housing. Sakhi provides all those services. In addition, we create an immediate safety plan for each survivor. A personalized plan to ensure that when a survivor is experiencing harm, what do they need to do immediately to ensure their physical safety? And then what steps would they need to take if a situation becomes so violent, if they need to leave immediately. So advocates will constantly check in with survivors to see how they’re doing and what they might need access to.
If an individual is facing these circumstances, or know someone who they want to assist or rescue, how should they reach out to you?
If you are experiencing any form of gender-based violence, please know that no one should be living with any form of harm. So reach out to Sakhi, or a version of it. There are 30 South Asian survivor organizations across the country. If it’s not a resource at Sakhi, we can put you in touch with your local South Asian survivor organization, in order for you to access the services that you might need. This is your journey, and the responsibility at organizations like Sakhi is to support your journey of healing. For those of you who believe that you are witnessing some form of gender-based violence, like a friend or a family member, the first thing to do is ask them if they’re safe. If they need anything, that you are a safe space for them. Do it in a confidential way with a level of care and in a non patronizing way. Do it in a manner which would be compassionate. If a survivor discloses to you that they are experiencing gender based violence, the number one thing not to do is compare your own life or to dismiss their experience. The best way to respond to that is I am so sorry that you’re experiencing this. Thank you for disclosing this information with me. I know it must have been difficult. How can I support you? I am here for you. That is what that survivor needs to hear nothing beyond that and let that survivor determine their own step in their process and their journey. It is not for you to make those decisions. Oftentimes, people with good intentions create an additional layer of trauma for a survivor and also why some survivors don’t come forward.
How should the community be supporting you in this cause?
Gender-based violence is the one social justice issue that cuts across the entire community. There are 30 versions of Sakhi spread across the country. You can get involved in your local community, by volunteering, by donating or by creating some sort of awareness or campaign or sharing the work that we do. Many of us have been serving the community for decades. It is about volunteer engagement, financial resources, or helping to spread the message and let you live in a world where women are able to walk freely. Sakhi makes you believe in standing with each other.
There are three ways of reaching out to for support from trained Sakhi team members. You can contact them during their operating hours (Monday-Friday, 10am-10pm):
- Cal the Helpline at: 1 (212) 868-6741
- Text: 1 (305) 204-1809 (text only – calls cannot be received on this line)
- Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
The national average is one in every four women experienced gender-based violence. For our community, it’s two in every five.
We are survivor-led and survivor-centered. We don’t come from a place of judgment, we will never close a case and we are always there for our community.
Our role during the pandemic, made it clear that we are essential workers. We had to step up and serve our community in a way that was completely foreign to us but absolutely necessary.