Priya, a beautiful and bright 24 year old Indian woman, came to SHRI Free Clinic complaining of tinnitus. By her second visit, we determined that she had a much more urgent problem. During the case taking, she shared her story.
Priya’s father had been very violent. Surprisingly, Priya’s mother had divorced her father when Priya was in her early teens. This is very rare in our area. Divorced women are ostracized and marginalized here. Any belongings, which the wife brought into the marriage, are usually kept by the husband and his family. This includes property. Any belongings, which were acquired throughout the marriage, remain with the husband and his family. Yet, the children usually become the responsibility of the mother. There is a form of alimony here, called maintenance, but most women don’t even know it exists let alone have the financial resources to fight for it. When maintenance is given, it is only 5% of the husband’s wages. So, the only choice for these women is to return, usually unwanted, to their parent’s home. Often, they are not accepted back.
A survey sited in an article by Lawyer’s Club India found that 80% of the divorced women surveyed lived in poverty, living with an income of $80USD a month. In our village, most divorced women live on $20 – $60USD a month. 83% of the women surveyed said they left because of cruelty or domestic violence in the home. Our patient’s stories show that this abuse usually comes from their mother in law, or their husband, or both. My point is that a rural Indian woman’s life has to be terrible, in order for divorce to look like a better option. So, we can be sure that the circumstances in Priya’s home were quite dire.
Despite the obvious hardships, Priya did well in school and learned to speak English. She placed second in her class multiple years in a row. When she was 16 years old, her mother died. She was taken out of school and sent to live with an aunt, who quickly married her off to a man just as abusive as her father. Priya loves people, but when you ask her a question, she often looks pained and confused, and takes a long time to respond. Eventually, I understood this to be the result of the various traumas she has endured. After Priya shared her story, Spero asked, “Why do you stay with your husband?” She said that if she had somewhere to go, she would leave her husband in an instant, but, with her mother dead, she has no one to turn to for help.
Later that afternoon, I called an Indian women’s organization, with a center about 2 hours away, to ask for help on Priya’s behalf. Priya did not even know the organization existed. The women at this organization informed me that there are no shelters for battered women in our area, and very few in the nation as a whole. The organization works to empower Indian women, but is not set up to provide shelter. I happen to know the woman who runs the center fairly well, and after multiple phone conversations and a personal visit, she agreed to help.
Priya’s husband regularly monitored her phone, keeping track of who she called and when. So, using her visits to the clinic as a cover, and my phone, we maintained contact between Priya and the women’s organization. Spero and I would have found her a place to live, and raised the money for her living expenses, giving her time to heal and learn a trade, but we knew that she had to move far away from her husband. Also, I wanted her to be close to this women’s organization. I knew that she would flourish in that environment. I knew that the educational opportunities, and the dynamic women teaching and volunteering at their center, would inspire her.
Eventually, the organization found Priya a safe place to stay, within walking distance of their center. To our surprise, they said that she could stay there for free. Spero and I paid for the taxi to take Priya, and her 5 year old son, to their new home. After a few days, the women’s organization helped get her son enrolled in the local school and began teaching her computer skills and office management. She also began studying with a Nepali woman who practices acupuncture and massage. We are all waiting to see what Priya takes the greatest interest in, within the choices available to her. Meanwhile, because of her good English, Priya can provide cooking and cleaning assistance to one of the many foreign residents living nearby, who can afford to pay her a slightly higher wage than this work would normally garner.
Priya calls regularly to give me updates. She has registered herself in school, and hopes to finish class 12 by the summer of 2014. Her son is very bright. Thus, the women’s organization is applying for scholarships to private schools, so that he can receive a better education. Priya’s husband learned the location of his son’s new school, most likely through the principal of the previous school. Priya’s husband was regularly visiting the boy’s school at the end of the day. He would try to take the boy (who did not want to go with his father), start fights with Priya, and try to learn where they are living now. During one of his visits, he took Priya’s phone away from her. The last time I called her, he answered. Priya is afraid, but beginning the court proceedings for her divorce, while also filing a restraining order against her husband, all with the continued support of the Indian women’s organization.
It is well documented that a battered woman is most at risk when she attempts to leave, for she is directly threatening her abuser’s authority and control. I pray that Priya, and her son, make it through this difficult time. There is hope on the other side. This is one story, of one woman, who came to us for help.