Anuja Gupta says her non-profit organization makes some people feel uncomfortable.
Even prospective donors sometimes feel awkward about the 10-year-old group’s mission to help well-educated, urban women recover from invisible wounds that are difficult to discuss.
“People have told us, ‘why not tap into corporate or business houses for funding?’ But when people give money, they like to give safe causes,” said Gupta who founded Delhi-based Recovering and Healing from Incest, or Rahi, and is now working to replenish its funding, which evaporated several months back. “They have a preset notion of what a victim looks like: a poorer child. The runnier nose and the dirtier the slum, the better they feel about putting money out there. People like to see victims looking a certain way.”
Rahi, one of the first group in India dedicated to helping adult survivors of childhood incest, was well financed until recently, thanks to grants from the MacArthur and Ford foundations.
It had hired five full-time employees, completed a survey on incest in India, commissioned Thirty Days in September, a Mahesh Dattani play about childhood sexual abuse and published a book of testimonials from female incest survivors. The group also helped train other non-profit organizations to work with abused children, counselled dozens of women and helped raise awareness about the issue at colleges and through the media. The organization’s awareness campaign also focuses on preventing childhood abuse.
But now Rahi is fighting to survive despite a growing demand for its services. Ford and MacArthur have directed their money elsewhere. Gupta, a former French teacher, and Ashwini Ailawadi, her long-time companion and the group’s cofounder, are Rahi’s only employees and are better described now as volunteers. They can no longer afford to pay themselves.
Roshmi Goswami, a programme officer for the Ford Foundation India, said the priorities for the foundation’s “sexuality, reproductive rights and human rights” grants simply shifted.
“They’re doing important work,” Goswami said. “We can’t support all good work being done. We have to make hard choices and this was simply one of those.”
As a result, Gupta and Ailawadi have been forced to scale back programming and focus on fundraising. Still, about 15 women regularly come to the centre for counselling. The women pay on a sliding scale depending on what they can afford. (The suggested hourly rate: Rs400-600 for a professional and Rs150-250 for a college student.)
One of those women is a 20-year-old Delhi University student who asked that her name not be used. She says her father abused her from age eight until a year ago when, with Rahi’s help, she and her mother moved out of the house. “I’m not able to confront my abuser,” she said. “But I have been able to stop it by repeatedly saying ‘no,’ which was not in my dictionary prior to the therapy.”
Gupta says the problem is more common than people think. One of five children have experienced severe sexual abuse, according to a recent report released by the ministry of women and child development, which surveyed 12,000 children in 13 states.
The Indian tight-knit family structure might also open the way for more abuse, she said. Unlike the West, more Indians often live with an extended family and women frequently live at home until they’re well into their 20s. And even when a women isn’t living with her abuser, she might meet him at weddings and family gatherings. During Rakhi, a festival that celebrates the bond between brother and sister, sometimes she could even be forced to tie a holy thread around her abuser’s wrist, says Gupta who isn’t shy about raising uncomfortable questions about traditions.
“Unless they disclose, (the abuse) not going is not an option,” Gupta said.
“What we can do is figure out how to help the person do it and not get freaked out or how to help them to say ‘no’.”
Another Delhi college student, who also didn’t want her named used, said Rahi helped her understand that her feelings of self-loathing started when her teenage cousins abused her at age eight. She’s now a peer counsellor and plans to be a therapist after college. “The change I feel is not in big things,” she said. “If earlier I was walking down the road and a lecherous person teased me, I used to feel shame and guilt. After therapy, I tell them off.”
Gupta said she started Rahi after hearing her friends describe their own stories of molestation. “Sexual abuse was around me—these were people I knew,” she said. Gupta, who comes from a middle-class family in Kolkata, taught French for many years before she was introduced to activism by her younger brother Siddhartha Gautam, a well-known AIDS activist in Delhi who died in 1992. She became deeply involved with her brother’s group after his death.
“It was more as a way to be in touch with my brother than what I wanted to do,”she said. “I loved the work but got a sense that it was not really me. I was kind of searching for what really was my calling.”
Ailawadi, an addictions counsellor, suggested she look into the issue of incest, a problem he had been hearing a lot about from his clients. She submitted a 20-page proposal to the MacArthur Foundation and received a three-year fellowship to launch Rahi.
Gupta says her goal from the start was to alter the public perception of incest.
“People thought it was a problem in America or in the slums of India,” Gupta said. “I was keen to break that myth.”
Awareness of the issue has grown during the past decade, in part because of Meera Nair’s 2001 film Monsoon Wedding, which featured as a sub-plot a story of incest in a middle-class Indian family, she said.
She says she was hoping to expand her services beyond Delhi. But now she’s working to keep the facility open at least until she hears back about the grants she’s applied for, a process that typically takes months.
“We were a little bit ahead of our time as an organization and spent lot of time bringing people up to where we’re talking about,” she said. “Now I feel we’ve done a fair amount and are poised to make a big leap where we can make a bigger difference, but somehow the funding is not coming fast enough.”
Sixty in Sixty is a special series that we plan to run through 2007, the 60th anniversary of India’s independence. We will introduce you to sixty Indians—both here and abroad—who are not rich or famous. These are people who are making quiet, but important, contributions without seeking headlines, to help make India and, in some cases, the world a better place.
We also welcome your suggestions on people whom you think should be profiled in this series. Please send your suggestions by email to email@example.com