Home / Politics / Policy /  Shelter homes: Nothing but a roof over some heads

New Delhi: The off-white dupatta with the pink embroidered paisley is stuck in the barbed wire that runs over the high walls. At this shelter home for women in Delhi, the dupatta has been stuck there for months, a reminder of an inmate’s failed escape attempt.

“They think it is a jail. I keep telling them it’s their home. They should start treating it like that," says Rani Bhatia, convener of Snehalaya, a shelter home run by the Mahila Dakshata Samiti, a government-recognized NGO.

There are no armed men guarding the three-storey red brick building. No one is handcuffed, nobody’s feet are chained and there is no uniform for the inmates. The building has a high ceiling, mostly well lit and ventilated, and wherever there is a hole or a gap that could potentially be used for an escape, it has been sealed with iron bars.

“Can you imagine someone escaping from this small a hole? They do. Recently, a woman slipped out somehow, climbed the walls—the walls with broken glass on top, and tried running," says Bhatia.

For the inmates at Snehalaya, the shelter is just a roof over their heads, governed by strict rules. All they long for is a place which feels like home and the freedom that it offers.

Snehalaya, one of the 13 shelters in Delhi, is home to victims of domestic violence, rape survivors, children or women in abusive relationships.

Inside the rooms of the inmates, there are mattresses on wrought iron beds, wedged up against each other. There is no other furniture. In almost each room, there are three windows, one tubelight and two fans. The dining room has a table, but no chairs. The walls are mostly bare, except where a clock is hung, and another where an old faded painting is placed. The kitchen has a few utensils, a gas cylinder and a water filter that does not work. The unused utensils have bird droppings and dust settled on them. The entire building for 30 women has two toilets and two bathrooms. There is a television lying in a corner of a room in the basement that doesn’t work. There are also metal cupboards with sewing machines and the wall has a poster with pictures of Hindu goddesses. The movement of inmates is monitored by the convener with the help of several CCTVs in her room. The inmates are fed properly at regular intervals, and sanitary napkins and toiletries are supplied in adequate quantities.

Women in difficult circumstances are often rendered homeless due to family violence, social ostracism, human trafficking and domestic abuse. After being rescued, they are often transferred to institutions such as Snehalaya.

“Our mission is to educate, economically empower women, to bring a family together, to give them moral education, to make them more patient. We keep telling the women jitna shaant rahogi utna ghar nahi tootega (the more calm you remain, the greater the chances of keeping your home together)," says Suman Krishan Kant, one of the founders and national president of Mahila Dakshata Samiti.

The shelter home is for the underprivileged and not for the rich or the middle class, even though domestic violence, dowry deaths and rapes happen across classes. “If you are educated, you will find a job. If you are rich, you will find a place of your own," says Krishan Kant.

As Reena Banerjee from NGO Nav Srishti says, these shelters are in “bad condition" and by moving to a shelter home, ultimately the burden of adjusting to the new place falls on the victim, not the perpetrator. “If she comes from a well-to-do family, it is much more difficult to adjust in such homes, which are overcrowded and lack basic facilities," says Banerjee.

The shelter home Snehalaya can accommodate 100 people, but the grants it receives is for 30 women. “Grants are not sufficient. We are given somewhere around Rs3,500 for the counsellor. We are hiring someone with a master’s in social work. We can’t be paying them Rs3,500 per month. We add our own money and give her Rs8,000 and plan to increase her salary," says Bhatia.

From the outside, the shelter home is clean; it is sandwiched between a banquet hall and a swanky building coming up in the locality. There is sound of music and celebrations almost always. These girls, the warden says, keep peeping out, looking at the boys and sending and receiving “chits" or looking for ways to run. The more they do so, the more the view to the outside world gets obscured by the iron walls inside this shelter home, like many others such homes for these women in the country.

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