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Lokvani Talks To Savitha Rajiv

Ranjani Saigal

Savitha Rajiv has recently been appointed as the co-executive director of Saheli. A computer scientist by training, Savitha is passionate about non-profit work. She has worked extensively with the North South Foundation and now is excited about serving Saheli. She talked to Lokvani about her role and the work of Saheli

Can you tell us a little about Saheli? 

SAHELI, meaning “friend” in several Indian languages, is a non-profit organization that works against domestic violence in the South Asian community. Started in 1996 by a few friends who were quite concerned by the growing cases of domestic abuse in our community, Saheli has now helped thousands of women rebuild their lives and become strong, independent & successful. While it is unfortunate that women face abuse, be it physical or emotional by their partners, we are thankful that organizations like Saheli exists to help them. They can call our free 24 hour help line with the confidence that help is nearby. 

We have a dedicated and passionate team of Domestic Violence Advocates, our sahelis who take on the role of a friend, a confidant, a counselor and an advocate to help the women in our community get back on their feet. Saheli offers financial & legal assistance, counseling in a South Asian language, mental health referrals, shelter, protection and more, all provided free of cost. 

What started as a small volunteer driven organization has now 21 years later grown, with eight staff and nine board members and several new program initiatives, to service the growing client base in the South Asian community. 

What is the role that you are playing at Saheli? 

Earlier this month, I took on the role of a Co-Executive Director, a position that I share with my partner and fellow Saheli Nadia Madden, a smart, highly intelligent woman. 

My immediate primary focus is to increase the visibility of Saheli in the social media space and build strong relationships with various organizations in the South Asian community. Though many know about Saheli and the work that we do, there are still a major portion of South Asians in Massachusetts who have not heard about us. Our goal is to be able to reach and help every woman facing abuse and empower her to live a safe, healthy and independent life.

 I work with staff and board members to increase our Outreach programs in the community. If you are attending an IAGB, an Onam, a Eid, a Garba or a Diwali mela event, chances are you will see a Saheli table out there spreading the word about what we do, and distribute literature outlining our services and cards with information of how they can find us. We are also reaching out to Law enforcement, hospitals and schools to educate them on the cultural norms of South Asians – Patriarchy, In-laws abuse, etc., and provide them information about Saheli so they would know to direct the clients to us. 

Another important task I am involved with is fundraising. Saheli is a non-profit organization, with no income of its own. Every service we offer to our clients is at no cost to them. To make this possible, we conduct fundraisers like Mehendi, Walkathons, Macy’s challenge, Purple purse and Nirbhaya, in addition to applying for grants from state and community organizations.

What is the most exciting part of the work you do? 

Gandhiji said “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others”. My parents taught me the importance of helping those in need. Year after year they adopt a handful of schools in villages and provide books, uniforms, plates etc.   About 12 years ago I got involved with another non-profit organization and realized the immense satisfaction you get in making a positive impact in the life of others, by giving back to the community – and understood why my parents do what they do.
When the opportunity to work with Saheli came along, I was very excited. The women I work with are incredibly passionate and dedicated to the cause. Many of them are survivors of domestic violence themselves, have been with Saheli for ten or more and put in hundreds of hours to work with the survivors. I oversee the domestic violence branch in the organization and I get to hear the success stories of the survivors from the advocates who worked with them to make it happen. Our sahelis are changing the lives of the women every day!

Unlike many organizations, Saheli has a working board. Our board members have other professions and still take on tasks to work with our staff members to do outreach, as DV advocates, planning fundraisers etc. It has been a pleasure working with our board members.

My co-Executive Director, Nadia is an amazing partner to work with. We discuss our strategies, plans and presentations and it has been great! We are training together to be certified as Domestic Violence advocates, and soon we will be working directly with our clients. I am very excited about this, and look forward to help make a difference in the lives of the women in the South Asian community. 
Could you outline Saheli's future plans? 

Saheli is growing! We are transitioning from being a completely volunteer run organization to having a staff of eight Domestic Violence advocates. Several of our long-term volunteer advocates are now on staff. We plan to hire a few more advocates to keep up with the number of call for help that we receive. Two Executive Directors have been brought board to streamline the operations, bring structure to the organization and over see our DV program.

We plan to conduct outreach programs in every town in Massachusetts, so the community knows about Saheli and the work that we do. We will continue to strengthen our relationships with the various South Asian organizations and take the opportunity to present our services to their patrons at their events. 

October is Domestic Violence awareness month. We have several events planned for this month. Nadia and I will be doing a segment at a talk show called “Something to talk about” at the Burlington CAT (Cable access television) in mid October.  The Chief of Staff, Maeve Kidney from the Office of Representative Tackey Chan and the Asian Caucus has invited Saheli to set up table to spread the word about our work on Domestic Violence Day (Oct 17th) in Boston. 

As the request of several health care institutions, include Harvard Pilgrim, a longtime supporter or Saheli, we have schedule presentations to educate them about the services we offer to the South Asian community. We will also be training the Burlington Police Department so they will know how to respond to calls of help from our community and direct the women to Saheli. We plan to expand this training to other law enforcements in the various towns across the state.

We are in the process of creating mini booklets to distribute at our outreach programs. These booklets will contain valuable information available to the victims at their fingertips, so they will know how to reach us, and the confidential services we offer. The booklets will be small enough that they can carry along in their wallets without raising suspicion.

We are working with other DV organizations like Jane Doe and Dove to attend trainings and seminars offered across the State, that will give us the tools to strengthen our program. Several other initiatives are in the works and will be introduced when we are ready.

Could you tell us about Nirbhaya? 

NIRBHAYA, meaning “fearless” is Saheli’s biggest fundraising gala. Held every other year, the funds raised from Nirbhaya are used to fund the various programs in our DV portfolio and organizational growth. This year Nirbhaya will be held on December 8, 2017 at the Woburn Hilton Hotel. The gala will be a fun filled evening of dance, music, empowered walk by our survivors, the screening of a powerful video and of course enjoying the company of friends with delicious food – celebrating 21 years of service to the South Asian community.

We are excited to introduce Dipti Mehta, our Keynote speaker for the evening. Ms. Mehta is a Indian American actress, best known for her role in “Life! Camera Action” that won her critical acclaim. She is also supporter of the Apne App, a charity focused on ending sex-trafficking.
Year after year, Saheli has worked tirelessly to empower women to rewrite their stories of success and live a safe, healthy and happy life. The 24 hour help line, economic empowerment programs, specialist fees incurred (psychological, medical and legal consultations), housing and financial aid to build employable skills and much more are all offered at no cost to our clients.

To enable us to continue offering these services and help the women and children, we look to our community for your support and generosity. Our goal this year is to raise $100,000 to support our client base that has been increasing by 15% each year. In the past, we have always surpassed our goals, thanks to the support and generous donations by our community members. We are counting on you to help us achieve our goal this year too, so we can put a stop to the physical and emotional abuse faced by our women.

Any special message for the community? 

Everywhere you look, there is gender inequality. We are all human beings, and yet women have had to fight for their rights, and equality in the workplace, in social settings as well as at home. As South Asians, we come from predominantly Patriarchal families, where the men are raised to believe that they are far superior to their women counterparts. This display of superiority by men is seen across the board, lower, middle and upper-class families, irrespective of how educated they both are. 

1 in every 4 women face domestic abuse, and the statistics are even higher in the South Asian community. Our women immigrants in this country are subjected to physical, emotional and phycological abuse by not just their intimate partners, but also in many cases by their in-laws. They are afraid to reach out for help, due to social stigma, family shaming, fear of abandonment, or losing their immigration status. 

As immigrants, we leave our homes and families behind and make this country our home, and adopt our friends as family. It is our responsibility as a community to take care of each other, to make sure that every family here leads a healthy and happy life. But if there is someone you know who is facing abuse, direct them to organizations like Saheli, so we can help them by providing the appropriate services.
Saheli looks to our community to donate to our cause, so we can empower them, one survivor at a time. Come join us at our fundraising gala, Nirbhaya. Let us work together to one day completely stop domestic violence and live in a world where all the women can follow their dreams of a bright future, and are given the respect they deserve. 
Recent stories of domestic violence slayings in Groton, Framingham, Lynn and other towns across the State is very disturbing. We have had 24 such incidents this year already, and it has to stop now. The day we no longer need an organization like Saheli, will be a day to celebrate!

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