A few months ago, volunteers at Bembala, a Bengaluru-based community run programme to help survivors of abuse and violence, came in touch with a woman from a vulnerable socio-economic background. She had been forcibly separated from her children by her husband, who had taken them to Andhra Pradesh. He had told the children, who were very young, that their mother was dead.
The woman was distraught. However, once she got in touch with Bembala, she finally found the strength to pick up the phone, call her husband, and demand to speak to her children. Bembala also put her in touch with an NGO in Andhra who will be able to help her if she wants to go and visit them. “Till a year and a half ago, the kids didn’t even know that their mother existed. A little support can change a lot,” says a counsellor associated with Bembala.
Like this woman, there are 48 other cases where women survivors of abuse, violence and conflict have found solace and support through Bembala. An initiative by Whitefield Rising (WR), the idea took root last year when many of WR’s members were approached by people with queries about what they could do if they were being abused, or if someone they knew was being abused. So, in July 2018, 10 WR members got together and discussed the need for an initiative that can provide guidance and support to vulnerable women and children.
A counsellor from Bembala spoke to TNM about the initiative and their journey so far. However, because it is completely community-led and volunteer-based, the counsellor chose to remain unnamed.
“We started with a workshop for police officials in Whitefield where we spoke to them about active listening – about how they should be dealing with vulnerable women who approach them,” the counsellor recounts.
After that, it was only a matter of time.
The WR community put their heads together and in January set up a room in the Ob-gyn department of Vaidehi Hospital in Whitefield. The facility is operational from 11 am to 3 pm on five weekdays, and from 9.30 am to 12.30 pm on Saturdays. They presently have 25 volunteers who are trained in active listening, educated about patriarchy, the cycle of violence and other such concepts that are important to understand the context where an abused woman comes from, with refresher trainings every one-and-a-half months or so.
How it works
Many of the cases that Bembala gets are by referral. “Sometimes, women do approach us themselves, including some cases outside of Whitefield. We also get a lot of cases where someone knows a woman who is being abused and asks us for help. In those cases, we tell the person to convince the survivor to come meet us. However, if she does not want to, then we tell the person who reported it to us ways in which they can help,” the counsellor explains.
Bembala works in two steps – the first is ‘befriending’, and the second is referring the survivor to get the help she needs through the vast network they have. The service is confidential and free.
“We are the first point of contact for the survivor. So in befriending, our volunteers listen to her, provide emotional support while also telling her the options she has. After this, depending on what she wants to do, we mobilise our referral network. Our volunteers support her here as well – they accompany her to the police station, there is a mediator, a counsellor, a doctor in case she wants a medico-legal report,” the Bembala counsellor shares.
She adds that Bembala also consults with NGOs such as Vimochana, which works with women survivors of violence and abuse, and Enfold, which works in the area of gender sensitivity, preventing child sexual abuse and supporting its survivors. They also have some counsellors and lawyers who work pro bono with them to provide survivors with guidance and support.
An awareness session on abuse and its impact on family by Bembala with parents at a government school
A commendable aspect of Bembala is that they do not try to push an agenda on the survivor. They acknowledge that not every battered woman may want out of an abusive relationship, or want to report the abuser. Bembala keeps this in mind while providing assistance.
In one instance, a Bembala volunteer stayed at the police station for eight hours with a woman who was being harassed and blackmailed by her brother-in-law with inappropriate rumours about her. With the help of conversation and mediation, the issue was resolved.
From the 49 cases they have dealt with in the last six months, there have also been some cases of child sexual abuse and even a teenage pregnancy that Bembala has helped the families and survivors with.
In the case of the teenage pregnancy, Bembala played a crucial role in counselling the family and ensuring safety of the survivor, with help from the Child Welfare Committee as well.
Bembala also follows up with survivors for three months after an issue is resolved, after which the survivor can always get back in touch with them if they are in trouble.
Bembala realises that prevention is a major part of the long-term solution, which is why they are looking to expand their outreach programmes as well. Whitefield Rising is already actively working with government schools and communities on various civic issues, which gives them an added advantage of an established network.
One such initiative is Bol Sakhi, where women from local communities are sensitised about abuse – not just physical violence, but emotional as well. “We tell them that they are not alone, they are not at fault. We have also engaged with men and tried to make them understand how patriarchy affects them as well. We talk to them about how they are only taught to feel and express power and aggression, and that there are other healthier ways to resolve issues,” the Bembala counsellor tells TNM.
Bembala is looking to organise more such events. While acknowledging that their reach is limited as of now, they are looking for more volunteers and funding to continue helping vulnerable women and children.