Women’s History Roundtable: Dr. Prasanna, “The PCVC Story”

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Rapporteur: Sweta Narayanan

Dr. Prasanna Poornachandra is the face of the International Foundation for Crime Prevention and Victim Care (PCVC). Like most other NGO’s, PCVC has a story to tell. For someone pursuing a PhD in Criminology with her thesis on studying deviant behaviour in the criminal justice system, Dr. Prasanna’s interests and purpose in life took a drastic turn when she pursued a PGD in Victimology from Japan. The need for a victim assistance and information centre in India struck her as imperative. On her return to India, she was keen on starting one immediately.

Dr. Prasanna and 2 other women started a victim assistance centre in a small room in Parry’s Corner, Chennai. The centre established a strong link with the police, who were the first point of contact in the event of any abuse, anywhere. After a year, the women realised that 90% of the cases that came to them related to domestic violence. And that they did not possess the necessary skills to deal with such cases. But the experience did give them the insight that domestic violence as an issue needed serious, dedicated attention.

In an attempt to understand the gamut of issues that fell under the ambit of domestic violence, the women set out to train in the United States. The experience taught the women what they needed to know about domestic violence and how to deal with its victims. Thus began PCVC’s journey, as the only organisation aiding all sections of the population in fighting domestic violence. According to Dr. Prasanna, her journey with PCVC so far has shown that domestic violence is pervasive, irrespective of class – poor or rich, domestic violence exists. PCVC’s client profile is varied, from wives of police officers and ministers to even NGO workers.

How does the Centre deal with a case of domestic violence? PCVC’s strategy in dealing with domestic violence cases is two-pronged:

  • The Centre has a 24 hr crisis helpline, which serves as the starting point. The helpline is manned by office staff till 5.30 PM, after which Dr. Prasanna personally takes over. Victims are contacted this way.
  • Victims are then taken to an undisclosed shelter in Chennai, where they are encouraged to start a new life on their own.

In the event that a woman complains to PCVC, the husband is informed (from an undisclosed number) that his wife is safe. This is to ensure that the husband is not subjected to further distress, says Dr. Prasanna. At the shelter, women are encouraged to restructure their lives by learning core life skills like budgeting, managing household affairs and their children’s lives. However, PCVC does not have a planned structure – services are modified as and when there is a need.

Most victims of domestic violence, as is known, are women. How does PCVC deal with perpetrators of the violence, the men? According to Dr. Prasanna, male perpetrators are treated differently – not as ‘bad’ men but as those exhibiting ‘bad’ behaviour. Men in our society have grown up thinking control is part of any relationship and that abuse, especially physical, is acceptable behaviour, she says. Though it is difficult to alter this mindset, treating them as human beings is crucial to resolving any conflict.

The highest priority, in any domestic violence case, is stopping the violence, according to Dr. Prasanna. Hence the first step is to help find a solution to put an end to the violence. Establishment of safety comes next. This is achieved through physically removing women from the place of violence (the home) and providing a ‘safe house’ for the affected women. The final step is empowerment and healing, which gives affected women the confidence to rebuild their lives. Women are often motivated to trace back their desires and aspirations and PCVC guides them towards their goal.
Crisis counselling is a crucial thread across these stages, where women are told what their options are and are advised to evaluate each carefully. This is because walking out of a relationship is not easy, according to Dr. Prasanna. Focussing on the problem (here domestic violence) will not help victims, as this only makes them ruminate over their troubles. Only striving towards a solution can liberate the victim, she believes. Enhancing innate on strengths and competencies to carve out an improved life is the way ahead. The overarching objective is to empower victims well enough so that they are equipped to handle any situation later in life.

Another major project PCVC is involved in is helping women at the burns ward at the Kilpauk hospital. The ward admits 150-200 burn victims every month, of which 60% are women with third degree burns. PCVC supports such women by helping them file chargesheets, providing a health drink and water and counselling. The concept of ‘me’ is alien to most Indian women, feels Dr. Prasanna. Women are brought up being told to be submissive and tolerant – it is for this reason that they are willing to tolerate anything, even abuse, for the family.

Therapy for children through art and play constitutes the core idea of PCVC’s SMILES initiative. The Centre adopts children of women whose burn injuries prove fatal and finds a relative/guardian to play for their care (including education and daily expenses). Currently, 120 children benefit from the initiative.

PCVC faces its share of problems too. In many cases, women often go back to the violent environment they have tried to get away from, due to certain compulsions. It is frustrating to see efforts go waste as we spend a lot of time and energy with a client, says Dr. Prasanna.  PCVC does not receive funds from the State Government – this makes sure they are independent of any influences, according to her.

The emphasis, throughout the roundtable, was on the need for women to be financially independent. If a victim wants to be independent, PCVC will be the first to help, she asserts.

As women, we need to take charge of our lives. With the belief that we can do anything.

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Women’s History Roundtable Series: Dr. Nirmala Chandrahasan on female-headed IDP households in post-conflict Sri Lanka

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Dr. Nirmala Chandrahaasan is a distinguished advocate who has been involved in the peace process in Sri Lanka for several years now. She holds a postgraduate degree in law from the University of Cambridge and a Ph.D from the University of Colombo. She has contributed articles on human rights, refugee law and international humanitarian law to international law journals. She is presently on the advisory committee of a ten-year master plan for a Trilingual Sri Lanka.

What is the international point of view, standards on Sri Lankan refugees? What are the ground realities we see at present? The Prajnya Rountable chaired by Dr. Nirmala Chandrahaasan threw light on some of these pertinent questions in the backdrop of the scenario today.

The roundtable revolved around three main strands – the resettlement of refugees, internally displaced people (IDP) after the civil war and the problems faced by women particularly during and after displacement and relocation.
Dr. Nirmala first briefed the audience on the history of the conflict in Sri Lanka. The civil war in Sri Lanka, she said, has been on for 30 years, with almost 800-900 lakhs of refugees having relocated to western countries. Most of these refugees are reluctant to return to their motherland as they are well settled abroad. From June 2009 until now, 4,000 people have returned to their place of origin in Sri Lanka. A sizeable population of Sri Lankan refugees also live in camps in India.

The narrative then moved on to talk about the differences in meaning between a ‘refugee’ and an ‘IDP. According to the 1951 Geneva convention, a refugee is defined as “including any person who is outside their country of origin and unable or unwilling to return there or to avail themselves of its protection, on account of a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular group, or political opinion.” In simpler terms, a refugee takes shelter under a well-established international regime outside his country of origin and has access to humanitarian aid.

An IDP, on the other hand, lives within the country, has no convention or laws to protect and safeguard rights and has no access to assistance of any kind. The causes for refugees and IDPs though were common she said – civil war, persecution, violation of human rights, generalised violence and discrimination. IDPs became a matter of concern after their numbers and spread increased over time.

A significant portion of Dr. Nirmala’s narrative focussed on the importance of the Guiding Principles of Internal Displacement as being the international norm and standard framework governing the protection and humanitarian assistance of IDPs. It lays down that no government can arbitrarily refuse a plea for assistance by an internally displaced person. It emphasises on the right of people to ‘voluntarily’ return to their habitual place of residence or any other part of their country.

The Principles also recommend that the IDPs be allowed to fully participate in the planning of their return and resettlement. Women especially MUST be involved in their relocation.

A very pertinent question that then arises is whether internally displaced people are being resettled in their native villages and whether they, especially women, are involved in making these decisions. Dr. Nirmala then pointed out that the aspect of ‘voluntary’ return is absent due to the high military presence in Sri Lanka.

She then moved on to talk about women headed households in Sri Lanka, the percentage of which has been pegged at 25-30% after resettlement. Section 4 of the Guiding Principles focuses on certain categories of people with special needs – children, women head of households and disabled people.

The problems faced by women heading households are many, she said. One was the uncertainty about missing family members. Not knowing whether family members were alive or dead added to a woman’s trauma. Next, no death certificates were issued for family members who had passed away during war or relocation, hence taking away their right to claim compensation for their deaths. Another cause for anxiety and trauma in such women was the fact that grave sites were being demolished or vandalised; hence access to graves of missing people dear to them was limited or impossible. She highlighted the high levels of anxiety and mental illness among IDPs owing to such traumatic experiences. The need for counselling and medical services only becomes all the more important in such a scenario, she said.

The next section of the narrative focussed on livelihood options women heads of households had access to. She contrasted this with the few options people living in camps had. People in camps, Dr. Nirmala said, received a package from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees – Rs.5,000 when they left the camp and Rs.25,000 later for resettlement. She also highlighted the food package offered by World Health Organisation and a seeds and farm equipment package given by the Food and Agricultural Organisation.

Households managed by women hardly had access to means of livelihood, either because their previous options had been destroyed or they were being prevented from accessing available resources. Lack of equipment and capital to start new ventures, no labour and awareness of other livelihood options meant the chances women had at starting afresh were in jeopardy.  Also, limited employment in the region further reduced the possibility of securing a job.

Dr. Nirmala cited the example of Kilinochi where food insecurity, she said, was at its highest. The region, with a large proportion of female headed households, was characterised by low income levels and high food prices. Women were not able to access lands due to lack of infrastructure and army intrusion. What is further traumatic for women is that 90% of women headed households also had a disabled person in the family.

Another factor that contributed to added anxiety for these women is the lack of documentation required to prove ownership of land. Most women had lost property deeds during the relocation process and are unable to prove title for land. Dr. Nirmala felt that in such a difficult situation, the government must be willing to take into consideration factual evidence/witnesses of women were not able to produce documents confirming their ownership of land. Even worse, education and birth certification of women often go missing in the resettlement process, leading to questions of citizenship.

Sexual harassment is another significant problem faced by women in Sri Lanka, according to Dr. Nirmala. This, she said, is because of the large number of army camps and soldiers. No civil administration in place even two years after the war meant that women had no platform to voice their concerns and seek legal assistance.

Finally, she emphasised the need for a proactive approach by the Indian government in Sri Lanka. This, she felt, was all the more relevant and necessary because of a large presence of Sri Lankan refugees in camps in India.

Q&A session

One of the important questions raised by a participant at the rountable was why the plight of women households in Sri Lanka was deplorable despite the existence of the Guiding principles. The answers to this question centered around the premise that the principles were only a convention, normative laws that did not bind on countries. Hence, its implementation depended on the leadership of a particular country.

Other questions revolved around SEWA’s involvement in entrepreneurial work in Sri Lanka. A chunk of the Q&A session also highlighted the underplay/ignorance of trauma in the political discourse in Sri Lanka.

This report has been prepared by Sweta Narayanan.

Pleasures and Perils of Intimate Ethnography: Women’s History Roundtable 3

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Dr. MD Muthukumaraswamy of the National Folklore Support Centre, Chennai, was the third speaker in Prajnya PSW’s Women’s History Roundtable Series on June 13, 2009. The title of his talk ‘Collecting Personal Narratives: Pleasures and Perils of Intimate Ethnography’ presaged a very interesting presentation.

rt3 3M.D.Muthukumaraswamy is the founder director of National Folklore Support Centre since 1997. He holds a double masters in English Literature and Philosophy. His PhD (1996) is on “Semiotic Analysis of Bharathakoothu Performances: A study in Theatrical Communication”. He is currently pursuing D.Philos in University of Oslo on “Social Imaginaries of  Divine: Selves, Spaces and Simulation in Kanchipuram.”  He was an Assistant Professor of Folklore 19987 to 1994,  and Folklore Consultant for the Ford Foundation’s New Delhi office 1994 to 1997. His publications include works in Tamil and English.

Dr. Muthukumaraswamy started by saying that following the classification of Tamil Sangam literature, he likes to classify narratives into ‘Agam’ and ‘Puram,’ broadly signifying personal/private/inner sphere and public/outer sphere respectively. Women’s narratives fall into the first category for the most part, in his view. Discourses about ethnography were largely discourses about ethics and ethics is about aesthetics and philosophy,  he posited as a preface to his talk, which explored the ethical, methodological and personal challenges of conducting ethnographic research.

Drawing on his field research experiences, Dr. Muthukumaraswamy underscored the importance of the researcher bringing something to the table as a way of building confidence with those whose lives are the subject of research.  If the researcher does not share something, the research respondent/informant is unlikely to do so. Once there is trust, there is a second dilemma for the researcher: how much of the narrative shared may be shared with the outside world which is the researcher’s own target audience? In his research, Dr. Muthukumaraswamy has come to depend on gathering several narratives to study the content and meaning of the common elements of the narrative structures rather than the content of individual narratives.

Descriptions of actual research decision-making, processes and conversations were very illuminating.

The discussion drew the speaker out on other issues: how to build confidence? what did he actually do while recording conversations? how are informants prepared for the end-use of the information they share? how to balance the importance given to transparency with regard to the researcher’s own background and process and the need to keep the subject in question front and centre? how to ‘give back’ to the community being researched?

The third Roundtable was held on the day after Lakshmi Krishnamurti passed away. We had always intended to start our Oral History work with her. But that is not to be and it serves to remind us not to dilly-dally over this work, waiting for the perfect funding and the perfect moment. Lakshmi Krishnamurti, social activist and freedom-fighter, RIP and thank you for the difference you made to India.