A 2019 study by LCN (Lam-lynti Chittara Neralu), a national network on shelters for women, gathering first-hand accounts of shelter home residents revealed that shelters were the last resort for women and LGBT+ survivors. Extreme reluctance to approach shelters was linked with concerns over living conditions, mobility, lack of autonomy, stigma of living in shelters, and discrimination during admission as well as residence in shelters. LCN aimed to preconceive shelters as open, positive spaces that offer care within a rights-based support system for women and girls.
At a more recent congregation of Delhi-based shelter homes held by LCN in December 2021 that the author attended, Dr. Rashmi Singh, IAS, WCD (Women and Child Development Department, Government of Delhi) declared that the role of shelter homes must not be just to provide lodging, food and other essential services for life. Rather, they must act as transformational spaces, with integrated services, employment generation opportunities, and artistic engagements converging, to give way to empowerment, dignity and agency of the survivors.
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As Rimjhim Jain, UN Women, Technical Consultant on Ending VAW to the WCD, Government of Delhi put it, “Along with vaccination, infrastructure, etc., we need a more rights and entitlement-based approach. This endeavour is not just about changing the nomenclature, but reimagining shelter homes as a whole.” It’s about understanding survivors and their needs, and reconceptualising shelters – their purpose and their role – to match these, thereby shaping the experience of survivors living in these shelters.
Transforming shelters: walking the talk
Dr. Rashmi Singh in her current role has, in fact, undertaken to walk the talk on some of these aspects. For instance, family counselling centers working under the Social Welfare Board are now providing services at the Saheli Samanvay Kendras (SSKs) which are the coordination centers comprising a cluster of Anganwadis. SSKs are also connected with the Mahila Panchayat working under DCW (Delhi Commission for Women).
The DSLSA (Delhi State Legal Services Agency) sends counselors for legal aid and training of SSK workers, and their advocates regularly hold sessions at SSKs, to provide legal services to women and girls in the communities served by the SSK. Better synergy forged between the various stakeholders through a convergence approach is epitomised in the SSK, so that survivors approaching any of these departments would gain access to a strong network of redress and support services.
The government is now focusing on survivors suffering from mental illness, as well. According to Neelam from Mahila Samman Ashiyana, a shelter home operating in Kabir Basti area of New Delhi, “…on a number of occasions, mental health institutions do not admit psychiatric patients, even when their condition is serious. Due to overcrowding, we are sometimes asked to take the patient back, only to return the same day.”
Dr. Bharti Sharma from Shakti Shalini points out, “…even when survivors get access to mental health care institutions, the system is such that they get to see a different doctor on every successive visit, so they have to repeat their whole story each time, inducing more trauma for them.”
To address such issues, two halfway homes have been built by the Social Welfare Department at Rohini and Dwarka. Currently they house women who have been treated and discharged from IHBAS (the Institute of Human Behaviour and Allied Sciences in Delhi) but have nowhere to go. The presence of an institution wholly dedicated to the care of such survivors is a boon that needs to be leveraged well.
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Building viable futures
Taking the cue from the highly successful TJ brand of high-quality products from Tihar Jail, the WCD Department, Delhi has also set up Mahila Mart – a marketing outlet for women who are trained to create high quality products under the brand name WERA (Women’s Empowerment and Rehabilitation in Action). Banking channels have been set up to facilitate easy payment to the producers of these products. The government is looking to collaborate with other organisations to provide training and enable survivors to rebuild their lives as drivers or security personnel, among others.
Mahila Samman Ashiyana, a shelter home affiliated with the Center for Equity Studies, ambitiously seeks to address the issues raised above, in its own way. Its wide range of services includes the provision of crèche facilities and admission of children to hostels. The shelter is open for 24 hours, all days of the week, and residents can stay for as long as they want. They ensure reintegration of survivors after they leave the shelter home, with rent and ration for two months, and regular follow-up. It facilitates job placement via livelihood programmes, as per the survivors’ interest. Two vaccination camps have been organized for the homeless in their community.
During the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdown, gender-based violence was at an alarming high. Shelter homes received multiple distress calls from women and persons from the LGBTQ+ community, seeking different kinds of help, counseling, and shelter.
A research conducted by LCN on the functioning of the redressal ecosystem for domestic violence during the COVID-19 pandemic, quotes a Delhi-based social worker: “…a 28-year-old pregnant woman and her 2 little daughters had been abandoned by her husband during the lockdown. She was taken to two shelters but both refused. It has been 3 days but we have not found her a shelter”. A government-funded shelter in Ranchi, Jharkhand, reported that they had a capacity of 25 seats, but were accommodating 45 women.
In the absence of pandemic-related guidelines or SOPs (standard operating procedures), most shelters scrambled for information about safety measures or received virtual instructions, without monetary or PPE assistance. In May 2020, following pressure from women’s rights groups, the Assam Government released a set of COVID-related SOPs for shelters. In June 2021, the WCD Department of Delhi released COVID-related SOPs for shelters and other service providers like OSCs, help lines and protection officers, paving the way for better access even during a crisis.
The Thiyagam Women’s Trust for people with physical disabilities responded to the lockdown with a major change in their rules: they started a day-care facility and opened their doors to all women (with physical disabilities) who faced abuse at home and needed shelter.
Ray of hope for trans persons
According to a transgender person from a shelter home in Karnataka, “…we are not considered when schemes for shelter homes are designed. Even if we were to approach shelters, they give us only alms, not the shelter space. Living there would be more traumatic for us as neither all residents nor staff are sensitive to our needs.”
In such dire times, Aasra is a shelter operating in Delhi and other cities, offering shelter and more for transgender persons. It facilitates job placements, organises follow-ups and monthly meet-ups of ex-residents, where they celebrate birthdays and festivals together. Garima Greh, a Delhi-based shelter home for transgender persons, runs a modelling agency for trans women, where they have access to modelling concerts, documentaries and advertisements etc. and their entry into the glamour industry is supported. This enables the community to gain confidence and grab some limelight.
Upholding the ‘right to choice’
Dhanak, set up in 2005 as a support group to promote ‘the right to choice’ and end honor-based crimes, remains a unique presence in Delhi today. In 2020, they received government recognition to open safe houses to help and support interfaith and inter-caste couples escaping violence or threats of violence from their families and communities. Asif, a co-founder, articulates Dhanak’s vision as “a society and system where couples can stay together as per their own choice.”
Individuals and institutions in the sector can now collaborate to provide integrated services facilitating emergency support, mental and emotional healing and medical care, access to legal aid, and counseling support. There is a need for innovative strategies that merge employment generation, entertainment, and arts; integrating care, relief and rehabilitation along with autonomy and rights, altogether developing the personhood of survivors and extending support even as they move on to forge a powerful identity and life for themselves.
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