A two-year-old app is helping women in Asia’s largest slum, Dharavi, to stand up against domestic violence. The Little Sister app, working in 3 languages, is helping women report instances, however small, and get help.
Home to a population of over one million, Mumbai’s Dharavi sees many such cases, say the women who are part of the initiative started in 2014 by a non-profit, SNEHA – the Society for Nutrition, Education and Health Action.
“Physical abuse and sexual violence is most common,” said Rashida, a sangini or worker in Little Sister.
Violence against women is listed as one of the top 10 reasons of death for women and domestic violence, also known as intimate partner violence, accounts for five in 10 reported crimes against women in India. Even so, many cases go undocumented, and various studies show nearly seven out of 10 women in India have suffered some form of domestic violence.
A report released last year by Population Reference Bureau, a Washington DC-based think-tank, said India — along with Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka – shows a very high rate of violence, with one in three women reporting sexual and/or physical violence, mainly from a partner.
One of the many reasons why domestic violence goes unreported is because it has cultural sanction. “Everyone, including the mother-in-law, thinks the man has rights over the woman’s bodies, regardless of her feelings,” said Rashida.
“We recently counselled a woman who had been beaten by her husband for 22 years, right through their marriage,” added Saira Shaikh, another Little Sister sangini. “She kept thinking it was OK because her husband was providing for the family.”
Married twice, Rashida was abused both times. She finally found the courage to walk out when she nearly died after consuming poison in a fit of despair. “While in hospital I realised that by suffering violence, I was damaging my children.”
These are not easy decisions for any woman, especially those who are poor, uneducated and lack family support.
This is where the app greatly helps, believes Rashida – its biggest advantage being that women can express their pain in safety and secrecy, until they are ready to speak out.
Registering instances on the app gets immediate response.
Depending on what she wishes, the sanginis contact her and provide counselling. In case of physical violence, they can even contact the police and hold family counselling sessions.
“The project was designed to mitigate under-reporting of violence by providing a tool for women to record instances,” said programme coordinator Damini Mohan. “Most cases are reported to authorities as a last resort, when the violence has severely escalated. It helps us capture instances of violence at an early stage and helps us prevent its escalation.”
Since it was launched in June 2014, Little Sister has recorded 1,062 cases of domestic violence, compared to 200 cases recorded in 2013-2014.
While there are laws against domestic violence, what is not widely understood at the policy level are the health consequences, doctors say.
Women who suffer domestic violence are twice as likely to suffer from depression and about 50% more likely to become HIV positive. Other outcomes are post-traumatic stress disorder, gastrointestinal infections, suicide, and chronic pain. It is also linked with higher risk of unintended pregnancy that compromises maternal, infant and child health.
“Whenever there is violence, physical or otherwise, the physical impact shows up in the form of scars but the impact, internally, is 25% more,” said Praful Kamble of SNEHA. “There is depression, a sense of shock and a major impact on children who witness it. Even verbal abuse can affect pregnancy outcomes.”