A Conversation with Shilpy Chatterjee, Anti-Violence Program Manager at Sakhi.org

A Desi Woman Podcast
A Conversation with Shilpy Chatterjee, Anti-Violence Program Manager at Sakhi.org


Soniya Gokhale (00:05):
Welcome back to another episode of a Desi Woman Podcast. I am your host, Soniya Gokhale. And the voices I am seeking may have never been heard before, but their stories deserve to be told. What is a Desi woman? She is a dynamic, fearless and strong woman. She is your mother, your grandmother, your daughter, your sister. She is every one of us with on an endless pursuit of self-empowerment and fulfillment. I am Soniya Gokhale and I am a Desi woman.

Soniya Gokhale (00:40):
Hello, and welcome to another edition of a Desi Woman Podcast. I am your host, Soniya Gokhale. And today we are so excited to welcome Shilpy Chatterjee of sakhi.org. Shilpy Chatterjee received a degree in legal studies at the university of Delhi, and started her career as a farmer and tribal rights activist and advocate. Shilpy has worked extensively with survivors of gender based violence. And worked as a domestic violence program advocate at the police precinct in Queens New York City, which gave her the unique opportunity to work closely with law enforcement and our current position as antiviolence program manager at SAKI.org, she’ll be continues to work with survivors of gender-based violence. Shilpy be was awarded the 2019 advocate of New York City award and received a citation from the New York state assembly for her work on behalf of survivors of domestic violence. Shilpy, welcome to the show.

Shilpy Chatterjee (01:49):
Hi Soniya. Thank you for having me.

Soniya Gokhale (01:53):
We are very excited to have you, and I did want to start out with a question pertaining to the fact that SAKI.org is one of the oldest organizations of its kind. And I want to know how did you get involved and what motivates you on a day-to-day basis in this incredibly critical role.

Shilpy Chatterjee (02:15):
So I have been working with survivors of gender based violence since 2009. And I knew that SAKI is a leader in the field, and I was working not directly with SAKI, which like he was one of the critical partners. So when times are presented, I joined sucky team and it was three years ago. And since then it has been one of the most fulfilling experiences of my life. And it is so because it is an amazing team, it is an amazing team of some really committed people. And we bring in our stories and understanding of the gender-based violence. So this whole journey of growing, I think that is very, very important to me. And I get to do that at SAKI. I get to experience that at SAKI, that I value my time here so much. What motivates me is the fact that I’ve worked with heroes.

Shilpy Chatterjee (03:12):
Like when a caller is calling the helpline, they’re starting a movement. And just the fact that I’m a part of that movement, I’m able to witness that movement. I think that’s a very, very special and important piece. I live by the quote of Maya Angelou, that each time a woman stands up for herself without knowing it possibly, without claiming it, she stands up for all women. And this is what I see every day. Like a caller who most probably she is a survivor and a victim of patriarchy. She was raised to believe a certain way. There were few things that she thought was normal. And one of those was violence. Like this is how women are supposed to be. This is how they are treated in their families and around them. So for a person who was raised to believe this, when they want to decide and tell themselves that this is not okay, and we’re going to pick up your phone and they’re going to call our helpline or call 911, and they will bring the change for themselves and their children and people around them.

Shilpy Chatterjee (04:23):
I think that’s a very, very powerful moment. So the fact that I get to see that, and the fact that you decide to break the status quo and stand up for themselves, I think this is amazing, and that is what we should all celebrate. And that is what I celebrate too silently. And that is what motivates me to do this work, which is not always easy, but it’s always fulfilling.

Soniya Gokhale (04:47):
Wow. That is such a beautiful point. You’re right. Because I just did a podcast with Dr. Lucia [inaudible 00:04:54] and it was based on an academic paper she authored regarding inter generational racial trauma within the immigrant community and our diaspora and domestic violence featured prominently as intimate partner violence. And so you bring up a great point that the fact that you recognize that’s really heartening, that person reaching out to you, that is a very revolutionary step in their development. It does not come easy. In fact, it’s often generational. They may have seen this around them, like you said, within our culture. And so the fact that they are being embraced by somebody like yourself or your colleagues that really speaks volumes because you care and you know it, you recognize where they’re coming from as deeply empowering move, probably lifesaving, because we don’t often talk about the fact that there’s so much physical risk and risk to self that you face until we’re able to make that brave step.

Soniya Gokhale (05:54):
So thank you for sharing that I can see how if you approach your job from that perspective, the work you’re doing is so incredibly important. And I want to ask you this, there’s so much on your website and I’m going to have a link to it in the episode notes, but is there anything that’s not covered there that you want people to know about the organization and its resources, and maybe you spoke to it a bit, but the team that you work with I’d imagine that you are all equally impassioned about what you’re doing now and what you’re trying to achieve.

Shilpy Chatterjee (06:33):
Our website definitely lists all the work that we do. All that in-house departments that we have, which includes our economic empowerment program, our youth empowerment program, mental health counseling, food justice program, housing program, and the resources and the legal partner that we can connect a survivor with. But to tell you the truth, SAKI is so much more than that. I mean, SAKI is a philosophy. That was what I have learned since my time here, that we are more than what we can offer. We basically the most important thing that clients see in us and the reason that they come back to us even after years, the same people, if there’s somebody who needs SAKI support in the community to deliver them to us, is because SAKIbelieves in giving those survivors a space of healing. And to just to start the journey that living the dignity is not a luxury.

Shilpy Chatterjee (07:36):
It does something, but all of us should have. It is a basic human right. I think SAKI believes in it. And that is what we try our clients, our survivors to see too. And the friendship that is built and the relationship that is built in during the process that is enormous. Maybe it’s not a tangible thing, but we see it. And we feel how much our clients value that because the kind of challenges they’re in the kind of isolation that they face for somebody to just see them and talk to them and listen to them and validate the parts and feelings because they come in with a lot of self doubt because South Asian culture, we are raised to believe that you women have to be a certain way. So when they try to break that status quo, they do come with a lot of self doubt and guilt that are they breaking the family, are the setting bad example for the children. So just that education and that growing together that we do. And that is very important. And that is what SAKI does. And like I said, that we are a team of very committed people. We bring in our stories, we bring in our challenges, but the way we let each other own it, I think that’s incredible.

Shilpy Chatterjee (08:58):
And we are a very trauma informed survivor centered organization. So a client who calls the helpline, they may not have the answers, and I may not have the answers for them too, but then we can look for the answers together and it’s fine, it will be done at their pace. They are the center of this story. They are the center of their life. And that is what we try to tell them. So we have clients who engage with us for years, but maybe they are not changing their life circumstances yet because they are not ready. And that’s absolutely fine. We are still here for them. And we are going to listen to them. And whenever they want to take some steps, they can do it. There is no rush. All that we care for is that they are safe. So every time a caller calls, we reassess their situation. And then we do some active safety planning with them and that’s how the journey is going on.

Soniya Gokhale (09:56):
That is extremely, extremely insightful. And I did want to ask you that it’s been widely reported across global media outlets, and I’ve seen it here in the United States as well, that there appears to have been a spike in domestic violence since the onset of the pandemic. And I just want to seek your input on that. Is that indeed correct? And what are the greatest stories of need amongst the populations that you serve and has that changed at all? Since the pandemic certainly gotten worse in certain areas. Just would like to hear your thoughts on that?

Shilpy Chatterjee (10:33):
So actually it has been severe, first of all, it was very quick. Like the things just changed overnight. Abusers thrive in isolation, the modus operandi is that they isolate the client. They isolate the survivor. Isolation was requires. Isolation was required by law enforcement, by the society, by the health professionals, that this is what it is like, stay in, that home is not safe for everyone. And just that fact that grave things were happening behind doors. And we knew it, but the fact was the clients were not able to reach us. They were not able to reach us because they did not have access to phone because the abuser were always there. So the fact that there was so much going on in favor of the abusers, the abuse definitely increased.

Shilpy Chatterjee (11:29):
We were trying to call our clients and it was a male person, a man’s voice was answering the phone. So for some time we were not able to have the normal conversation or interaction with that client. And we knew that the abuse is increasing because whenever they could, they would text us. Only a few times they could actively speak with us. And also the fear, the fear of contracting the virus was so much that they wouldn’t call 911, because this meant that they’re letting in some police officers in the home and it was a risk. And what if those officers take them to the hospital, that was again, a risk. And what if those, they were required to move into shelter. That was a risk. And that continues to be a risk. So all of these things, we’re just adding to all the challenges, which our survivors already faced, then schools will close.

Shilpy Chatterjee (12:26):
I’m in school. There’s such a huge support for children and for families. Children can go to the school and then they can tell the teachers and the social workers about what’s happening at home. But now that the schools were closed. Users did not have that fear. I still just wait. I want to see when the school is finally re-openend, there are so many stories that these children will have to share. Are we be prepared for that? Like, do we have mental health counselors, emotional counselors who can walk the children through all that they have seen in these past one plus years. So all of this was adding to the client’s challenges. Abuse was increasing. But the problem was that we were not able to hear directly from them. So we changed the way we worked. Now we encourage the clients to WhatsApp us or text us because talking was not always possible.

Shilpy Chatterjee (13:25):
So we changed more than just the office, phone numbers, not all of us have personal phones, like cell phones that clients can contact us. We are FaceTiming with them too, because they haven’t seen us in so long. And just words, just speaking over the phone, one is not enough. Like we want to see each other, these are the people who share the most intimate stories with us. So we want to see them. You didn’t want to see. So all of those we did during pandemic and that made huge progress and established relationships with clients. I would also say that there was so much misinformation that was fed into our clients. Like when the pandemic started, they did not know what was going on. A lot of people said that the order of protections don’t need to be honoured anymore because the court is closed.

Shilpy Chatterjee (14:12):
So they were letting back the abusers in, they thought that orders of protections are not in effect anymore. Then the same abusers were also using court orders, like visitation orders and custody orders against the clients, because there were shelter in place orders. So they were like, okay, so we are not letting the child see you because I don’t know where the child is going. I don’t know where you live which is a risk and what if the child gets sick and then I get sick. So all those things. And still the courts are not functioning in full capacity. So there are so much that clients would want to go to the court for, maybe start the divorce proceeding or revisit the custody order, but they’re still not able to do it.

Shilpy Chatterjee (15:00):
So all those things, it just, still not over the pandemic, it’s still not over. It’s just that we have kind of accepted it as a new normal, but there is somebody who’s paying a huge price for all of this. Like it’s just one pandemic, which replaced another pandemic. A lot of clients said that is domestic violence, do I even have the luxury to discuss it? Is it because my problem seems so insignificant in front of the whole crisis that the world is going through, but it does not insignificant. I think it is very important. And we have to keep talking about it. In fact, we have to talk more about it now than ever. So yes, the pandemic did take back the movement some decades, like all the progress that we had made over one weekend, I would say like over two, three days, later, it went all down the drain.

Shilpy Chatterjee (15:53):
We had to work really, really hard to build that confidence back in our clients. And the way they were losing jobs, there’s so much right. Like children also for nutrition meals, nutritious meals and all they depend on schools. And just that those were all lost. There were few things in their life that were constant. Like school was one of those. We were one of those. And suddenly we were not there, the social service organizations, we were not there in the sense that we were not in office to support them. But then we had to rebuilt and we had to reimagine our roles in their life, which eventually we did, but there was still some time. It took some time for them to feel that there could be a new normal. And I think that was a challenge that we faced at the beginning of pandemic, which is still not over, but we’re hoping it will be over soon.

Soniya Gokhale (16:50):
Well, thank you for that response. I was really surprised by the fact that 75% of your clients live below the poverty line and this was a staggering statistic and pretty much it absolutely dispels the stereotype or preconception of the model minority myth, which is often associated with our diaspora. Have these populations have been more adversely hit financially, economically? You kind of alluded to that job loss, definitely due to COVID. And have they been excluded from some of the relief funds and programs that are being offered by the government, which then necessitates the services that you provide through SAKI.org, even more so? Just wanting to hear more about that.

Shilpy Chatterjee (17:40):
Yeah. So of course there were job losses. Our clients, a lot of them work in retail. A lot of them work in restaurants and they all closed. So they were job losses. But what was most heartbreaking was that the abusers were stealing their stimulus checks. They knew that the government is rolling out so much money and they could, they and their children could benefit from it, but the abusers were stealing them. They did not share those with them because probably because they filled out the income tax together in 2019, 2020. But it’s just that they did not have access to that money, which was so, so important to them. There were issues of abandonment, the abusers who are still living in the same house with them, they just dropped everything and left.

Shilpy Chatterjee (18:30):
They went to their home countries or they moved in with a few more men where they will have to pay much less rent. So all those things, the abandonment. Our clients were calling and our new callers are calling and they were like, we don’t know what to do. This man is just he’s vanished in thin air and had these bills to pay, rent to pay, utilities to pay. And this year, the winters are very, very severe. So they were huge utility bills and also children, most of them are virtual. So they have the internet bills to pay. So all of these put together, I think they were at the receiving end of such economic crisis. And then for some time I think the prices went up for food and food and all too. The other food justice program, we really tried to support our clients through that.

Shilpy Chatterjee (19:25):
And we were making deliveries of culturally specific food and everything that we can get. And there were times when the stores did not have enough supplies, so everything that we can get we supply them with clients. Have you been also trying to cheer them up in the sense that we had this whole gift drive during the holidays, like children were sent toys, single women were sent something that they could use. So all of these things, and we also have some movie nights, some support. I mean, we have regular support groups for our clients. We also started storytelling workshops, writing workshops. So I try to bring as much normalcy as we can, but then again, the times are tough. And like you said, yes, most of our clients, they live below poverty line and it just amplifies to them the whole problem, the whole pandemic it’s just has had a huge effect on them economically as well.

Soniya Gokhale (20:24):
I’m very saddened to hear that, but it absolutely does indeed make sense, given the scope of the pandemic on all communities and one of my final questions as we wrap this up is I want to discuss some of the programs that you offer as it pertains to solving some of the root causes of the violence and the intersectionality of oppression and your organization identifies all of this. You don’t shy away from it. And you list cast, class, color, country of origin, disability, gender, immigration status, maternal status, race, religion, sexuality, that is every component I can possibly think of. And it really demonstrates the scale and scope of the work that you do. And so if you could just speak to me in broad terms around that and why and how that is so important to how you approach the work you do with clients and just on a daily basis.

Shilpy Chatterjee (21:33):
Yeah. It doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It is amplified by so many things over generation, the colonial history that we have. So there are so many things that have brought us to the point that we are here today, apart from all of those that you listed, I would also say access to education, which is not same in South Asian countries. Women are not allowed have formal education in a lot of places. So all of these things put together. When they come to this country and even back home, but at least back home, they have some kind of support system, but when they come here with so many challenges stacked against them and add to that isolation, it just makes it even so many times harder for them to navigate the system.

Shilpy Chatterjee (22:25):
And the opposite abuser might be the only person that they know in this country. And just to give you an idea of the isolation, the kind of isolation our clients suffer or face, it’s not just physical or emotional isolation, it is also the kind of information that is fed to them. So one of my clients, if I may give you an example, she had a baby and she was a new mother. The child was just a week. And she was trying very hard that the child should be breastfed, but for some medical reasons, and she was stressed and everything that she was not able to latch the child. And then the husband said that since you are not giving the baby breast milk, I’m going to report it to the ACS and they will take the child away from you. So just imagine the kind of information and the kind of harassment.

Soniya Gokhale (23:17):
Absolutely. That is absolutely unimaginable while, and of course they’re new to this country. And so they can be told just about anything and if they didn’t have SAKI.org or other organizations, they are managed to believe that. And of course, with maternal fetal medicine, what kind of a mother really can you be when you’re emotionally and physically being traumatized, you’re being incapacitated on so many levels. So that, that’s a horrible example of some of the work that you do. And I do want to understand that in your background, as the anti-violence program manager, I just want to know how, and what made you decide to join SAKI.org. You’ve been working with them for some time. And what are you looking forward to the most in the work that you do? I know that the CDC has just announced guidelines where if you’re vaccinated, that you can start to remove your mask.

Soniya Gokhale (24:14):
So I really hope that this lockdown situation, I don’t know what the situation is in New York City. I have to be candid on that, but I don’t think that helps victims and survivors, if you’re being confined to a small space with your perpetrator. So I hope that will help, but what else are you looking forward to? And I have to ask this, it’s not a political program at, by any means, but COVID though was quite frank and indicating that we do have a new administration now, and I think some of what we’re hearing and the talking points coming out of Washington have to also be a little bit more helpful because they’re not as much anti-immigration as we’ve seen in the past. So just want to hear from you on all of that.

Shilpy Chatterjee (24:55):
Yeah. So this new administration. I mean, I would say the moment that administration changed our clients, they were in new spirits altogether. Just the fact that they are not as anti-immigrant as the previous administration was, and they just felt more confident and happy. We had also seen a decline in the number of reports in the past few years because of the political climate, because the survivors were afraid to call 911 because they thought what if their abusers might get deported or they might get deported in case they didn’t have papers. And it doesn’t matter, even if they have papers, just that the fact that they did not feel as respected and welcome. I think that changed. And now they’re asking us more questions related to immigration like is traveling okay?

Shilpy Chatterjee (25:53):
Is inviting their family members here will be easier. So all those things, and inviting family members here is a huge thing because they are their support system, right? A survivor of domestic violence who have been isolated to start their life they need a support system, somebody that they can rely on. And most of my clients, they are mothers. So for them to start their journey of empowerment, if they’re looking for a job, they also have to look for childcare because this country is not very friendly with working parents, especially working mothers and add with that survivor of domestic violence who is alone here. So for them to find that that kind of support from their family members it is very, very important to it’s necessary. So they will be able to do those things. I think it’s a huge relief. Yeah, pretty much that.

Soniya Gokhale (26:52):
We cannot thank you enough for joining us today. Shilpy Chatterjee. And I’m going to have a link to SAKI.org and the immense resources that they offer as well as links to other global organizations that work with survivors and those seeking assistance, if you’re facing domestic violence or anything related. So we cannot thank you enough, Shilpy Chatterjee thank you so much for joining us today.

Shilpy Chatterjee (27:20):
Thank you Soniya, for this wonderful conversation. And I thank you for lifting this up. I think this is a very important dialogue and it’s high time that we address this at every level. And just to add to this a little bit, we are also addressing hate crime, like something that the South Asian community or the Asian community has been infected with in this time, right. During pandemic, SAKI is also addressing it at advocacy level and policy level, and we hope to work for them.

Soniya Gokhale (27:50):
Thank you so much. Absolutely.


Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on telegram
Share on pinterest
Share on reddit

Leave a Comment