Not all survivors of violence can stitch bags for a living: Prasanna Gettu

The important thing is to listen to them and support them in whatever they do, says the pioneering victimologist

April 10, 2020 12:06 pm | Updated 12:06 pm IST

Illustration: R. Rajesh

Illustration: R. Rajesh

Prasanna Gettu is co-founder of the Chennai-based International Foundation for Crime Prevention and Victim Care (PCVC) that works to support and rehabilitate women and LGBTQIA+ persons affected by domestic and interpersonal violence.

PCVC operates a 24x7 helpline, and works with the Tamil Nadu government to offer assistance to burn survivors. They also run shelter homes, coordinate with the police to establish a first line of defence, support children from families that have seen domestic violence, and conduct intervention programmes in schools, colleges and workplaces.

Last month, Gettu was conferred the Anne Klein Women’s Award 2020 by the Germany-based Heinrich Boell Foundation that aims to celebrate pioneers of feminist causes. Excerpts from an interview:

PCVC began as an assistance centre for victims of all crimes. How and why did the focus shift to domestic violence?

PCVC was started in 2001 by three of us who had gone to Tokiwa University, Japan, for a postgraduate diploma in Victimology and Victim Assistance. We were impressed with the victim assistance centres there and wanted to start something similar here. That’s how PCVC began, in a one-room office in Parry’s Corner, provided to us by the father of one of the co-founders.

In one year, we noticed that 99% of our clients were women, especially women affected by domestic violence. And they came from all strata of society. It is a myth that domestic violence happens only in low-income, uneducated families. The upper strata simply have the means to keep the violence hidden. The first question they asked was where they could stay if they walked out of their abusive homes.

Victims from the middle and upper classes preferred returning home to staying in government-run shelters. This realisation made PCVC open an undisclosed free shelter where women and children, including boys up to the age of 16, could take refuge.

In 2002, two of us received professional training in domestic violence and crisis intervention from the U.S. We stayed in shelter homes to learn how they were managed. We have lately ventured into providing services for the LGBTQIA+ community. The violence they face from their families is interpersonal violence. In that regard, it’s not different, but the services required are very different.

What trends have you noticed during the lockdown?

We received fewer domestic violence calls on our helpline. This, however, is no indication that instances of domestic violence have reduced. With abusers in close proximity all day, accessibility to phones has decreased. Survivors also probably thought that during a lockdown, they cannot complain or leave home. We are widely publicising that our call and chat facilities, and shelter homes, are available. We are bracing ourselves for increased distress calls once the lockdown ends or if it’s extended.

A pattern I’ve noticed in the 20 years of handling the helpline is that we get fewer calls during festivals and summer holidays. But the lockdown is no holiday. Stress levels are high, what with having to juggle work, children and domestic chores. Domestic abuse is taking on different forms. Children, now confined within their homes, are witnessing increased violence. These will throw new challenges in the coming days.

How has your work evolved?

In 2001, we did not have a vision. If a victim came to us, we supported her in a manner we thought right. We don’t do that now, we don’t madly do anything. We are more structured and practical.

For instance, we operate with the understanding that it is always safer to involve the police. Our Udhayam programme is a coordinated response project with the local All Women Police Stations in Chennai, to establish a first line of defence.

We have learnt to avoid a confrontational approach with the perpetrators. This serves two purposes. One, it ensures our safety. There’s a constant threat to us and our families, mostly from the victim’s family and the perpetrators.

When my children were growing up, I would drop and pick them up from school. I’d double-lock our house. I have now accepted this challenge as a part of my work but I like to stay safe. Two, it has become the value system within which PCVC operates. It is difficult for our staff to keep calm sometimes, but I push for it.

Earlier, we provided solutions. We now realise that just makes the victim more dependent on us. The solution needs to come from them. We continue to keep the victim at the centre but we let her define her trauma and work as per her schedule. We focus on her strengths — everybody has strengths. We cannot ask all survivors to stitch bags and make a living. Women have returned to studying, learnt driving and baking. Whatever they want to do, we support them.

We now understand that emotional abuse, financial control, gaslighting, intimidation, physical abuse, coercion, threatening and blaming, sexual abuse, stalking and dating violence — these are all forms of interpersonal violence, none smaller than the other.

It’s been a learning for me too. My courses did not teach me that criminology is skewed and not women-centric. What I have learnt over these 20 years is perhaps worth a dozen Ph.Ds.

All PCVC programmes have thus emerged from some need?

Yes. For instance, in 2006, a doctor from Kilpauk Medical College Hospital asked us for help with jobs for rehabilitated burn survivors. That is when the need for a comprehensive programme for burn victims struck us and Vidiyal was started.

In most cases, survivors of violence are accompanied by their children, who also serve to validate the survivor’s narrative of harassment. This was a wake-up call for us, because boys from families like these generally grow up to become abusers themselves and girls from these homes grow up seeking controlling and abusive partners. To support such children, we started a programme called Smiles.

Youth Unite and SHARP are our other programmes, which stimulate the unlearning of gender biases in educational institutions and workplaces.

What has been the biggest hurdle for PCVC?

Getting our stakeholders to understand how serious and all-pervasive domestic violence is has been the biggest hurdle. We have been asked why we work only with survivors of interpersonal violence, when there are so many other types of victims, like those of war, HIV/ AIDS, etc. In this scheme of things, they think of domestic violence as very minor.

Openly talking about violence in personal spaces is still considered taboo and makes people uncomfortable.

I see a change in the younger generation. There’s awareness. They recognise that they don’t have to tolerate any form of violence any more. This can only mean that women are now beginning to value themselves. It is my job to tell the woman that she is valuable.

With a formal law in place, things are looking up. There is more media coverage. In my experience, working closely with the government, for the Chennai Safe City project and otherwise, I have seen a sea change in attitude. Senior officers are now focused on increased action for social change.

What else can aid this social change?

A country that starts investing in families, instead of investing so much in detection and prevention of crimes, will be on the path to a violence-free, crime-free society. Every home should realise that they are responsible for bringing up their sons well. Men want happiness, women want happiness — that is gender equality. Abusive behaviour is always learnt behaviour. It is simply a manifestation of what the abuser has learnt all their life.

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