Domestic violence against women is an unfortunate reality in South Asian immigrant communities. Often, it can be a taboo subject shrouded in silence. Since 1989, however, the organization Sakhi for South Asian Women has been working to end violence against women of South Asian heritage, particularly those who reside in the New York metropolitan area. It offers a safe place for support and provides women with culturally sensitive information, services, and advocacy in multiple languages. The organization also strives to inform and mobilize South Asian immigrant communities to change attitudes that fuel violence against women. All this important work occurs under the leadership of Executive Director Purvi Shah, 34, who juggles responsibilities ranging from fundraising to strategic planning to staff supervision. To learn more about Sakhi and Purvi, check out this week’s Nonprofit Spotlight.
Sakhi for South Asian Women
Virginia Beach, Virginia
New York City, New York
Masters of Arts in English
University of Michigan
Bachelors of Arts in Anthropology and Comparative Literature
Sakhi for South Asian Women
Various arenas including education, non-profit, and media.
About the non-profit
Sakhi for South Asian Women, a community-based organization in the New York metropolitan area, seeks to end violence against women in the South Asian community. We work to empower women, particularly survivors of domestic violence. Sakhi strives to create a voice and safe environment for all South Asian women through outreach, advocacy, leadership development, and organizing.
The organization was founded in 1989 by a group of five South Asian women from diverse professional fields such as banking, film, law, and public health. Sakhi, meaning “woman friend,” was created to fill a critical need – in spite of an abundance of religious and cultural centers, professional associations, and ethnic-specific groups within New York’s large South Asian immigrant population, there was no place for women to address the silenced subject of domestic violence.
Sakhi structured its programming to follow a two-pronged approach in addressing domestic violence within the South Asian community:
We create a safe place with support, friendship, and a full range of culturally-sensitive, language-specific information, services, and advocacy to South Asian women facing abuse in their lives.
We work to inform, actively engage, and mobilize the South Asian community in the movement to end violence against women forever.
After 17 years of working with and being an integral part of our community, we at Sakhi know that in order for families to be healthy and happy, violence and oppression must be eliminated at the heart and root of our communities. We know that community members themselves must be aware of and participate in the dialogue in order for true and sustainable change to occur. Our vision of a society without domestic violence lies within the community’s ability to take ownership in the fight to end violence against women.
What are your day-to-day responsibilities?
My day-to-day responsibilities range from strategic planning, fundraising, financial management, and staff supervision to communications and external relations.
Each day is different and full of deadlines: one day it may be presenting at a conference or finalizing a press release; on another, it may be speaking to funders and expressing the impact of Sakhi’s work. Or it may be reviewing our finances or preparing for various audits.
Or most often, it’s any of these things all in one day! Each day includes a sensitive juggling act of time-sensitive activities as well as staff supervision, project definition, and ensuring all our important work continues and grows with maximum impact.
My favorite aspect of my job is to be able to learn and contribute in each of these arenas. But I especially love speaking on ending violence and the power of Sakhi’s work: watching a community member discuss this taboo issue for the first time and come to a new level of dialogue is priceless.
Most notable milestones
Sakhi, the second South Asian women’s organization in the US, is founded to promote women’s rights by offering services and facilitating community education. Volunteers meet in schools and learn how to serve orders of protection.
Sakhi organizes its first Support Group for survivors of violence.
Sakhi gets temporary office space and hires first staff member. It conducts its first awareness-raising tabling event in Jackson Heights as part of International Women’s Day, and marches in and leaflets at the India Independence Day Parade for the first time.
Sakhi premieres its film festival of women directors from South Asia, a unique venue which brought powerful South Asian women’s films and films about South Asian women to the New York City public for four years in a row. Sakhi also its hosts first community fundraising dinner and marches in the Pakistan Independence Day Parade as the first women’s organization to participate in this community event.
Hosted at Columbia University, Sakhi and Manavi co-organize “South Asian Immigrant Women: Our Social Realities,” the first South Asian women’s conference in the US.
Sakhi challenges the status quo by ensuring immigrant women are able to self-petition for green cards under the Violence Against Women Act and by inviting SALGA (the South Asian Lesbian & Gay Association) to join Sakhi in the India Day Parade. Sakhi also premieres Life Without Fear, the first docudrama about domestic violence in our community and launches ESL classes for survivors.
With artist Margot Lovejoy, Sakhi helps to stage Break the Silence, a public memorial to heal the wounds of domestic violence at the Queens Museum of Art.
Sakhi organizes a public demonstration in front of the family home of Mohammed Mohsin, who was charged with attempted murder and arson against his wife, Syeda. Mohsin is found guilty of criminal charges four years later.
Sakhi staff attend national meeting hosted by the Center for Third World Organizing in order to develop strategies for recently-launched Court Interpreter Campaign. Sakhi spins Domestic Workers’ Committee off into an autonomous organization, which then becomes Workers’ Awaaz.
Sakhi organizes first March Against Violence in Jackson Heights to call for an end to abuse and to open a space for survivors to speak out within our communities.
The Women’s Health Initiative is formed to provide health access to survivors and to educate providers on abuse. Sakhi helps to launch the national South Asian Coalition Against Violence listserve in collaboration with partners in the anti-violence movement.
The first and only book-length research project focusing on domestic violence within the South Asian American population, “Speaking the Unspeakable: Marital Violence among South Asian Immigrants in the United States,” is published by researcher and former Sakhi board member, Dr. Margaret Abraham.
Sakhi organizes peace rallies after 9/11 to advocate against further violence and to decry backlash against South Asians and Muslims as well as domestic violence survivors from these communities. It also hosts its first Celebrating Women’s Lives annual gala event.
In memory of a beloved volunteer who passed away in the 9/11 attacks, the Swarna Chalasani Economic Empowerment Fund is launched to provide small grants to qualified survivors to further access to education.
Three South Asian court interpreters are hired as court employees by the Office of Court Administration due to Sakhi’s Court Interpreter Campaign.
Sakhi received 581 new pleas for assistance from survivors of domestic violence, held more computer classes and health literacy workshops than ever before, participated in 90 outreach, education and partnership-building events, and presented at a national conference hosted by the Department of Justice on the challenges Limited English Proficient immigrant women face when seeking justice at the local, state, and federal court levels.
Sakhi integrated its media efforts through the redesign of its website and semi-annual news magazine, now called Community Bol, to feature interactive elements for community members, and innovative topic and discussion opportunities.
Sakhi proved to be a key player in motivating the Office of Court Administration to roll out an action plan in April 2006 to address court interpretation; organized the first South Asian community meal in Richmond Hill, Queens attended by 750 community members and 40 community-based organizations; testified at a state assembly hearing on suicide amongst Asian women, a forum which got covered in the New York Times, India Abroad, and India West; presented on the opening plenary of the National Coalition to End Domestic Violence conference as well as at national conferences such as National Association of Judicial Interpreters and Translators; received the National South Asian Bar Association’s Community Service Award; and, received the Award of Excellence from Study Sphere for our website.
Elaborate on your position in the organization
I currently serve as the Executive Director of Sakhi for South Asian Women, a community-based anti-domestic violence agency in New York City.
As part of my role, I present routinely on Sakhi’s 17 years of work to build community awareness and change attitudes which perpetuate violence. I have been a featured speaker at national women’s conferences, government convenings, and policy panels. I also provide the oversight, management, and leadership in developing the strategic focus of Sakhi’s programs and operations. This includes our direct services and support, community engagement and education activities, fundraising, and general operations. I began working with Sakhi in 1996 as an active volunteer in the Literacy Committee.
What’s the niche?
Sakhi is unique because of its methodology which focuses on transforming individuals, communities, and institutions through service delivery, outreach and media work, and policy advocacy.
Sakhi is the sole organization to have served individual survivors, produced numerous films and a public service announcement on ending violence in our communities, as well as fostered state-wide reform on language access in the courts. Sakhi’s reach ranges from grassroots activities in Richmond Hill, Queens to national policy development. Very few community-based organizations can stake such a claim.
Sakhi leverages its expertise in anti-violence work in related arenas. Sakhi’s depth of expertise in addressing violence gives the organization insight into issues such as women’s rights, gender violence, immigration, and the South Asian community.
What makes Sakhi unique is its approach, its continuous determination to build a stronger community, and its persistence in developing programs that are vital, effective, and a model for other South Asian women’s organizations as well as mainstream communities.
What’s the biggest challenge?
Sakhi has a wealth of talent, ambition, and energy. What we lack is resources – financial, technological, and human. The scope of our work always exceeds the small team of people who make the results happen: our success shows our determination. With more resources, our impact would be deeper, sustainable, and even more far-reaching.
Other challenges include gaps in systems that we need to navigate to support survivors. Whether it is gaps in immigration law, health care, or clinical services in South Asian languages, we work to provide as many options as exist – and create those that don’t or foster alternatives.
At the community level, there is still resistance to understanding the pervasiveness of abuse and how it impacts whole families and communities. While more community members are stepping up to address the issue, many still shy away. When our community begins to take accountability, violence will end. But it can be difficult to convince community members of the importance of prevention work and to proactively provide ways to foster healthy relationships.
What’s in store for the future?
Over the past five years, Sakhi’s new requests for support have more than tripled from 201 in 2001 to 685 in 2006. In the first quarter of 2007, we responded to 198 new pleas, which means we may reach 800 new requests by year-end, an all-time high.
As the community demand of Sakhi’s services increases and as we offer more programs, including innovative community campaigns such as our Richmond Hill project. Sakhi will look to strategically define its goals for the next five years. We seek to deepen our community and policy impact as we develop more ongoing and long-term programming for survivors.
Sakhi would like to further its policy success to have national impact and to ensure the voices of our community are reflected in larger institutions and policy arenas. We hope to make our language access campaign in the courts a model for other states so that all immigrant survivors can access justice.
The horizon is limitless: what we aim to do at Sakhi this year is create a strategic plan that deepens our impact while being mindful of our resource level to ensure sustainability. What is guaranteed is that our work will always be relevant, energetic, and innovative.
Best way to keep a competitive edge
Sakhi has managed to have amazing success each year through the dedication of the whole organization. We succeed due to our talent, our commitment, our willingness to always learn and grow, and our capacity to celebrate our community’s strengths!
Our success comes from building a team committed to the mission with each person contributing different skills, leadership, and insights. It is my honor to lead Sakhi because the organization, every one from the survivors we serve to staff, board, volunteer pool, partners, community members and donors is singularly dedicated and thoughtful in ensuring Sakhi’s programs and continued impact.
Sakhi succeeds because it is not afraid to change and grow and to keep learning as our environment and community’s needs shift. Our success also builds energy and enables new goals to be set.
Guiding principle in life
Change is necessary though human beings are resistant to it. But change, the strive for something better and a path to make that happen, is what makes life worthwhile. Change is very slow, though, and progress measured over years. What keeps me going is my focus on change over time and having patience.
In addition, joy is essential. In the midst of sorrow, it is amazing to see what art, creation, sisterhood, and love is in the world.
These beliefs help me to focus on the big picture, get beyond the everyday frustrations, and keep an eye on the prize: the long-term march to ending violence and having a world we can all enjoy to the fullest extent.
Yardstick of success
I measure success by seeing if we’ve met our goal or target or responded as fully as possible given our resources.
Most importantly, I see if a year later whether there is quantitative and qualitative advancement in terms of our projects, activities, and goals, especially our ultimate mission to end violence.
In the work that we do, given Sakhi’s empowerment model, it’s also important to realize that each person has a different definition of success and that it is the act of decision-making which is key, rather than feeling obliged to society’s conceptions of success.
What is important to us is to set goals and see the progress, both in the short and long-term.
Goal yet to be achieved
To end violence.
And all the smaller goals along the way to that goal: serving individual women and responding to the changing needs our community, fostering community leadership to address the issue, and ensuring institutions respond to survivors of violence.
What is exciting is to be constantly achieving goals and also setting new ones: it keeps the work active and moving forward.
Best practical advice
To get a good night’s sleep. And exercise. What helps me face the challenges of the day is getting rest the night before and dancing/exercising regularly so that I get a physical release to the day’s stresses, challenges, and regrets.
I try to approach each day as a new horizon of possibility. Rest and exercise help me frame each day with some level of promise.
Supportive words from a family member or friend on your venture
I’ve had a lot of support from friends and family though not everyone was so convinced by this work at the beginning. But what has been amazing to see is the level of awareness and support increasing over the years. My family and friends not only support my work but they also foster donations and awareness in others. It is incredible to have such support not only in words but in deeds.
People I work with, women we serve, community partners, my friends, and many others – the list is too long.
Every one has something to teach and I like to learn from everyone around me.
My biggest mentors, though, are my parents whose amazing integrity, truthfulness, compassion, commitment, and partnership is an inspiration.
What motivated you to get started?
When I was a young girl visiting my grandparents in Ahmedabad, India, a woman on our block was burned to death. Rumors suggested her in-laws were responsible. Even as people spoke in hushed comments about this, no one in that family (or anyone else) was ever held responsible, charged, or convicted. It was a failure of justice and our community.
From that experience, and numerous others, I realized the injustices women still face and the cost of silence. So I choose to, in whatever small ways I can, advance women’s standing and justice in this world.
Like best about what you do?
That I get to make a difference in people’s lives, our communities, and the world. To lead an organization that does the life-changing work that Sakhi does is an honor and privilege. Even on the long, difficult days, it’s nice to feel as if I am making a positive difference.
Like least about what you do?
Having to curtail goals, activities, or programs due to a lack of resources.
At age 10, what did you want to be when you grew up?
Either an astronaut, a teacher, or a writer. I’ve always been fascinated by a number of things and the world around me.
While I never made it up to space, I did get to the NASA site in Alabama as a kid, do some teaching in grad school, and publish my first book of poetry, Terrain Tracks, last year. So I guess some dreams do come true!
What was your first job?
As a babysitter in my neighborhood and then working retail. Not glamorous but I learned a lot from both these teen jobs!
Biggest pastime outside of work
Writing poetry and dancing. While there is so little time for reflection in our fast-paced world, poetry offers a slant of illumination and contemplation. For me, poetry brings joy to the world and a deeper level of feeling, important especially since we go through the days not feeling but in the motion of work.
I also love dance, from girlhood garbas to my starting to learn Kathak dance a decade ago. Recently I’ve also begun taking Bollywood classes for fun. Dance, like poetry, brings the soul to celebrate.
Person most interested in meeting?
I like to meet all sorts of people but especially big thinkers. This would include folks like Tavis Smiley or Adrienne Rich. But I also love to just listen to conversations on the street and hear people’s stories that way.
Leader in business most interested in meeting?
I would be interested in meeting a number of women of influence including Oprah Winfrey, Nancy Pelosi, and Barbara Boxer. But I’d also love to meet women advancing micro-credit and small business opportunities.
Three interesting facts about yourself
- I grew up mainly in the South (Virginia and Georgia).
- I’ve had a book of poems published, “Terrain Tracks.”
- I love science and math (enough to get Scientific American at home!).
Three characteristics that describe you
Three greatest passions
You shouldn’t really ask a writer this question. My full list of favorite books is going to be in a write-up in the next edition of Poet’s Bookshelf but I’ll suffice with a few for now:
“Pride and Prejudice” by Jane Austen for the delicious wit.
“The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” by Thomas Kuhn for offering the paradigm shift. “Kartography” by Kamila Shamsie for being a piece of rapture.
And many other books and poems…
Public radio. I love how stories can get conveyed via radio. The radio bears an amazing intimacy that TV and other media can lose. And there can often be a deeper conversation on radio.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Do check out Sakhi’s website, www.sakhi.org and get involved. It takes a community to end violence!
Who would you like to be contacted by?
Anyone interested in ending violence in our communities. I love hearing from community members, other non-profits, and people we have touched with whatever their thoughts, ideas, and suggestions may be. I love when people choose actively to get involved: after all, change is up to us!