From shame to dignity

With crushing debt, a broken marriage and no means of support, Anju Shaw’s future looked bleak. An MCC partner in India helped turn her life around.

(Below) Counselor Mily Chatterjee, facing camera, listens to Anju Shaw, left, during a counseling session through MCC partner Barrackpore Avenue Women’s Cultural & Social Welfare Society. — Barrackpore Avenue (Below) Counselor Mily Chatterjee, facing camera, listens to Anju Shaw, left, during a counseling session through MCC partner Barrackpore Avenue Women’s Cultural & Social Welfare Society. — Barrackpore Avenue

For 20 years, Anju Shaw endured abuse and neglect at the hands of her husband and then her husband’s parents. She had no one to speak for her or listen to her. She didn’t think the police would care, if they even believed her.

Peace, safety and stability were as far from her as the sky itself.

It felt like a miracle, then, when a woman told her about Barrackpore ­Avenue and how it could help.

Barrackpore Avenue Women’s Cultural & Social Welfare Society has been counseling and intervening for women in Barrackpore, India, for more than 20 years, the last eight as a Mennonite Central Committee partner. Its counselors have offices in police stations around the city so that when domestic abuse-related calls come in they can provide the specialized care abuse survivors need.

Responding to conflict and abuse in marriages is complex in India because women like Shaw, from poor families, rank very low in a strict social hierarchy.

A married woman leaving her husband — even if he’s abusive — and returning to her parents’ home would be seen as deeply shameful. Most women wouldn’t even consider it.

Shaw, 41, was 20 when she married Pradip in 1999. He was physically and emotionally abusive from the beginning. The abuse intensified after she experienced miscarriages.

Believing he was owed a child, after 10 years of marriage Pradip disappeared with another woman. But before he fled, he forced Shaw to take out a bank loan — 500,000 rupees, about $6,700 U.S. — in her name.

She was left with crushing debt, the shame of a broken marriage and no way to support herself.

In Indian society, Shaw’s in-laws would be responsible to care for her. But they treated her just as badly as their son had. They even revised their will to avoid the implications of Shaw’s marriage to their son. The abuse peaked in early 2020 when the in-laws kicked her out of their home.

“The sky was breaking down on my head,” Shaw said. “I had nothing. Nowhere to go.”

But then, through Barrackpore Avenue’s women’s group, she met Mily Chatterjee, one of the counselors.

“She had led such a sheltered life, because of how she was treated, that she could never have thought about speaking to the police, who are almost all male,” Chatterjee said. “We’re a lot more approachable. It’s still very hard to speak about the kinds of things she went through.”

With Chatterjee’s help, Barrackpore Avenue contacted the city official for the neighborhood Shaw’s in-laws live in and set up a mediation between them. When the counselor and the official reminded Shaw’s in-laws of their obligation to care for her, they agreed to treat her with the respect she deserves.

With the renewed promise of safety, Shaw had a permanent place to live and a safe space to begin her journey of healing.

She took a tailoring course at Barrackpore Avenue and began to earn income by repairing clothing. This independence is the first step on a long path.

“Shame is a major issue,” Chatterjee said. “Telling the women that it’s not their fault, helping them to actually believe it, is a huge thing. No women’s dignity and strength has been lost. Our job is to restore it.”

It might be difficult to understand why a woman returning to a formerly abusive environment could be a positive outcome. However, with their training in abuse counseling and understanding of the culture, Chatterjee and the other counselors help women find solutions that make sense in their context.

Barrackpore Avenue’s counselors typically see 15 to 20 new cases a month, in addition to meeting with ongoing clients and checking in with former clients every six months. Camille Johnson, the founder of Barrackpore Avenue, says their goal is to journey with women to a place where they are safe and, when possible, to reconcile marriages. Reconciliation isn’t possible without changing abusive behavior, but nearly 98% of cases report improvement in the relationship.

“Women often blame themselves for the abuse,” Johnson said. “But I founded Barrackpore Avenue to ensure justice to people who need it and who are denied it.”

Shaw still longs for reconciliation with her husband. As a married but husbandless woman with limited financial independence, she is constrained by India’s social structures. She hopes Pradip will recognize his mistakes and repent.

“What I want is for my husband to come back, accept his faults and earn back my trust,” Shaw said. “If he can do that, I could accept him back and lead a married life with him.”

With a safe place to live, an affirming community of women and the support of her counselor and the staff at Barrackpore Avenue, Shaw faces her challenges with the most support she’s ever had.

Jason Dueck is a communications generalist from Winnipeg, Man. This article was distributed by Mennonite Central Committee.

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