The U.S. Consulate General, Hyderabad participated in a number of events observing “16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence,” a global campaign dedicated to the awareness and the elimination of gender-based violence. One such event was a trip to Toopran, a village 50 kilometers outside Hyderabad, where Consul General Katherine Dhanani and I attended a meeting of the state government’s Society for Elimination of Rural Poverty (SERP). SERP sponsors a number of social programs including a program that utilizes groups of mostly female villagers, known as Social Action Committees (SAC), in conjunction with community-managed Family Counseling Centers to help detect, arbitrate, and resolve domestic issues in local communities. The program is designed to resolve domestic disputes before they are brought into the judicial system, a process which can take many years to reach resolution. The program is mostly rural and utilizes nearly 15,000 members in 1,440 SACs throughout the state to counsel fellow villagers and raise awareness of such social issues as domestic violence, child marriage, girl child education, substance abuse, and dowry harassment.
India, like many countries including the United States, suffers from societal ills such as domestic violence and issues related to substance abuse. India also has a number of issues that we generally don’t see in the United States, including child marriage and dowry harassment. Although both men and women are affected by these issues, women are most often the victims. Furthermore, many women do not have the support systems, education, or resources they need to help them resolve these issues and are often afraid to turn to local police or government authorities. Women seeking assistance and justice can now turn to a group of peers in whom they can find trust and empathy.
A SAC will open a case for the victim and then proceed to take action. To me, the process seems very similar to what we in the United States would consider an intervention. After receiving the complaint, a SAC will attempt to counsel the offending party and convince them to attend a session at one of the Family Counseling Centers along with the aggrieved party. The counselors are a kind of hybrid between a therapist and a legal arbitrator who seek not only to resolve the current dispute but to alter the behavior or mentality that led to the issue in the first place. Community sentiment and involvement are still very strong in rural India today and social pressure can be a powerful force. SACs seek to harness this force to affect change through social obligation as well as legal obligation.
During the meeting, we heard stories of how members of SACs successfully addressed domestic issues in rural areas. During their interaction with the consul general, a few domestic violence victims narrated the problems that the SACs helped them overcome, such as securing a withheld inheritance and overcoming physical abuse. SAC members described the challenges they faced in achieving success with arbitration and counseling. Impressed by the grit and determination shown by the victims as well as the members of the SACs, Consul General Dhanani said that she was truly inspired by the accounts she heard. “You have given me excitement and encouragement,” she remarked. CG Dhanani noted that although men may have greater physical strength, woman have the mental fortitude to overcome any challenge in life.
Travis Coberly is the Political-Economic Officer at the U.S. Consulate General, Hyderabad.