How Sheela is working to fight violence against women in her community

Sheela Pawar is working to generate awareness of the Domestic Violence Act in her community. Sheela was working with Pratham (a children’s education organisation) when she was introduced to CORO by Biju Tai, who leads CORO’s Women’s Empowerment Programme. She was selected for the Fellowship after several rounds of interviews.

Sheela studied until age 16, and is the eldest of five siblings (two younger brothers and two younger sisters). After her father lost his eyesight at his paint factory job, her mother was forced to take up work. Sheela’s responsibilities at home increased, and soon she and one of her sisters had to find jobs too. When her father got his retirement pension money, he wanted to get Sheela married off as soon as possible (while they had the money to pay for it). Sheela’s uncle introduced the family to a potential marriage match, and they were engaged within a week. It was only after the wedding that her family realised that the man was unemployed and had no intention of getting a job. The situation worsened after Sheela’s parents-in-law passed away. Her husband still refused to go out to work to look after Sheela and their two sons. After a particularly nasty altercation in the middle of the night, Sheela’s husband threw her, and her two children, out of the house. She and the kids walked all the way to her uncle’s place in the dark. (She didn’t go home because she knew her parents would be really worried). When she left, her husband didn’t bother to find out where she and the children were. Her parents lodged a complaint against her husband after they found out what had happened, and Sheela moved back in with them. When they passed away soon afterwards, she moved into another house which she rented out for her children and herself, but continued to help the entire family – her brothers and their wives and her sisters.

Because Sheela had been working predominantly with children, she wasn’t sure, initially, if she’d be able to work with adults – but she started simultaneously working in the community and learning about the issues she wanted to address.

Sheela didn’t realise that she’d previously been abused by her husband. She began to understand this only after she joined CORO – and she also began to grasp that she could learn a lot to improve her situation through the Fellowship.

A survey and mapping of the local community showed the major issues to be the low employment rate, combined with a high rate of crime and addiction. Domestic violence wasn’t recognised as a problem because women were too afraid to speak up. They didn’t realise how useful the Domestic Violence Act is – or that it gives women equal rights. On one hand, the men in the community thought Sheela was coercing other women into being like her and speaking up about the issues they faced. On the other hand, they were supportive when members of their own families faced similar issues. Some men in the community eventually started offering encouragement for Sheela’s work, but her activities left her with no home time, and her family members were unsupportive.

She taught her sons how to be independent and how to cook when she was away for a few days on training programmes (so they wouldn’t have to depend on other family members to cook, or have to eat outside). Both her sons now work: one is a security guard at the airport and the other is working in CROMA (a successful chain store) while studying in college.

At the end of her Fellowship, Sheela organised an event called Hamara Aasman. Five thousand people (including CORO Fellows and their families) attended. She spoke about her Fellowship work on violence against women, and different CORO Fellows also put up stalls and presented their work. Other Mumbai legislative assembly representatives and local MPs attended the event as well, and got to know how many (and which) issues the community is trying to overcome.

Sheela has helped create women’s groups in the community and is working to eradicate domestic violence (and to gain basic amenities, including health and education).

When some community girls were raped and killed, she approached the deputy village head’s office for help. It endorsed her approach and ensured that the case was solved. It also installed CCTV cameras at strategic points. Sheela often goes to the police station, accompanying women who’ve been abused, to register complaints. She also attends police meetings, and they call her when issues arise in the community – especially during festivals – and when she can help them with particular cases. When there was a problem obtaining food grains from the government ration shop, she created a petition for change, collected signatures and submitted it to the MLA. The police now proactively contribute their assistance when needed, and employees from government-appointed local companies (eg those who do local maintenance work – often to a poor standard) also attend awareness programmes in the community.

Sheela feels that joining the Fellowship was a turning point for her. This is when she created her own identity. First she was known as somebody’s mother, wife or daughter. Now she is known as Sheela, the woman who will give the community direction when any issues arise. She has belief in herself. She has the space to share anything that’s on her mind. She has the strength to speak up even when she is afraid. She proudly tells us that she is now able to travel (even to another city) with confidence and without hesitation. She feels her biggest achievement is her ability to make her own decisions – whether big or small.