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At the crossroads: Intersection of Gender-based Violence and Mental Health

Nov 16 2023 / Posted in Gender Violence

- Sayali Rasalkar, Vinita Fernandes, Nikhat Shaikh

"We used to listen to our fathers and brothers earlier, now we listen to our husbands. They know what is good for us” - a prevailing belief that aids in normalization of patriarchy.

In our efforts to address gender-based violence, we at SNEHA often delve into the lives of women living in informal settlements of Mumbai. We often ask women about their perception of ‘gender’. Interestingly, when we ask whether they have experienced gender-based discrimination, most of them respond with a resounding “NO.” However, when we ask them to describe their day, their response unveils a daily routine filled with unrelenting demands, from dawn until well past dusk. Their days are a relentless cycle of economic and care-giving responsibilities. Nonetheless, when we follow up with the question, "What did your husband do yesterday?" a clear disparity emerges.

Countless women are silenced by the weight of their roles. While they may not label it as such, gender-based discrimination is deeply woven into the very fabric of their lives. It may not manifest as physical violence or blatant mistreatment, but it's present in the daily expectations, the normalization of inequality, and the stifling grip of tradition. These silent struggles are not always visible to the outside world, but within the quiet spaces between their thoughts, women grapple with the echoes of abuse. Unraveling the deeply ingrained normalcy of discrimination in the lives of these women is a monumental challenge, and it is one that underscores the intersection between gender and mental health. Take the challenges that Zaiba was facing for example.

Zaiba, a 26-year-old woman with a 10th-grade education, was coerced into marrying a man twice her age. Her life became a harrowing cycle of physical, verbal, and emotional abuse. Enduring the torment, she gave birth to two children, but her husband began neglecting their financial needs. When Zaiba started her own tailoring business to support her family, her husband's brutality escalated. Seeking solace with her maternal family proved futile, as they insisted she must always heed her husband's wishes. Faced with seemingly no way out, Zaiba resorted to consuming pills in a desperate bid to escape her torment. When Zaiba sought help at SNEHA, she was diagnosed with a major depressive disorder, an all too common consequence of enduring gender-based violence. Her path to recovery commenced with medical treatment, but it didn't stop there. We integrated therapeutic sessions, focusing on techniques like dialectical behavior therapy, which encompasses distress tolerance and emotion regulation, to alleviate her immediate suicidal ideations. Cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) techniques were instrumental in reshaping her thought patterns, ultimately allowing her to overcome her own negative thoughts. Group therapy sessions offered her the invaluable support of other women who had walked similar paths, fostering a sense of hope and community.

Zaiba's plight is far from unique. Every month, we encounter hundreds of women trapped in this vicious cycle of abuse. According to the National Family Health Survey -5 (NFHS-5) data, 30% of ever-married women in India have reported experiencing domestic violence. While reviewing and strengthening our work on mental health, we pause to reflect on the intricate intersection between gender-based violence and the often-overlooked realm of mental health. Mental health, often relegated to the shadows of conversation, bears the brunt of these struggles. The emotional toll of enduring inequality, violence, and societal pressure is immense. In addition to their emotional suffering, some of these women shoulder the overbearing burden of their family’s financial responsibilities. The cumulative impact of these circumstances leads to an array of mental health challenges. As the abuse persists, these women experience unrelenting sadness, insomnia, and a loss of appetite, resulting in a deterioration of their physical well-being. The weight of their despair can drive them to contemplate self-harm and suicide. This is a story repeatedly told, with some variations by the women who come to the counseling centres. Women carry the weight of these experiences in their minds and hearts, often without the support or understanding of what they need. Through SNEHA’s work with women like Zaiba and their families, we are gradually breaking down the barriers that perpetuate gender-based violence and help seeking for mental well-being. SNEHA through its comprehensive approach towards holistic health brings these stories of hope, healing where they find the courage to rewrite their own stories.

We, at SNEHA, follow a survivor-centric approach to addressing cases of violence and supporting women like Zaiba. We support every survivor through non-judgemental, safe spaces where they can explore their trauma and build agency towards decision-making. Having a team of counselors, clinical psychologist and psychiatrist helps us holistically assess mental health symptoms and build agency of survivors; which is often lacking and inaccessible in the communities that we work in. Having a deeper understanding of patriarchy, we understand that men are also victims of patriarchy. Therefore, if survivors choose to continue living with men, we support them with joint counselling sessions. Our team of lawyers help survivors with legal interventions where needed.

In addition to working with survivors, we work on breaking normalization of patriarchy and stigma towards mental health in communities. One of our recent efforts to commemorate Mental Health Week, we conducted a mental health campaign in the four intervention clusters of Dharavi and Govandi. SNEHA community volunteers, also known as the sanginis and mitras, actively participated in this campaign to create awareness around mental health in their community. A range of interactive games and activities were employed to disseminate the message regarding the importance of mental well-being among the local population. These endeavors achieved notable success, with many individuals coming forward to share their personal experiences and seek the support they needed.
We urge you to seek support, if you are a survivor of gender-based violence dealing with unresolved conflict and emotions, reach out to our counselors on ‎+91 91675 35765.