Every Bollywood movie has a hero; a handsome fellow who saves a helpless maiden from the clutches of a terrible fate. Whether she is trapped in a crashed car poised to topple over a cliff, has been kidnapped by a disreputable would-be suitor, or lies unconscious on a railway track, the brave man will rush in to save her.
Beyond Bollywood, real heroes are a little different. They do exist, but they’re rarely handsome gentlemen. Indeed, they may even be ladies. In the Indian city of Aligarh, Neermala is one of these real heroes.
A note to the reader: this story contains details of domestic violence.
Neermala’s act of heroism came one night only a few months ago in the slums where she lives with her husband and three young children. The streets are very narrow lanes, lined with tiny two-room houses. There’s not a lot of privacy in these tightly-packed communities.
Neermala lives with her husband and three young children in the Indian city of Aligarh.
Neermala overheard her neighbours fighting. As the violence increased, she chose to act.
Rushing into her neighbour’s house, Neermala stopped the husband just as he was about to pour acid down his wife’s throat. They fought and some of the acid splashed on Neermala’s arm – the only good one she has as the other ends at the elbow. She pushed him off and escaped with her friend, who spent the next month in hospital. Neermala still bears the scars all down her arm.
Incidents like this one used to end in tragedy and go unreported. Now, heroes like Neermala are putting their lives on the line, insisting that domestic violence is not a woman’s fate, but a criminal act.
TEAR’s partner, the Emmanuel Hospital Association (EHA), is at the front line of the battle, rallying volunteers to speak out and act on acts of violence. It was their training in domestic violence prevention that motivated Neermala to take action. In just a few years, the community and authorities are realising that violence will not be tolerated – and they are noticing the impact. Violence is slowly and steadily reducing.
The volunteer community mobilisers, like Neermala, are busy educating women and children about the dangers of domestic violence, child abuse and trafficking. All across the neighbourhood women and children can now recite help-line numbers for reporting abuse, they know how to spot the signs of abuse or threat in others, and they know who they can turn to for help. The volunteers accompany victims to report the abuse to the police, and step in to negotiate with violent offenders. In communities where women are isolated and marginalised, this support is extraordinary.
Domestic violence is just one issue among the many EHA is addressing. Much of their work focuses on connecting people with government entitlements. Indian bureaucracy is notoriously complex and corrupt; it takes significant skill to navigate the system and pressure those in authority to release the funds. Training volunteers to act as entitlements ‘go-betweens’ empowers local people to help their neighbours access their rights, such as travel cards for people with disability, government education for children, widow’s pension and access to health care.
Today, Neermala wears her scars with pride. She has been recognised publicly for her act of heroism, and says: “I am pleased that I could save a life, and that of the children too because if their mother died it would have been as though they were orphans.”
Now focused on supporting neglected women, Neermala sees freedom from the social discrimination against women and people with disability as having the most significant impact on her life. “We never used to come out from our homes. We were not supposed to. Now, we talk with all sorts of people and learn from them, and they learn from us. I can talk with people in authority, I can attend meetings on my own, I can travel on the bus, I can help my friends. I now have self-respect because now I’m a local hero.”
Not even Bollywood can produce such a heroic tale.
“EHA gave us the opportunity to come out of the house. After we got married, we had to stay in our houses. Now we have the freedom to meet and share the problems on our heart. Now, our husbands don’t stop us going out. We finish our housework quickly so we can go out and meet. When any woman in the group is being abused, they discuss it with the group. We are building peace in the family.” - Meera, EHA Community-Based Group leader
“The group is our time to talk and share our burdens outside the home. It was suffocating in the home; here we can breathe and meet people.” - Padma, group member
“Since marriage I have always been inside the house. I was illiterate and I have a disability. At EHA’s literacy group I gradually learned to write my name. EHA showed me how to open a bank account, and I taught my husband to do this too! Now he is very supportive. He even does some housework.” - Arti, women’s literacy group member
“I am happy to meet with others who think differently to me because I learn from what they share. I can now go into any government office and talk to them and fill in the forms because I know our rights and entitlements. I have reported abuse to the police and campaigned for justice. Freedom is knowing our women and girls are safe.” - Anita, EHA community ‘vigilant’
“I can read the bus numbers, the street signs, the newspapers, my children’s school reports and their homework.” - Rami, EHA community ‘vigilant’
“I can read the TV channels. My husband doesn’t have to choose for me now, I can watch what I like.” - Shashi, women’s literacy group member.
Dominique Emery is TEAR’s Education Content Creator.
This project has received funding from the Australian Government Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), responsible for Australia's overseas aid program.
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