By Shalini Kakar
(Editor’s note: On the occasion of upcoming fundraising gala for Saheli on Dec. 8 at Burlington Marriott Hotel in Burlington, MA, INDIA New England News has been publishing a series of articles and video interviews to create awareness about domestic and sexual violence. Here in one looking in the the world of DV Advocate Renu Tewarie by Saheli volunteer Shalini Kakar.)
“I want to wipe off the tears streaming down every face of a domestic violence victim,” says Renu Tewarie, a Domestic Violence advocate at Saheli.
The flowing compassion from her eyes belies a tough exterior. In her gentle demeanor, sparks of a steely resolve peek through, and slowly begin to invigorate the space she occupies. The resolve to wipe tears off of every single person in pain, whose suffering gets largely unnoticed in today’s busy and self-centered world.
Meet Renu Tewarie, a seasoned domestic violence (DV) advocate at Saheli, a nonprofit in Burlington that has been working to empower survivors of domestic violence for the last 23 years. In addition to being a DV advocate, Renu is also the principal of Shishu Bharti school catering to over 200 children, a faculty member at Lowell Community College, a multilinguist with expertise in three European languages, a mother, and much more, all rolled into one! Above all, she is an incredibly empathetic person, who has devoted the last several years of her life serving and empowering people going through domestic violence.
“Violence has no gender,” says Renu, as her eyes brim with countless emotions that she seems to have absorbed like a sponge from the suffering of victims she has healed. “I do not look at the gender when I am helping someone. Otherwise my own judgment will impede in helping them.”
This acute sense of self-awareness has been a centrifugal force in her nine years of work at Saheli. Renu has changed lives of over a hundred men and women facing domestic violence at the hands of their partners. Currently, she is supporting ten female survivors and four male survivors, helping them navigate through one of the hardest phases of their life.
As a DV advocate Renu’s days are spread between talking to survivors for hours, connecting them to support services, preparing them to go through court proceedings, finding attorneys to represent their case, finding housing for them and helping them achieve financial independence. In short, holding their hand through every step in the trying period of their life. She is their support system when many of their own family members either disown them or are helpless as they live in a different country.
“We at Saheli lend our support until we are assured of the safety and happiness of the survivor. Sometimes, it extends to several years and we continue to be in touch even when they leave Boston. We see ourselves not as a DV advocates, but as their family,” she affirms.
Renu often forms very close bonds with her survivors. It is not uncommon for them to address her as their mother or sister. While she cherishes each of these bonds, her role is focused on finding legal pragmatic ways to resolve the problem of each of her clients, strengthening them through every step. Renu leads support groups in Quincy for survivors in which they get an opportunity to meet others who are like them, so that they feel less isolated, and have a safe place to express themselves. These support groups metamorphose into vibrant spaces of collective healing, increasing the self-esteem of survivors, which empowers them to affect positive change in their lives.
Being surrounded by survivor stories of domestic abuse, how does Renu deal with these narratives of violence?
“For nine years, I have heard some of the worst stories of physical, mental and emotional abuse. In fact I know them by heart!” she quips with an air of paradox. “But even now, many times I am completely shaken by what I hear.”
After a pause, she asks imploringly, “Tell me, how does one react to a situation when a pregnant woman is on the phone crying hysterically saying that her husband has been beating her and kicking her in the belly, and the phone is suddenly disconnected?” When one hears of such heart wrenching news in the media, a common practice is to either change the channel, or simply find other ways to get distracted with more “readable” news. And, we move on. But not the DV advocates at Saheli. Every single moment of their life is spent on fighting for the rights of the exploited.
“We need to have a flexible schedule as for some clients the only safe time is to talk at night and we take those calls. We also take calls from women who are abandoned in their home country, so we have to communicate with them outside of office hours. Unlike a regular job, we do not have a nine to five schedule,” remarks Renu.
So, how does she draw the line between her personal and professional life?
“The line becomes blurry as it is a continuous process. I endeavor to support every person who calls. It consumes my life, but at the end of the day, I ask myself what else I could have done to wipe off tears from the faces of more people who are reaching out for help,” she reflects as the twinkle in her eye swells as an unborn tear, having soaked up others’ suffering.
Every moment in the life of a DV advocate at Saheli seems to require superhuman strength and compassion as they deal with situations that others need courage even to read about. Then, what according to her is one of the most challenging part of her job? Renu pauses for a few minutes as if mentally running through an inventory of enduring moments she faces everyday and then says, “There are many. But a recurring challenge we face is when I accompany survivors to the court. A court trial is like a performance. Even after preparing our clients, many are unable to articulate their complex emotions to the jury. Speaking about their personal trauma in a courtroom full of strangers is overwhelming. You see, continuous suffering many times numbs a person, and if the jury is not convinced, they do not pass judgment in favor of the victim. I have seen even rape cases being dismissed when the victim is unable to present their story and emotions in a persuasive manner.”
Irrespective of court judgments, the objective of a DV advocate is to strive continuously to fight for the justice of the survivor and to rehabilitate them. Renu perseveringly hones the same emotions to harness them for the well-being of her survivors. “Their emotions lie frozen in some part of their heart. My role is to bring them out and channelize to empower them,” she explains. But doesn’t the continuous onslaught of negative emotions she is exposed to have an impact on her? “ I have tremendous help from my family, especially my husband, Bharat who is a pillar of strength. Moreover, no matter how negative they are, emotions, I believe have an inherent power and I work to use them constructively.”
Her mantra in life is to not get desensitized to the suffering of others, even if she has been dealing with it for years. “I do not want to be like a doctor or a lawyer, who is taught to have an emotional disconnect with the person they are trying to help. As a DV advocate, I want to feel all the emotions of every person I am trying to heal. After all, emotions make us human. I want to remain human to the core,” she declares with a ring of utmost humility.
(Please support the work of Renu Tewarie and other such DV advocates of Saheli who work selflessly for survivors of domestic violence. We invite you to join and celebrate Saheli’s committed and compassionate community work at an upcoming gala and fundraiser, Nirbhaya, on Friday, 8 December at Boston Marriott in Burlington from 3-7pm. The gala showcases the courage of women who have overcome many of life’s challenges, DV advocates who provide them support, a sumptuous dinner, music, dance, the screening of a video, and a skit based on real survivor stories. Please join us to celebrate the strength, resilience and success of our community. For tickets or to know more about the event, please click the following link: https://saheliboston.org/nirbhaya2019/)