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‘Ethnicity, religion, immigration status add more layers to gender violence issue among South Asian Americans’

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New Sakhi for South Asian Women Executive Director Kavita Mehra speaks to The American Bazaar.

Kavita Mehra
Kavita Mehra; photo credit: Sakhi

The New York-based Sakhi for South Asian Women has served immigrant survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault for 28 years. Besides providing a wide array of services, the group also works toward empowering women, engaging with the community and advocating policy initiatives, all with the goal of ending violence against women.

Last month, the organization named Kavita Mehra as its new Executive Director, in place of Shalini Somayaji, who led the organization since 2015. During her 15-year career in the nonprofit sector, Mehra has worked for a number of organizations, including Womankind (formerly New York Asian Women’s Center), the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, Easter Seals NY, and South Asian Youth Action (SAYA!), the Asian Women in Business, GlamourGals Foundation, Inc., and the Boys & Girls Club of Newark.

Mehra holds a bachelor’s degree from New York University, with a double major in both History and Gender Studies, a master’s in Liberal Studies, with a concentration in South Asian Studies, from Columbia University.

In an interview with The American Bazaar, Mehra talks about her plans for Sakhi

Congratulations on your new position as the Executive Director! What would be your top priorities as you lead the organization?

In the short-term, I am focused on learning from, and building a relationship with the Sakhi community, including our team and stakeholders. Being cognizant that we are standing on the shoulders of giants, it is important to be mindful of Sakhi’s rich history and deep roots in our community.

In the mid-term, I am invested in deepening the scope of our direct services work. Specifically, I am interested in exploring how Sakhi can play a more integral role in creating access to supportive housing, fostering behavior and mental health awareness and support, bridging vocational and education opportunities, and enhancing our touchpoints with South Asian youth.

Finally, in the longer term, I would like to deepen our relationships and enhance our coalition building efforts. Sakhi is part of a cohort of organizations that play an integral role in shaping the dialogue and advocating on behalf of issues impacting communities where multiple identities co-exist. I hope to continue with this momentum and spend time fostering coalitions locally and nationally.

You once did an internship with Sakhi, and now you are leading it. How has the organization evolved over the years?

I’ve waited for this moment for the better part of my career, and it is an honor to rejoin the team in this capacity. Sakhi has been on a growth trajectory, and I am eager to continue building on that momentum. As a gender justice organization, our movement has evolved to become more inclusive, being fully aware that men play a critical role in ending violence against women.

Tell us about Sakhi’s ongoing projects?

Sakhi works toward gender justice every day as we fight for our community because we want to see all people free from violence and repression based on gender. We want people to be able to live with dignity and respect. We advocate for gender justice in a variety of ways: by treating our clients not as helpless, but as agents of their own change, by creating access to and opportunities for economic independence and stability, by working to disrupt the cycle of violence with a youth program that teaches young women about self-empowerment, by educating our community about violence and prevention, and by prioritizing mental health and creating spaces where women healing from violence can find connection and solidarity with one another.

How prevalent is domestic violence among South Asian Americans? How would you compare it with other communities?

Intimate partner violence touches every community. The added complexity of race, ethnicity, religion, and immigration status in our current political climate makes our work all the more necessary. For us, the more important question is how can the South Asian community foster dialogue, build coalition, and channel power with other communities on the margins. In this socio-political climate, it is necessary that our community forges deeper alliances with movements that are also fighting for justice and equity.

The Indian American community is considered a model minority. Yes, the community has brought with it a lot of social baggage from India. What are your thoughts on that?

Model minority is a loaded term, and one towards which I have never felt any affinity. It fails to acknowledge the complex realities that engender our community, and assumes a one-dimensional experience. Sakhi works with clients from the South Asian Diaspora, which includes, but is not limited to: Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Guyana, India, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Tibet, and Trinidad and Tobago.

What is the major difficulty that you encounter while dealing with issues surrounding violence and injustice against women?

Living free from gender-based violence is a human right. Gender justice is a framework that refers to a world where everybody, regardless of gender, is valued and able to share equitably in the distribution of power, knowledge and resources.

We recognize that while an unjust world hurts all people, the asymmetric impact of gender injustice is experienced most acutely by women and girls. For us, it is important to think about the greater role men have to play in advocating for gender justice, and using our place of privilege to speak out against gender-based violence, not just to build awareness, but to aid in prevention.

Who are your major donors?

Without disclosing specific names, Sakhi is fortunate to have a community of stakeholders who are committed to our mission, and value the opportunity to contribute to the unique voice our organization fosters. During this next chapter in our history, as we continue to examine the impact of our work, we hope to deepen those longstanding relationships, while simultaneously engaging a broader demographic of supporters. It is now more critical than ever to expand our support-base, during these times of political instability and potential cuts in federal programs. While navigating this uncharted socio-political climate, one that intersects multiple communities, my hope is to continue to diversify our portfolio.

Sakhi raises nearly $400,000 at anniversary gala in New York
(June 17, 2014)
Sakhi for South Asian Women