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Heading for helplines

Although she sat with her head down in a far corner of the lobby, Tanya Sharma stood out in the crowd of women at Bangalore’s Janodaya Public Trust office. Sharma was the only jeans-clad woman ' with a laptop slung across her shoulders ' in a chattering crowd of women dressed in faded sarees, slippers and flowers in oiled hair.

But Sharma barely noticed how out-of-place she looked in the tacky-looking lobby of the state-government-funded women’s NGO. The 35-year-old software professional, who worked with a leading Bangalore-based IT firm, had heavier things on her mind. She desperately wanted to get out of an abusive marriage and had turned to the NGO for help.

Sharma’s professional success had caused a deep rift in her marriage. “She was earning twice as much as her husband. He couldn’t digest this and started harassing her,” says Beena Dayanand, legal consultant, Janodaya. Sharma would often find important documents deleted from her laptop and office papers lying torn in the kitchen dustbin. “She stuck on with the marriage for the sake of her three-year-old daughter. But when the situation became unbearable she decided to walk out,” says Dayanand.

Janodaya is helping Sharma get a smooth divorce and secure the custody of her child.

Tanya Sharma is the new face of women seeking counselling and legal help. These women are educated, high-earning and professionally on-the-move. But all’s not well on the home front. “An increasing number of affluent women call in with problems ranging from domestic violence, emotional abuse at home to property disputes and custody of children,” says Alwyn Mendonsa, spokesperson, Janodaya.

The Janodaya helpline claims to receive 20 to 25 calls from upper middle class women every day. “There has been a 20 per cent increase in the numbers since last year,” says Mendonsa.

Women NGOs across cities have recorded similar statistics. The International Foundation for Crime Prevention and Victim Care (CPVC), Chennai, claims that 40 per cent women seeking help at the NGO come from upper middle class families. “Till a few years back, women stuck on in abusive relationships for the sake of family prestige. Now, with increasing awareness, economic independence and a changing value system, they have become fiercely protective of their rights,” says Dr Prasanna Purnachandra, CEO, CPVC.

In Mumbai, the women’s justice cell of the Human Rights Law Network receives a call a day from upper class women. But Anubha Rastogi, law officer at the NGO, says social taboos keep many of them from going public about their problems. “Usually, these women call when there is no one at home. Many of them just seek legal advice and never come back for follow-up action,” says Rastogi.

The Hengasara Hakina Sangha (HSS) ' a Bangalore-based NGO that works with women victims of sexual violence ' receives three to four calls a week from women facing sexual harassment at the workplace. “We receive complaints from women working in sectors ranging from banks, BPOs to IT firms. There aren’t enough mechanisms to keep the workplace environment safe,” says Usha B.N., programme coordinator, HSS.

With time in short supply in urban India, heading to helplines has become a quick way to sort out marital discord. “Urban women see the value of time and energy. Nobody wants to run around courts and police stations. They come to counselling centres to settle marital matters amicably and fast,” says Tripti Panchal, coordinator, Special Cell for Women and Children, at Mumbai’s Tata Institute of Social Service (TISS).

Panchal says the Special Cell receives complaints largely connected to money and property matters. “In most cases, working couples take joint loans to buy property. This creates a problem when they head for a divorce,” says Panchal.

With women working night shifts in the BPO and IT industry, suspicion and insecurity is creeping into relationships. “We get regular calls from women complaining that their husbands object to their late work hours,” says Jona Fernandes, head of the Bangalore-based NGO, Vimochana.

Insecurity often leads to mental harassment. A 30-year-old software professional recently approached Vimochana seeking advice to handle her husband who accused her of having an extra-marital affair and dressing provocatively to office. “The woman had become a nervous wreck. Her husband would hide her office clothes and footwear when she was about to leave for work. He would call on the office telephone and hurl abuses at her,” says Fernandes. Vimochana helped her get a quick divorce.

As job pressures rise, stress-related violence has increased in urban, upper class homes, feels Fernandes. “Men give vent to work frustrations at home. Women become easy targets,” she says.

Age is no bar to domestic violence. The Janodaya helpline recently received a call from a 50-year-old housewife who complained of being repeatedly physically abused by her husband for over a decade. A surgeon at a leading Bangalore hospital, her husband was a stickler for total comfort at home. “He felt that since he worked under immense pressure all day, he was entitled to complete comfort at home. He would beat his wife even if the tea was a shade more milky than he liked it,” says Janodaya’s Dayanand. His wife decided to walk out on him only when she saw much younger women putting an end to abusive marriages.

Again, live-in relationships have made women easy victims of cheating. CPVC’s Purnachandra says the NGO gets five to six cases a month of women whose partners have walked out of live-in relationships. “Since there is no legal binding in a live-in relationship, women often end up getting cheated. In most cases, their partners leave them if they get pregnant,” says Purnachandra. Counselling centres can’t do much in such cases. “We help the women accept that the relationship is over. There’s not much that can be done,” says Purnachandra.

Grim issues aside, Janodaya’s Dayan-and feels urban women are making a beeline for counselling centres simply because divorce rates are on the rise. “These days, even small differences lead to a divorce. And the best way to part is to seek the help of a counselling centre,” says Dayanand.

Dayanand gives the example of a Bangalore-based BPO employee who approached Janodaya to help her get a divorce because her husband did not like to go to pubs and parties. “The woman insisted that she couldn’t live a home-bound life. The marriage finally ended,” says Dayanand.

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