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Break the Silence on Domestic Violence with #MeriAwaaz

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Let me ask you: Where do you feel most comfortable, secure and unharmed?

I’m going to go on a whim and say that the majority of your responses would claim that home is that place for you.

Unfortunately, for some women and men, home is the first place they would relocate from. Thinking about the roof over their heads and beds they once slept warmly on just allows the memories of trauma and pain to plague their minds.

It gives me a heartache because you think about these women that can’t even go into their house, and we think that our house is the safest place to be in. So if they don’t go to their house, where do they go?

A relevant question by former Corrections employee and Vancouver actress, Mannu Sandhu.

Domestic violence killed 113 women in B.C. from 2004 to 2014, according to the province, and more than 12,300 police-reported victims of intimate partner violence throughout the province in 2013. It is still the most pervasive form of violence against women and they continue to be perpetrated in their homes by the people they love.

Hence, wanting to assume the role of catalysts to break the silence and stigma associated with domestic violence, Jessie Lehail and Mannu Sandhu teamed up in time for International Women’s Day to create dialogue and collaboration within their own community.

On March 8th, 2015, Meri Awaaz, which literally translates to ‘My Voice’, brought up to two hundred individuals together including: high school students, university students, police, politicians, academics and other delegates. Their objective? To break the silence on domestic violence by growing awareness, sparking dialogue, and empowering the community to take action on this prevalent issue.

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I had the opportunity to sit down with Jessie and Mannu to learn more of what inspired and motivated them to provide this event that advocates for investment towards domestic violence.

How did you two come to organize Meri Awaaz?

Jessie LehailJessie: The idea stemmed from last November. We had heard stories within the mainstream [media] but also South Asian domestic stories – people like Manjit Panghali, Maple Batalia and Narinder Kaur Kalsi and a few others were all victims of domestic violence and all passed away because of it. We did more digging and found some really interesting stats like one in four women within their lives will experience domestic violence. This was alarming, more so were all the women who are suffering in silence. Their experiences go undocumented, and they are experiencing life in hardship because of domestic violence. We are giving a voice to the voiceless.

Mannu: We figured it’s important for us to address those issues in front of the public and to knock on that window constantly to get justification for things, for the voices that are unheard. We want to make sure that we give them a platform for them to get a voice.

This might put you in a vulnerable position, but was there something you had witnessed that made you realize you wanted to be a catalyst for this prevalent issue that’s happening?

Jessie: That’s a really interesting question. Both Mannu and I, within our South Asian circles and mainstream circles, have heard of domestic violence cases with our friends, cousins, neighbours, masseuse, or our aesthetician. But, domestic violence isn’t just a South Asian issue. It spans culture, ethnicity, and socio-economic groups. It’s a national, global and local issue that needs awareness. The fact that it’s all too familiar that every one in four women will be experiencing domestic violence in their life – it hits close to home.

Mannu: I worked for Corrections for seven years… Talking to women – when we would call Mannu Sandhuthem, I could hear the fear in their voice when they say “Oh well, is he getting out? What is his condition now?” – it’s not where somebody has died. It’s women who are living in fear, which can be a very scary thing, knowing that the person that has abused you is now out on the streets and can get you again – it’s a very fearful thought for them and their kids. I know a lot of people say this issue is not just a women’s issue – it’s also a men’s issue at the same time – but I almost think that when a woman is abused or physically abused, they go through a different trauma than a man would. That was an ‘aha’ moment for me.

What do you hope to achieve throughout this entire process?

Jessie: We are not an organization, just two people who created an event, being catalysts wanting to engage different stakeholders and organizations getting them together in a room, create some dialogue, awareness and hopefully get some outcomes out of this conversation. Maybe there’ll be more efficiency, more collaboration, maybe a new idea that they haven’t thought of will arise and we can move steps forward to eradicate domestic violence. 

Mannu: The panelists we chose really addressed the issues that victims have. We wanted to get experts into one room. There’s a lot of promises made by the government, there’s a lot of grants given by the government, but we need to see how they are benefitting the actual cause. Numbers and stats sound great, but is it really helping the people that needs the help? We don’t plan to be an organization; we’re people who want to give a voice to people if they want the voice. We want to use the organizations’ expertise. We want to become catalysts for this issue, and we want to motivate each other to play a bigger role.

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Mannu, from your perspective and with the experience you have, why do you think women are so afraid to speak up?

Mannu: It’s fear. It’s fear of losing what they have. They think they have a home, a family, and it’s hard for them to let go of that. It’s that initial fear of “Oh, he loves me, he’s been there for me, we have a long history”. I think that really stops a lot of them to leave, including kids as well. 

Jessie: From my own academic research, there is a lack of speaking up even though you do see something. We need to, as a community in general, be there for one another, providing opportunities and avenues for people to get the help they need. A lot of this is fear and shame; we need to make sure we have a safe and respectful environment as people are vulnerable to provide their personal stories and thoughts. 

So how can we as citizens create more awareness?

Jessie: Regardless of who you are, you need to speak up, enabling those who experience domestic violence to have a voice, connecting them with the correct resources. Ensure you are helping them get the help that they need. 

Mannu: One of the biggest things is that people don’t know where to go. People don’t know where the sources are available. The public can help by just knowing what is actually available. There are lots of things available, it’s just that sometimes, we don’t have the knowledge to access those particular resources.

How has the feedback from the community been so far?

Jessie: Initially, we were a little worried that we wouldn’t get feedback, but in general, we’ve had an amazing response from different organizations, and the provincial government has really championed what we are doing. We have the ability to focus on educating that this isn’t just a South Asian issue, but a global issue. At the same light, we have this opportunity, since Mannu and I are both South Asian, to look at domestic violence from the cultural sensitivities through that lens to make sure that there is enlightenment and awareness. There are certain things that need to be examined through South Asian eyes.

Mannu: We are already in talks with Surrey Women’s Centre, Chimo Society, and also Genesis Family Empowerment Society. This is a great thing for us because we are building our relationships with agencies at this time. A constant dialogue is what helps you create awareness, and we have a lot of youth involved, really getting to the source and really helping them understand that this is a serious issue.

Jessie: I’m hopeful that one ‘aha’ moment will arise from this. This is just a tiny step in the domestic violence battle.

Mannu: Be aware of what is happening in your city. We get too used to stories we heard in the media that somebody’s killed. Sometimes, we get too used to them because it’s happening so often. At this point, I don’t want people to get used to that. We need to work collaboratively and together instead of pointing fingers at each other. Women’s issues are human issues. Far-reaching concerns like gender equality, education, and access to markets affect men and women alike at work, home, and in our communities.

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No human being deserves to be hurt, and no one should ever stand in silence. Let’s all join the conversation today and help make a difference:

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Krystele Chavez
Krystele was born and raised on the beautiful island of Saipan, Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas Islands. Although from a tiny community, she was already traveling to North America at the age of 12 to compete and champion international public speaking competitions. Her global perspective has helped her branch out to discover new opportunities when she moved to BC seven years ago. At just 21, she has received a B.A. in Communications from SFU and has already worked for numerous organizations including Metro Vancouver, Canadian Cancer Society, Special Olympics BC, and the BC Non-Profit Housing Association to name a few. She is an entrepreneur, and handles social media for reputable brands. Krystele's passion is to help others find their voice and be heard, as well as inspire others to make the world a better place.
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