Delhi: “There needs to be a shift in the individual and in society to say no to violence”

Virginia Lee is a counsellor from Australia who recently spent seven months working as a mental health coordinator in a community clinic in Delhi. The clinic offers medical and psychological care to survivors of domestic and sexual violence

Incidents of sexual and gender-based violence are unfortunately not uncommon in Delhi. An average of six cases of sexual assault are reported every day. Newspapers give frequent accounts of women who have been assaulted or abused — a grim indicator considering that most incidents go unreported. Survivors of sexual and gender-based violence are often reluctant to come forward due to stigma and a lack of confidentiality. Some victims have even been shamed in news headlines.


Virginia at an event raising awareness about gender-based violence and the services of the MSF supported-clinic. She's with students from Delhi university who are part of a street theatre group working with MSF to raise awareness. © Virgina Lee / MSF
Virginia at an event raising awareness about gender-based violence and the services of the MSF supported-clinic. She’s with students from Delhi University who are part of a street theatre group working with MSF to raise awareness. Photo: Virgina Lee / MSF


Ray of Hope – the first clinic of its kind

The MSF SGBV project in Delhi is in Jahangirpuri, in the city’s north end. The clinic has been providing support to survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence since November 2015, and has become a safe space for the vulnerable. Staffed with local nurses, doctors, counsellors, clinical psychologists and social workers, the clinic is the first of its kind offering free and comprehensive support 24 hours a day. I led a team of five counsellors and one social worker and provided them with ongoing training and supervision.

The national staff were the frontline of the project – I would come up with ideas but it was a collaboration with the counsellors to translate those ideas into the local context. The team always helped me understand how things worked in the local community and how to best communicate our message. As it was a relatively new project, it was important to review how protocols and procedures were working (or not!). During my time, we organised community awareness events to coincide with International Women’s Day and International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women to educate the local communities about gender-based violence issues and the services we were offering at the clinic. For example, we provided training to female police officers who were the first point of call for women coming to the police station for help.


Virginia with colleagues outside the clinic. © Virgina Lee / MSF
Virginia with colleagues outside the clinic. Photo: Virgina Lee / MSF


The hard part was when they didn’t return

One of the first sessions I sat in on, involved a young girl who was a victim of sexual violence. Although her mother brought her in the first time, they never came back. We called and tried to offer more help, but we never saw her again. Sometimes it is for fear of being discovered or the partner or family not allowing them to seek help. For some people, they would rather forget and move on, but of course, it is not as easy as that.

Thankfully, there were other patients who did return time and time again. Counselling was a relatively new concept for some locals so we would take time during our first session to build trust and rapport. And there were those who came to a decision about restarting a life for their children and themselves without violence. It can take several attempts before a woman leaves a violent relationship. There needs to be a shift in the individual and in society to say no to violence, to normalise the decision to no longer accept violence, and to have ongoing support from family, communities and services.



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