“It is my job to tell the victim of violence that she is valuable."

Portrait

The Indian Dr. Prasanna Gettu is co-founder of the International Foundation for Crime Prevention & Victim Care in Chennai. Survivors of fire and acid attacks are cared for and advised here. The journalist Pragati K. B. met Gettu in her centre and talked to her about domestic violence and her long-standing struggle.

Prasanna Gettu
Teaser Image Caption
Dr. Prasanna Gettu

“I pledge to speak up against violence towards women and stand in solidarity with all survivors,” reads a poster inside the office of the International Foundation for Crime Prevention & Victim Care (PCVC) in Chennai, Tamil Nadu. The poster is flanked by framed artworks of domestic violence and burns survivors. Colourful, yet melancholic, such artworks adorn the walls of every room in the airy office. While the greenery in the balcony is inviting, bright and cosy-looking couches and recliner chairs inside are reassuring. The office is disabled-friendly with ramp access, has shelves full of books, functional furniture and air-conditioning. It is a comfortable workplace for the staff and a warm safe-space for the victims.

Dr. Prasanna Gettu is the co-founder of PCVC, an organisation that was started in 2001 to provide a comprehensive range of specialist services to victims of inter-personal violence. A qualified victimologist, she says, just because one is a victim does not mean they should live in ominous conditions. “I have been asked why our office and our victim shelters need air-conditioning. I ask them, ‘why not?’”, she says. She does not subscribe to the stereotype attached to an NGO – that they have to work in difficult circumstances.

It is a myth that domestic violence is a phenomena restricted to low income and uneducated families. “People from any race, class, gender, caste, sexuality, religion and age can be victims and abusers. The higher strata of society simply have the means to keep the violence hidden,” she explains. Not having a decent place to stay is a deterrent to walking out of an abusive relationship. Dr. Gettu realised this need when victims from the middle and upper class preferred returning to abusive households than stay in government-run open shelters. PCVC was the first to start undisclosed shelters for women in distress.

Children should learn that non-violent relationships are valuable

The shelter, which houses domestic violence victims of all classes, is a vibrant space, like their office. Women, children and boys up to the age 16 years take refuge here. As we walk past a fire extinguisher, a swing and more potted plants to visit the shelter, a young woman is reading a book in the living room, a mother is trying to keep up with her ambling toddler with a bowl of food and another woman is looking into her phone at the dining table. Seven survivors currently inhabit the shelter.

Residential intervention, Dr. Gettu says is just the beginning of the rehabilitation process and not the end. They receive legal, medical, counselling and mental-health support to aid their transition. The survivor charts a path for herself from here on and PCVC acts as the enabler. “We cannot tell all survivors to stitch bags and make a living. Women have returned to studying, have learnt driving and baking. Whatever they want to do, we support them,” she says.

In most cases, victims are accompanied by their children. “She banks on the child to validate her words and experience of harassment. And this was a wakeup call for us, because boys from families like these generally grow up to become abusers themselves and girls from these homes grow up seeking controlling and abusive partners,” says Dr. Gettu. To support such children, PCVC started Smiles, an intervention program that provides educational and emotional support and training on healthy violence-free relationships. “But we want mothers to gradually take responsibility for the child. So, Smiles steps in for the intervening period,” she says.

Many battles for the survival of fire attack victims

PCVC runs another shelter exclusively for burns survivors. Dr. Gettu puts the necessity of this program, called Vidiyal (Tamil word meaning ‘dawn’), in perspective. The government Kilpauk Medical College in Chennai, recognised as a level II trauma-care centre, received about 52 women burn victims in October. Of these, 14 survived and made it to the general ward from the ICU. After they are discharged and sent home, half this surviving number succumbs. And these are the numbers of just one hospital in the city. A lot more women do not make it to the hospital at all.

To understand the role of domestic violence in the incidence of burns amongst women, and to reduce mortality, PCVC stations two staff members – a medical social worker and a welfare officer – at  the Kilpauk Burns Ward. Recognising their work, the Tamil Nadu government has formalised their presence in the hospital burn care system. They provide protein-rich nutritional support, disposable gowns and sheets and psychological help to the survivors in the ward.

In the burns ward, there are nine survivors at different stages of healing. The Medical Social Worker stops by the bed of a patient who has had skin graft surgery very recently. Her entire body and face is covered in white bandage. Three more beds have similarly bandaged, immobile survivors. The social worker asks if the patient needs anything. She points to her stomach and mouths that it hurts. The social worker explains that it could be gastroenteritis and that she will bring it up with the doctor. The social worker similarly enquires after other patients and talks to their relatives, or caregivers as she calls them. “I’m not a trained doctor, although I’m medically trained. I handhold the patients through the medical process,” she says.

Affected women are at the mercy of their families

Most of these cases, Dr. Gettu says, are domestic violence cases. But victims, in their statements, simply call them accidents. “Over time, the victims and their caregivers begin deposing trust in us and tell us the truth. If the victim wants to change her statement and make a complaint, we provide legal help through referrals,” she says. PCVC also provides a caregiver for those victims who have been abandoned at the hospital.

Wound care and hygiene is crucial for their survival even after they are discharged from the hospital. The caregiver is thus trained and advised on post-hospital care. Social workers go on home visits to ensure the victim is rightly tended to. “My colleagues sometimes tell which one the victim’s house is, from the emanating smell of rotting wounds,” says Dr. Gettu. Many victims are left to die, she says, because families lack the necessary emotional and financial requirements. In such cases, PCVC brings the victims to the burns shelter.

Residential care at the shelter is provided to those whose recovery has been impeded for lack of care and to those in the later stages of recovery. Through physiotherapy, counselling, arts-based therapy, group therapy and support groups and livelihood initiatives, PCVC aids their integration into society. The physiotherapy centre is equipped with shoulder wheels, treadmills, wall ladders, Swiss balls and other instruments. A resident doctor draws up an intervention plan for each survivor to follow. From the shelter, survivors come to the physiotherapy centre every day for a fixed duration, to better their range of motion and avoid contractures. The centre has a wound-care room, an autoclave machine to sterilise the wound-care material and an air purifier. Survivors, some with pressure masks on, can be seen working the equipment slowly and steadily at the centre. Progress on their range of motion and scar-healing is documented and shared with the survivors. “This progress motivates them to bounce back,” says Dr. Gettu.

Many burn survivors are support staff of PCVC, like the Welfare Officer Ambika, at the hospital. “When victims see that there is life beyond, when we show them hope that a different life is possible, their will to survive is kept alive,” says Dr. Gettu.

Free emergency telephone, police stations staffed by women and offers at schools

PCVC has a 24-hour toll-free crisis helpline, operated by trained counsellors who provide immediate emergency interventions like safety planning, connecting with the police and legal and medical referrals. The helpline receives about 50 calls every month, details of which are fed on a cloud. Each case is followed up for three or four months, even if the caller does not pursue. “Keep sharp objects out of eyesight, gather important documents in a bag and keep ready, procure a new SIM card, etc. forms part of the safety planning advice dispensed by the counsellors,” Dr. Gettu says.

Until two years earlier, calls on the helpline were diverted to Dr. Gettu’s personal mobile number post office hours. Receiving calls at odd hours of the day, thinking of immediate solutions and rushing to the scene have had their effect on Dr. Gettu. “When there is a problem, I don’t get carried away by emotions. I want to provide a solution and pull them up. While this is a boon for my work, it has its negatives. My friends complain that I don’t empathise with them as a friend. My first instinct is to give them options and solutions and they say they just want me to listen to them!” she says. A friend once sent her a message, “Urgent.” with an address. When she reached the place, she found her friends making merry. “They said, ‘Urgent’ was the only word that would get me to respond,” she laughs.

Her solution-oriented approach has been the reason for starting many of PCVC’s programs. When two spousal deaths made news in the same week and she found out that the victims had gone to the police multiple times, much to their apathy, Dr. Gettu realised there was a need to sensitise the police force. This was the genesis of Udhayam, a coordinated response project with local All Women Police Stations in Chennai, to establish a first line of defence for women facing violence. Burn victims coming to the Kilpauk hospital from neighbouring districts were succumbing on the journey. As a response, PCVC began creating stakeholders in other districts by training local organisations and widening its network. She has recognised a lacuna in services for inter-personal violence victims from the queer community and is formalising a program to address it.

Youth Unite and SHARP are PCVC’s main prevention programs, which stimulate the unlearning of gender biases. The former is a three years commitment with school and college students where concepts of power, privilege, inclusion, identities, justice, respect and equality are unpacked. The latter addresses the issue of sexual harassment at workplaces. “At these workshops, I don’t focus on the woman alone. I use a gender-neutral language, so men start listening to me. I talk of the subtler forms of harassment, of the grey areas and then escalate it. Reception to the workshop has been a combination of some employees getting it instantly, some pushing back, some staying in total denial and some getting deterred by the law,” she says.

Dr. Gettu is the NGO representative on Internal Complaints Committee, a committee to address sexual harassment that every workplace is mandated by law to institute, of more than 50 companies. “Victims have told me that they made the complaint because they saw my name on the panel,” she says.

Women should be treated with dignity

Although PCVC now caters to women victims exclusively, when Dr. Gettu founded the organisation with two others in 2001, it was a gender neutral victim centre. The three founders studied Victimology in Tokiwa University, Japan and were “fascinated” with the country’s victim assistant centres. They came back to India and started PCVC. “In one year, we saw that 99 per cent of the clients that came to us were women, from all strata of society, confronted with domestic violence. The need for women-centric services dawned on us gradually,” she recalls. Dr. Gettu and another co-founder then went to the US for training in the management of victim centres. When one co-founder left in 2002 and the other in 2005, both for familial reasons, Dr. Gettu could either continue the work or shut shop. She persisted and almost 20 years hence, PCVC proudly boasts affecting at least 50,000 lives.

“For me, success is the six-month-old baby we saved from an abusive household sending me photos of his graduation, or of his wedding. It feels like I have achieved something. It is an entire generation we have supported. To think they will treat women with dignity, now that is success,” Dr. Gettu smiles.

The motives of the Prasanna Gettu

Dr. Gettu led a comfortable, sheltered life growing up. Her great grandfather was a doctor during the British rule in India. Every time he saved a General’s life, he was gifted a village as a token of appreciation. Her father was a lawyer and a landlord. She was married at the age of 21. “I was a tomboy. I wore jeans pants when I was pregnant, much to the chagrin of my mother-in-law,” she says with a mischievous glint. “Survivors start organisations generally as a way of coping. But it was the other way round for me. After many years of working against domestic violence, I realised I was being hypocritical by not addressing it in my own house, when my children pointed it out. I realised I cannot live two lives and that it was not good messaging for the kids,” she says. Her son is pursuing Robotics in Germany and her daughter is in the field of Veterinary Science. Dr. Gettu lives with three cats and a dog, close to her mother’s house.

She reminisces her love for the ‘Detective’ magazine as a young girl. “I wanted to study forensics and solve crimes! The closest option I had was Criminology, so I got a post-graduate degree in it,” she says. Her doctoral thesis is on the criminal justice system. “I wanted to understand why, when institutions of the criminal justice system exist to protect victims, they partake in deviant behaviour themselves,” Dr. Gettu explains. All of my formal education did not teach me the subtleties of violence. What I have learnt in the past 20 years is more valuable than multiple PhDs,” says one of the very few practising victimologists in the world.

Violence is omnipresent and has many faces

The biggest hurdle to running PCVC has been to get people to grasp the seriousness and all-pervasive nature of domestic violence, according to Dr. Gettu. “The government is still uncomfortable talking about violence in private spaces and the police dismiss it as an everyday routine,” she rues. Emotional abuse, financial control gaslighting, intimidation, physical abuse, coercion, threatening and blaming, sexual abuse, stalking and dating violence – they are all forms of inter-personal violence, none bigger than the other. “A pilot’s wife who came to us for support asked if we could buy her a masala vada from the shop in the street corner, because her husband generally does not allow it. This is violence. A man hogging the TV and not allowing the woman to watch her favourite program, is violence. A burns victim, when taken to the beach for therapy, splashing water and saying she cannot fathom that she is spilling water all around without getting admonished, is violence,” says Dr. Gettu.

With a formal law in place though, she says, things are looking up. “The younger generation is beginning to recognise and resist abuse. Parents are coming forth and calling out violence,” she says. This change can only mean one thing – that women are valuing themselves. “The term empowerment is so big! What does women empowerment really mean? To me, it is her ability and freedom to enjoy the little things in life. It is knowing and believing in oneself. It is my job to tell the victim that she is valuable. Once she realises her worth, my job is done.”