Service Grants Give Grads a Chance to Dig Deep

BENEFITING SOCIETY

Sujatha Baliga '93 began helping battered women when she received a phone call last year from her mother's friend.

"I answered the phone and she said, 'My husband is beating me," says Baliga, who will start a hotline and outreach in September for South Asian women experiencing domestic violence in San Francisco.

Katya E. Fels '93 will also start her post-college years helping women, as she plans to create a student-staffed homeless shelter and counseling program in the Boston area.

Baliga and Fels are only two members of the Class of 1993 who will eke by on public service grants instead of darting for Wall Street or remaining in academia. Baliga received a $10,000 Pforzheimer grant for service, while Fels was awarded a $15,000 Stride Rite grants for service.

After Baliga took the call from her mother's friend, she assisted the woman in getting a restraining order and passports so she and her son could escape both the country and the man who had beaten them for 12 years. In the process, she learned the value of information.

"I started calling friends, telling them I had a friend who had a problem, networking. I could call a women's group, call a lawyer friend, call my sister. Somehow someone who took some law course somewhere would always know," Baliga says.

Through that first process, Baliga realized why immigrant women often lack avenues out of abuse that American-born women have.

"The biggest cause of women not being able to help themselves is lack of knowledge of the system, lack of knowledge of the system, lack of knowledge of the country," Baliga says. "My mother's friend is a great woman, a brilliant woman--all she needed was information, and I could give it to her."

During the next few days, Baliga's house became a hotline, planting the seed of the idea for her hotline and outreach program. But Baliga's commitment to service and to South Asian women has long been a theme in her personal and academic career.

Baliga, who will graduate with a special concentration in South Asian women and development, was trained in advocacy by the Harvard Law School's Battered Women's Advocacy Project and served as a volunteer with Mother Teresa in India.

With her academic and practical experiences, Baliga is well-versed in the intersection of women's issues and South Asian concerns. But she says anyone can participate in battered women's advocacy, as long as they have good listening skills.

"You can tell the woman, 'When you go to the court room, you have the right to have your batterer stay X feet away from you,' and on and on," Baliga says. "I don't think it takes any special qualifications other than being able to listen to the stories."

A certain amount of detachment from the women is also necessary, Baliga says.

"I've heard enough that I'm not hardened to [stories of violence]," Baliga says. "I just know that it exists so I can separate myself from the suffering enough so something can be done, without ever forgetting what the suffering means."

One special qualification Baliga does have is her knowledge of the women's native languages. Lacking fluency with English can prevent a South Asian woman who lives in America from getting the services she needs, Baliga says.