Domestic violence in resettlement areas: Community workers bear the burden

Community workers, who are the first respondents to attend domestic violence cases in Chennai's resettlement areas, face innumerable challenges

As Priya* woke up at 5:30 am, she took the final sip of her coffee and was about to begin her morning prayers when she received a call from an unknown number. A few years ago, she wouldn’t have bothered to answer. But now, as a community worker in a resettlement site, calls from unfamiliar numbers have become a routine part of her daily life.

A woman could be heard crying at the other end. Priya asked her to calm down and speak clearly. The woman informed her that her husband was beating her up and had locked her inside their house. Priya promised the woman that she would rescue her.

Alerting her superior at the NGO where she works, Priya rushed to the spot — a few blocks away from her home in the resettlement area in Perumbakkam — along with other community workers. She informed the police personnel in the locality, but they asked her to bring the accused to the station. To her shock, the distressed woman’s husband stood outside their home, menacingly holding an iron rod. He threatened to beat anyone who came to his wife’s aid. Priya then attempted to contact the helpline number 181 (the state helpline number for women), but nobody answered.

Only after Priya reached out to an advocate, who called the police control room, did the police arrive on the spot. A long day awaited her at the police station. That’s how an average day looks like for Priya.

Domestic violence: many roadblocks and dangers to navigate

Community workers encounter many challenges while carrying out their work in resettlement sites, which can take a significant personal toll and impact their emotional well-being.

As part of the series on domestic violence in resettlement areas, we spoke with community workers like Priya — who are the first respondents in cases of domestic violence in these sites — to understand their challenges.

Read more: Combatting domestic violence in Chennai

Priya, a survivor of domestic violence herself, is a single parent. Since community workers like her hardly have any family support, they often leave their children home alone and at risk, while they are at work. Maithili V, Coordinator of the Centre for Women and Children in Perumbakkam, cites an example from a case they dealt with recently.

“A woman was attacked by her husband and was severely injured. A community worker accompanied her to the Perumbakkam police station to file a case but the police instructed her to seek treatment at a government hospital and produce treatment-related documents as proof to file a domestic violence complaint.”

Since Perumbakkam does not have a 24×7 medical facility, they went to the medical centre in Semmenchery, where the staff refused treatment saying they did not admit outpatients from other areas. They kept running from pillar to post — first to the government hospital in Neelankarai, where they were referred to Government Royapettah Hospital for treatment-related paperwork.

“That night, the community worker accompanied the survivor to four hospitals till 2 am. All along, the community worker’s children were left alone at home,” Maithili says.

Working in dangerous circumstances

Moreover, many community workers are survivors themselves, so listening to problems of other survivors can be a trigger for them, taking a toll on their mental health.

In the past year, the Centre for Women and Children in Perumbakkam received 29 domestic violence cases. Of these, only 8 have been registered with the police.

“Working in communities to prevent domestic violence is dangerous for any community worker. Domestic violence is an intergenerational issue and the perpetrators learn the power dynamics in an intimate relationship from the way their previous generation behaves. When the perpetrator knows that the survivor has someone to support her, his anger is directed to that person (community worker). Because his control over his spouse diminishes when she has support,” notes Prasanna Gettu, Managing Trustee of the International Foundation for Crime Prevention and Victim Care (PCVC).

Infrastructural issues a challenge

The lack of sufficient cell towers is a major impediment for community workers. “At times of emergency, none of us are able to contact anyone for help. Even to make normal phone calls, we have to go to certain areas in the street,” says another community worker. 

cell towers for resettlement areas
High Court-appointed Advocate Commissioner report dated 23, July 2018 has recommended installing more cell towers in the resettlement areas of Perumbakkam, Navallur and Kudapakkam.

Similarly, when the survivors have to be taken out of their homes and housed in a safe space, which is also near their workplace, the community workers do not have many options. Hence, they demand a multipurpose centre within the resettlement site.

Read more: Explainer: Steep rise in domestic violence complaints, but where are the protectors?

No help from domestic violence helplines

As community workers may not be able to attend to all the cases because of a staff crunch and limited resources, they may ask people in contact helpline numbers like 181,112 (Centralised helpline number for Emergency Response Support System) or 100.

“Usually, when domestic violence survivors dial 181, they and their husbands are directed to the counselling centre in Parry’s Corner. Immediate access to counselling is a challenge here. Neither the One-stop centre nor the District Protection Office is accessible from resettlement areas in Chennai. This makes the survivors depend more on community workers,” says Vanessa Peter, Founder of Information and Resource Centre for the Deprived Urban Communities (IRCDUC).

Many women in resettlement areas do not own a phone, which is often a shared resource. “While saving pieces of evidence like medical prescriptions, digital conversations etc will help in the court as evidence to prove domestic violence, these women lack the scope for it. They are also not tech-savvy to gather evidence,” says Jothilakshmi Sundaresan, a Chennai-based advocate.

“In most cases, the police register the case as a family quarrel and not as domestic violence. To register a DV case, an advocate is needed to follow through. Unless there is a feasible ecosystem in the police stations, these women cannot launch a legal battle,” she says.

What should the government do?

“We are not criminalising the communities but only taking a gender lens to see how resettlement has been affecting people. The increased vulnerability is directly proportional to increased violence. To bring a solution, the state should first acknowledge the prevalence of these issues,” says Vanessa.

If the police do not have the bandwidth, they should rope in other resources. “Only when the data is recorded, we will be able to deploy the resources accordingly to ease the work of community workers,” adds Jothilakshmi.

The state should formulate a comprehensive programme, wherein perpetrators are held accountable and the survivor and her children (silent victims) get support. If the state has to stop intergenerational violence, it is important to keep the focus on all three (perpetrator, survivor and children),” notes Prasanna.

The programme should focus on the ‘family well-being’ as a whole. This will give space for the men to self-reflect and understand where the behaviour comes from and eventually lead to changed behaviour. “Otherwise, domestic violence will be targeting and shaming men without addressing the root causes,” she adds.

What can be done


  • Set up one-stop centres near the resettlement areas in Chennai
  • Conduct sensitivity programmes for police personnel
  • Establish All Women’s Police Stations in resettlement areas and attach a counselling centre to it
  • Provide free legal aid services
  • Include women from the community in District Habitat Development Committees. Allow them to give suggestions and include these in policy-making decisions.
  • Address livelihood issues that lead to domestic violence

Like many other families that are affected by loss of livelihood due to resettlement, Priya too toils by working multiple jobs in a day to make ends meet. When I ask why she became a community worker despite all odds, she says, “Like many other women in the community, it was hard for me to acknowledge the abuse and seek help. I acknowledged the abuse only when I saw how it was taking a toll on my child’s mental health. I do what I do for a better future for my child and many other children out there.”

*names changed on request to protect identity

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