Features & Columns

Maitri Celebrates Progress in Confronting Domestic Abuse

Maitri's annual gathering is a joyous affair despite the heavy reason for its existence
Maitri's annual gathering is a joyous affair despite the heavy reason for its existence. Photo courtesy of Saurabh Desai.

This Saturday, Maitri celebrates 26 years operating as a free, confidential nonprofit organization that helps South Asian families deal with domestic violence, emotional abuse, human trafficking and other forms of family conflict. Unaffiliated with any cultural, social or religious organization, Maitri provides advice, legal help, transportation and even, in some cases, transitional housing for those who feel threatened in their own homes and in their closest relationships.

In a way, Maitri functions as a liaison between local South Asian women in need and the mainstream American support system that may initially seem too distant for these women to approach.

Just over a quarter-century ago, Maitri began when a handful of women started meeting in their respective houses. The renowned novelist Chitra Divakaruni was one of the co-founders. Several women from the original era still participate, either as board members, trustees or just on the periphery.

Maitri's primary fundraising gala takes place each year, the 2017 incarnation of which unfolds Saturday, Feb. 25 at the Crowne Plaza Palo Alto. The event usually raises serious coin, with numerous Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, C-level executives and other high rollers from the Bay Area's South Asian community all supporting the cause. Last year's gala, to celebrate Maitri's 25th anniversary, raised more than $600,000.

To be clear, when Maitri uses terms like "domestic violence," the cases are not limited to partner-on-partner abuse. So much more is contained, including elderly abuse or even the destructive effect that parent-on-parent emotional abuse has on the children who grow up watching it every day. What's more, cultural dynamics particular to the South Asian community, like emotional abuse from extended families, further complicate things because traditional American support systems often aren't familiar with such cases.

"It's just as important as education, it's just as important as medicine, it's just as important as technology," says Reni Narayen, a Maitri trustee and gala co-chair. "Part of the problem is that we have to educate people, because so many in our community don't believe the magnitude of the problem. They think it's just some rare thing you see in movies."

When it comes to solving problems, Maitri is not a female-only operation. More and more men are becoming involved, realizing that women alone cannot rectify a few thousand years' worth of violent patriarchal customs. Men have to be equal partners in the solution.

S. Suresh, one of Maitri's newest board members, says he was blown away by the dedication of the volunteers. He began contributing in numerous ways, everything from writing blogs to driving trucks.

"From a positive, surprised perspective, I find everybody whom I have interacted with, the employees, the staff members, the board of governors, and the trustees, they are all completely committed to the cause," Suresh says. "None of the staff members do it because they think of it as a job. Their commitment is remarkable."

The Maitri gala event is usually a glorious and jubilant evening. Hundreds of people show up to celebrate Maitri's successes, rather than dwell on the sadness of the subject matter. Food, music, dance and overall familial camaraderie carry on into the night.

Maitri board member Vinita Belani, who founded EnActe Arts after retiring from the tech industry, will orchestrate the entertainment, which includes Kathak dance, live music and DJ, plus visual performance narratives all inspired by the Mughal era of Indian history, when Hindu and Muslim cultures merged to forever influence food, dress, architecture, city planning and design.

"The reason we picked Kathak is because it's the ultimate example of the melding of Hindu and Muslim cultures," Belani says.

Suresh says Maitri has reached an inflection point. People in the South Asian community are becoming more open to talk about the issues, which wasn't the case 10 years ago. More people are coming on board to help mainstream the issues and Matiri just has to figure out how to expand its operation for the long haul.

"Scaling is the problem right now," Suresh says. "The problems exist, the numbers are huge, and we used to ignore it. Now, we are a little more open to talk about it, and we are no longer ashamed. It is good for the people who are impacted. But that means that Maitri has to scale up."