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June 8, 1999


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A Sakhi For All Seasons

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Apoorva Mandavilli in New York

Prema Vora, left, with 'sakhi' Hemalee Patel The 15th of August is an important date in Prema Vora's life. August 15, the day India attained independence from the British empire, it is also the day Vora moved to New York (in 1992), had to have stitches after a bad fall (in 1993), and the day she started work at Sakhi (in 1994), where she is the program director today.

"Since (joining Sakhi), my life has not been the same," says Vora, speaking at Sakhi's tenth anniversary dinner in Manhattan Saturday.

Sakhi is a New-York based non-profit organization that is committed to ending violence against women of South Asian origin. Vora has fulfilled different roles at Sakhi since 1992. Volunteers and board members all agree that Vora is invaluable to Sakhi.

"Prema is the heart and soul of Sakhi, our every day, our strength and wisdom," says Hemalee Patel, a volunteer, honoring Vora. "I know for sure that Sakhi wouldn't be around if Prema hadn't been around -- it's as simple as that," she would add later.

Vora was born in Bombay but has lived in the United States since she was three years old, first in Boston, later in California and now, in New York. Vora's father Vyomesh is an engineer, and her mother Shobhana, a psychiatrist; she has one brother, Pritish. She credits her family with teaching her "what it means to be strong and what it means to survive in this unjust world".

Vora graduated from the University of California at Berkeley with degrees in political economy and Russian. She lived in Russia for six months and in India for a year, before moving to New York.

Vora moved to New York to attend graduate school in anthropology at the New School, but quickly found that "academia was not for me. I wanted to do something much more activist-oriented." While in India, she had observed several women's organizations and became passionate about the idea of working on women's issues.

Vora became a Sakhi volunteer in the fall of 1992 and served as an intern in the office for a year. In 1994, she applied for the position of program co-ordinator. Romita Shetty, who was one of the interviewers and Vora, the interviewee, both remember that the interview was "very long, very grueling" and that the questions were "very, very difficult." But on July 19, Vora recalls, they called with an offer, and she has remained at Sakhi ever since.

"She is a hugely different person from when I first met her," says Shetty. "She's grown and matured a lot and she's completely outstanding for Sakhi."

In the five years that Vora has been at Sakhi, others have come and gone -- some went away burned. Vora has, on occasion, had to fulfil roles of both domestic violence co-ordinator and program director, but she has remained committed.

"It's not easy for her. There are times when you can hear the stress in her voice, but she would never quit. It's just not in her," says Patel, who has also been with Sakhi since 1992. "That's what makes her unique."

"Prema is a wonderful role model and the work that she does is so important. She's one of the few people in the world that you can say has really made a difference," says Ashwani Chowdary, 24, a volunteer since October of last year.

Charu Gupta, 25, also a volunteer, says, "My impression of Prema is that she is one person who truly knows no boundaries between what she believes and what she does professionally."

As a friend, "(Vora) is very loving, very giving, very generous," says Patel, who considers Vora a very close friend.

In her spare time (although it is hard to imagine that she has any), Vora likes to run, hike, watch "every good foreign film out there," sit in the sun, and read. Every Sunday, she goes to a bookstore and buys a new book.

At the moment, she is fascinated by Buddhism and Taoism and Gabriel Garcia Marquez's Love in the time of Cholera.

Prema Vora's parents "My parents used to feel that because I work for Sakhi, I'd have a depressing outlook on love," she says. "But I do have hope for love and a really strong relationship." Although Vora is single, she believes in the possibility of an equal partnership with someone, where each is "not afraid to show who you are, to express your feelings, to have an open and honest communication."

Unfortunately, in most south Asian marriages, Vora says, "it's usually the women who make sacrifices to stay in the relationship." Even among younger south Asian men, "rhetoric can only go so far," she adds. "A lot of (south Asian men) say the right words, the right things, they'll say they are feminists, that women should be strong and independent. But when it comes to action, many of them fall short.

"We've been brought up to think that if you meet this wonderful south Asian man, you'll be happy for the rest of your life," she continues. But "no one else can make you happy or take away your happiness if you possess it".

Vora repeatedly emphasizes the importance of community awareness in ending violence against women. The most important thing people don't realize is that "domestic violence is a life or death issue. It's not just a women's issue," she says. For a survivor of abuse, "healing the (emotional and psychological) scars is so much more daunting if her friends, family and community don't support her."

Her work is "very frustrating at times, depressing at times, but it can also be very fulfilling," she says. Though she is sometimes overwhelmed by the number and magnitude of problems, "at the end of the day, I feel that I am making some sort of a difference," she says.

"I don't know how close we are to ending violence (against women) but I do have hope," she adds. "I know a lot of South Asian men who believe and understand that love is not abuse, and that's what keeps me optimistic."

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