A Kenyan psychologist led a team of MSF counsellors treating rape survivors in slums in the Indian capital, New Delhi.

MSF fieldworker Sandra Githaiga. Photo: MSF

In the poor and densely populated neighbourhood of Mahindra Park at the north end of New Delhi, a bright green three-storey building has become a safe haven for women and child survivors of sexual and gender based violence (SGBV). 

The building is the Umeed Ki Kiran clinic that Doctors Without Borders (MSF) opened a little over a year ago. There, Kenyan psychologist Sandra Githaiga just spent nine months as the mental health officer in charge of a local team of counsellors providing confidential care – free of charge – to some of the most vulnerable members of the local community. 

“The biggest challenge we faced was just getting female SGBV survivors into the clinic,” Sandra says, explaining the often sensitive cultural context in India where victims do not talk about sexual violence because of the stigma heaped upon it.

“Often the clinic received a lot of domestic violence survivors, but not many sexual violence survivors. The social stigma, and the fact that the abuse mostly happens within the family, makes it difficult,” she says. “When victims come to us they often think they are at fault for everything. Most go back to their abusive partners at the end of the day. Some even come to the clinic with the husband who had assaulted them. It was so difficult to see that.”

India has some of the highest rape and sexual violence statistics in the world. In 2012, a gang rape and eventual death of a student on a bus in Delhi made international headlines. Although that was one of the most severe reported cases, it was not an isolated incident.

Sandra says demystifying the stigma around sexual violence and bringing awareness to the community was quite challenging at the beginning, especially due to the lack of understanding from male perpetrators.

“The larger percentage of our patients were women. But we did have some men that came to the clinic, half of them perpetrators who came in thinking they are the victims! They thought that something bad had been done to them,” she explains. “They would come in saying things like ‘my wife isn’t giving me sex, it’s my right, and so I will rape her’. We would then have to explain that this was a clinic for survivors, for people who had faced the violence.”

Working with patients in Delhi’s slum communities, the clinic’s health educator team devised street plays to convey messages about sexual violence in a direct way. “There is sometimes a cultural aversion to discussing these topics. With the street plays, we were able to act things out, talk very directly about rape and show people what is really happening in their community.”

‘A real success story’

One of the most challenging but rewarding cases Sandra dealt with was helping an especially vulnerable young woman who had been raped multiple times on different occasions. 

“There was a young woman we saw who had run away from home a few times. Every time she did, it was a similar situation – she wouldn’t know how to find her way back home and, being alone and vulnerable, she would be attacked and raped by strangers. We first saw her at the clinic in March. In the following months, she came back twice with repeat incidences of sexual violence,” Sandra says.

“Although we usually see patients for a maximum of five sessions each, we saw her for more than 15 sessions. We did therapy with her to get her to express her anger in more healthy ways and to give her better coping mechanisms. We did training with her parents to know how to deal with her, and MSF also intervened to help with food and hygiene parcels for her every month because the family really had nothing.”

“Since then, it’s been a real success story. She hasn’t run away for about two months now and is doing much better.”

Sandra, who previously worked for MSF in Myanmar, Swaziland and Kenya, says her time in India taught her to be both persistent and accommodating in order “to make people understand what we’re doing, why we’re doing it and why it’s so important”.

“One thing I found about India compared to other places, was that only at the end did I see the results of the work I was doing there,” she says.

“Helping all these women in need – so that they have someone to listen to them without judgement, someone who lets them cry – that was the most fulfilling.”  

Find out more about MSF's work in India.