Advocate Spotlight: Pria Sibal

1. What are some noteworthy trends that you’ve observed during the pandemic?

The pandemic–the severity and scale of it–came as a huge jolt. Life changed overnight, and for survivors already struggling with abuse, it was hard to process. As service providers, who are absorbing folks’ hardships, we’ve experienced increasing levels of anxiety and stress.

The most noteworthy trend was a huge uptick in cases of domestic violence. Abusers have taken advantage of isolation, exerting control and power in the form of physical, mental, emotional and financial abuse. Survivors, fearing for their lives inside and outside their homes, chose to remain with perpetrators. In the beginning of quarantine, the number of calls to our helpline fell dramatically, as folks had little to no privacy.

Come May, we started seeing an increase in calls from survivors as they began to stand up to their abusers. We have a large and increasing number of new clients with restraining orders against abusers. 

 I saw clients lose jobs overnight. The bleak forecast of rapidly rising cases of COVID-19 left them anxious–these survivors exist on daily wage salaries, mildly aided by public benefits like food stamps and some cash assistance and do not have a safety net to dive into. They had no money and survival became a challenge. The most traumatic was hearing them and their kids go hungry since they could not step out to even get groceries.


2. Are there particular issues you’d like to highlight that survivors and/or GBV-focused organizations are facing?

Unemployment; a large number of our clients have jobs in restaurants and retail stores which were lost. Clients have also been wracked with anxiety related to stolen stimulus checks–survivors’ partners had filed IT returns jointly and claimed the stimulus check. The process of claiming their rightful share was, and still remains extremely challenging as courts work at minimum capacity and do not have the scope to address this.

At first, applying for unemployment insurance was extremely tedious as the Department of Labor website crashed after a surge in applications. Even after we submitted applications, it was weeks before clients saw the first transfer into their accounts. During the 5-6 weeks in between filing and the first transfer, clients were filled with tremendous anxiety, and I also got hit by vicarious trauma.

Clients’ anxieties rose as they saw their rent bills mount every month. In spite of the moratorium on evictions, they felt that homelessness was a possibility. The government initiated rent relief program was an eye wash as over 90% of our clients were found ineligible. The anguish and pain in their voice was tenable. 

Now that the economy is opening up, clients are eager to get back to work. The difficulty there is that most opportunities that they could have tapped into (e.g. restaurants, retail, small grocery stores) are closing on them–there are very few options now. Our Economic Empowerment team is doing our best to adapt to these circumstances and assist survivors in finding jobs that fit their skills and interests.


3. What has motivated your work throughout this crisis? Do you have a vision of the future that keeps you going?

I joined Sakhi after a long stint in journalism and documentary-making because of an overarching need to create value. Sakhi provided me that platform, and I have tried to serve our clients through dedicatedly working towards their empowerment. The pandemic, however, jolted us all out of the humdrum of our day-to-day jobs, and I as a result have become obsessed with my mission to serve our clients in-need, and reconnected with my intentions as a service provider. 

It is traumatic to see this degree of suffering. At first, I did not realize the emotional toll this was going to take on me, and also started to feel guilty for having a good life. 

The determination to persevere and better serve survivors has pushed me to exercise self-care. Towards that I chant the Budhist chant of nam-myoho-renge-kyo and do meditative breathing. I try and exercise four times a week, as that helps me manage my stress and mental health. I realized I could not lift clients if I was down.


4. Is there a particular message you’d like to share with the community?

The last few years of my life have been directed by this saying: “Whatever our personal circumstances may be, if we ourselves become a source of light, there will be no darkness..”

I also wanted to share a client story of resilience–one that has brought me hope in heavier moments:

Client AA, a domestic violence survivor and mother of three kids under 14 had lost her job when COVID hit. Not to be pushed over any more than she had been in the past, she struggled with two jobs to provide for her children as best as she could. One day she called me, crying hysterically–she found out that her abusive husband stole her stimulus check and that getting it back would be a tedious legal process. She went on to tell me that she went to her husband’s house and started yelling on top of her voice threatening to take him to court, to get back every penny that he stole from her! Her tears came not from sadness, but anger. 

Hearing this story, I wondered how I would have reacted if I were placed in a situation like hers. I told her she was my inspiration. It is people like AA, who become their own source of light, who prove to me that there is hope.