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From opening a shelter for women and girls in distress to raising her voice against abuse, Sugathakumari did much for victims of sexual assault and violence.

Sugathakumari with her head of white hair speaks before a microphoneCourtesy - Navaneeth Krishnan S / Wikimedia Commons
news Sugathakumari Wednesday, December 23, 2020 - 18:50

Night rain,
Like some young madwoman
Weeping, laughing, whimpering / For nothing
Muttering without a stop
And sitting huddled up / Tossing her long hair.

Sugathakumari wrote these lines in the 1970s in her celebrated work of poetry Rathrimazha – Night rain. She brought the picture of a young woman with mental illness into her poem. She would continue to be disturbed by images of people, especially women, with mental health issues, treated poorly in the society and the hospitals she visited. In 1985, Sugathakumari founded Abhaya, a place for people with mental illness and a home for destitute women, in Thiruvananthapuram. Abhaya grew, expanded to cater to women and girls who suffered various kinds of abuse and Sugathakumari became the first person that activists called to for help in accommodating the victims.

On Wednesday morning, Sugathakumari, Kerala’s beloved poet and activist, died of COVID-19. She was 86 years old.

“Athani (the short stay home for women and girls in Abhaya) has been an abode for many women and children who have been violated of their rights, attacked or abused. Any time of the night, if you call her and tell her about a woman or child that needs a place to stay, she’d arrange it,” says Mercy Alexander of Sakhi Women’s Resource Centre, an NGO for gender justice in Thiruvananthapuram.

Several women and girls who went through sexual assault or domestic violence have been taken in. Mercy could remember several cases she dealt with, especially of women and children from coastal areas. “There was a woman and child beaten blue and thrown out of the house. In another case, a young woman was sexually harassed at the workplace and needed a place to stay. Sugathakumari Teacher’s Athani became a home for all of them until they could find other arrangements,” Mercy says.

In 1996 when Sugathakumari became chairperson of the Kerala State Women’s Commission, she made notable interventions. She formed Jagratha Samithis at panchayat level to fight against attacks on women and children, Mercy recalls.

It was while she was at the Women’s Commission that both the Suryanelli and Vithura cases unfolded. Both were strikingly similar and horrifying cases of two different 16-year-old girls sexually assaulted by a number of men for several weeks on end. The survivor of the Vithura case found a place at Sugathakumari’s Athani and stayed there for many years.

For any protest against the harassment of women, Sugathakumari would be at the forefront. Even as late as 2018, when she was 84 years old, and going through health issues, Sugathakumari made her presence in front of the Secretariat in Thiruvananthapuram, in support of the nuns protesting against the bishop who allegedly raped their colleague. Recently when activists Bhagyalakshmi and Diya Sana attacked a man who put a humiliating video of several prominent women in Kerala including Sugathakumari, the late poet said thank you. Bhagyalakshmi did this for all the women in this place, Sugathakumari told Asianet. Women will be forced to take law into their hands, there is no use waiting to see if police or the court will do anything, she said.

“She was a great social worker. I have sent children in distress to Abhaya and they have all such nice things to say about the place. A 13-year-old child who was engaged in domestic labour was rescued and sent to Abhaya where she stayed for five or six years. Last year three Nepali women who were victims of trafficking found a home in Abhaya. Starting a shelter home as an NGO was a concept which had been fairly new at the time she opened Abhaya,” says J Sandhya, advocate and activist.

Sugathakumari was one of the first generation activists who spoke out to the society about the need to help out women and children who are violated. She became a voice of the voiceless at a time there were few to support women in distress, Sandhya says.

In 1992 Abhaya expanded to Abhayagramam, stretching over ten acres of land in Malayinkeezhu, housing the many facilities for women, children and persons with mental health issues. Tibetan spiritual leader Dalai Lama who laid the foundation famously said, “I too am a refugee and I am here because of the kindness of India. Let this land be a refuge for the homeless and unfortunate.”

Sugathakumari remembered his words and kept on working, opening wings for rehabilitation of street children, de-addiction centre for alcohol and drug abuse, free legal aid for women and others.

“The legal aid centre has since been upgraded as Lok Adalath with a sitting Judge of the District Court as Presiding Judge and two other members viz., one Advocate and one Social Worker as members. The Lok Adalath is being held on every second Saturday at Athani, Vanchiyoor. It is a matter of honour and prestige to Abhaya to be associated with the Hon. High Court of Kerala in giving legal aid to women in distress,” says the website of Abhaya.

Also read: Sugathakumari, a pensive poet who fought for nature and mankind, passes away

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