My name is Rupande Mehta and I am the Founder of The SAR Foundation. I am also a survivor of gender based violence. Over a period of 16 years, I have experienced childhood sexual abuse, family violence and dating violence. Today I am using my past to change the future for women and girls worldwide.
I was born in Mumbai, India and lived with my parents and my brother until I turned 21; when I came to the US to pursue my MBA. My parents are very strict and I grew up in an extremely traditional household with gender roles strictly defined. I was not allowed to cross the boundaries and if I did, there was heavy price to pay. When I was about 5-6 years old, I was molested by an older man – a man old enough to be my grandfather. With seeds of violence and assault sown in me very early one, it is not a surprise that I could not escape abuse for many more years. I was a carefree girl who only wanted to live in the moment but living with traditional parents meant that came at a very steep price. Over the years, I was subjected to extreme violence and not allowed the basic freedoms or the authority to exercise my will pertaining to any matter; except academics. If I rebeled, I was punished to the point of almost being run over by my father in his car and lying on the street with a bloody knee.
Living in an emotionally abuse toxic environment had become an everyday thing for me and not even a moment passed when I was not fearful of what would happen next and how it would impact me. I was always afraid to the point of being petrified every waking moment of my life.
With such a heavy atmosphere at home, it was no wonder that I fell for the charming, young man who everyone adored at college. Here was a guy who every girl wanted to hang out with but he chose to be with me. I fell hard, head over heels, in love with him but that warm, fuzzy feeling did not last for long. Soon after we started dating, he told me there were rules – I would have to give up my career, any prospects of working outside the home and be relegated to the home; serving his parents and family. I complied because in that moment although I believed life to be so much more than my current state of affairs, I gave up. I was tired of looking for that life where there would be no restrictions, endless freedom and the power to exercise my will. Maybe it is the stuff of dreams, I told myself. Maybe it only happens in the West and despite that tiny voice inside me telling me to go to the West in search; I gave in. Then, it got worse. The physical abuse arrived, bringing with it an absolute and total control of my body. He raped me…repeatedly. The hitting left bruises and I took extreme precaution to hide it from my parents. I could have told them, right? But I lived in fear – afraid of what they might do to me if they found of I had a boyfriend, I was sexually active, that I had two abortions because a man had raped me. They may have saved me from him but in the long run I knew those revelations meant doom for my existence. “I gave you life, I can take it away too”, was a phrase I heard far too often. I was a young girl and did not want to die. So, I suffered in silence instead.
In 2002, I left India to come to the US to pursue an MBA. Having lived in absolute control, my new-found freedom was a bliss. I was beginning to see that dreams can turn into reality and that we can bury the past and find new hopes. After a year in the US, my shackles had all gone and I was an independent woman with a voice, a purpose and a calling. I just didn’t know what that was yet.
I buried my past and decided not to think about it anymore. There would be no more unpleasantness, abuse and violence I told myself. But then something happened. I got married and a tiny little girl came into my life. With her, came the realizations of my baggage, the junk I carried in my soul and the urgency to clean it once and for all. Burying it was not going to work – I needed to act like an adult and deal with it! Over the years I have been involved in the domestic violence movement – from being an activist, advocate and a writer. After working 10 years in the corporate field and my daughter’s birth, I examined my choices, my happiness and my purpose in this world. My experiences would be meaningless if I couldn’t use them to alter the reality many women face every day. And so, after a lot of therapy I started working for a local DV agency and enrolled for my MPA at Rutgers.
Violence against women (VAW) is perhaps one of the greatest existential threats we face; with half the population of the world vulnerable to abuse and violence any country cannot reach its full potential. After working in the local agency, I realized the need to do more, to be able to use my voice and experiences and fight for those who couldn’t fight for themselves. I had to be more engaged, involved and represent many faces and voices. In the words of Emma Watson, “if not me, who, if not now, when” rung through me. The fire in my belly had finally found a source. I knew it, I finally knew what I had to do. And thus, on November 25, 2016 The SAR Foundation was born providing services to victims of DV but also engaging men, children, corporations into the conversation. Violence against women is a community, international level problem and unless everyone has a stake in it there is not much we can do.
SAR is starting out and besides looking for funding, we are also looking for ways to disseminate our information through partners and those interested in working with us. I went through abominable violence, all of it unnecessary and avoidable. The world SAR aims to create is one where no little girl or woman has to go through what I did; no little girl has to cry in her pillow because her physical, emotional and sexual bruises hurt too much but revealing them would cause more harm. No teenager has to bury the thought that she aborted two babies so she could live and no woman must be made to feel guilty for choosing her life over being with her abuser. We want to change the narrative on victim blaming, patriarchy, toxic masculinity and increase accountability. For this, we need funding, resources and partners who are willing to support us, exchange information and work with us so VAW is truly a thing of the past.
One day our dream will be a reality for women everywhere. I hope SAR can play tiny role in that truth.