Hundreds of thousands of Indian women with mental health disorders live in the most horrendous conditions. Their suffering is ignored by passers-by who refuse to acknowledge the dirty, semi naked woman sitting on the side of the road.
These women are exposed to rape, malnutrition, disease, the harsh elements of pollution, heat and torrential rains. They remain voiceless and insignificant; even in death, their unidentified bodies are unceremoniously sent to the “ghat” to be cremated.
Charities like Women in Need not only highlight the plight of homeless mentally ill women, we take them off the streets, restore their mental and physical health and give them back their self-respect. Their stories are powerful, and by sharing them we hope to inspire others to support us in rescuing more of these forgotten women.
Sunita was found by one of WIN’s social workers 8 years ago. Sitting in the middle of a busy road, she was filthy and uncommunicative. Instinct must have compelled this woman to go with the kind face that beckoned her along. Thankfully that was the beginning of Sunita’s long journey back to good health, and back to the family who thought she’d died 15 years ago.
Responding well to treatment and counselling, Sunita preferred to sit quietly in the background. She clearly enjoyed being part of another family of women who all took part in running the home that is our shelter. She was a good worker always keen to take her turn in cooking or cleaning or bringing in the drinking water from the well. She also earned money along with some of our other rescued ladies, working on Dattapur’s farm land.
Of course one thing was missing and that was her biological family. For almost 8 years Sunita could only remember that she was from Patna in northern India, that her husband had died years ago and that she had 2 sons. Despite putting her photograph in local Patna newspapers we received no news from her family. Over the years we tried various ways to jog her memory; inviting anyone from Patna to chat with Sunita or regularity engaging her in conversation about her childhood, her interests anything that might unlock her hidden memories.
One day, 8 years after finding Sunita on the streets, a conversation about her family, similar to the numerous conversations we had had over the years sparked a new memory which led to total recall of her village, its location from Patna Junction railway station and details, remarkable details!
Most of the tiny villages women like Sunita come from are hard to trace but calls to various police stations dotted throughout the peripheries of Patna led us to a small police station and an enthusiastic inspector. Following a line of enquiries accompanied with photos of Sunita sent through a mobile app, this inspector called Usha and Leah late one evening to say that Sunita’s son had been found and that she was not actually called Sunita but Gita Devi!!
In temperatures of 45 degrees Celsius Gita Devi’s youngest son, her brother and son in laws travelled 2 days without a confirmed railway reservation in general class to see her. And though she had been in the charity’s care for 8 years, she’d been missing and presumed dead for over 15 years.
Gita had last seen her youngest when he was newly married at 18 years old. In front of her stood a 33-year-old man shocked to see his mother after thinking she was dead.
The next day the charity booked train reservations back to Patna and Gita Devi returned home to meet her other son and 6 grandchildren she’d never met.