In honor of April’s Sexual Assault Awareness Month, we recognize the strength and resilience of survivors of sexual assault and celebrate our compassionate community partners who work to end violence and encourage healing in our city.
Neha Gill has traveled the world studying gender issues. From East Africa to Latin America to Asia, she’s shaped policies and initiatives to better serve survivors of violence.
In Chicago, Neha is putting that insight into action as executive director of Apna Ghar. A United Way community partner, Apna Ghar provides holistic services to survivors of violence who are from immigrant communities. These include legal aid, counseling, housing assistance, employment services and more.
Since she was hired to the post in 2016, Neha has also overseen the agency’s education and advocacy programs. Through these initiatives, she and her team aim to change the culture, laws and responses to sexual assault that inhibit survivors from receiving justice or healing, and perpetrators from changing their behavior.
“The goal is to improve the conditions for the people that we’re serving,” Neha said. “We don’t want to just provide services and see them not be able to succeed because certain institutions or policies or society at large isn’t accepting.”
As an advocate for immigrant survivors, Neha views April’s Sexual Assault Awareness Month (SAAM) as a moment to educate and activate our peers to end violence in our homes, neighborhoods and across the region. We, at United Way, echo her call.
Foremost, SAAM provides an opportunity to dispel misconceptions of sexual assault, Neha said. Among those is the fallacy that perpetrators are typically strangers looming in dark alleys. Instead, statistics show that they’re often someone the survivor knows, including friends, family and significant others.
Neha also seeks to bring attention to the unique needs of survivors from immigrant communities, the population Apna Ghar closely serves. Experiencing assault can be even more confusing and traumatizing for survivors who don’t know what services are available to them or those who can’t find help in their native language. Violence can also be increasingly isolating if survivors don’t have family in the region or the person who is harming them is their only source of support. Perpetrators may even hold a survivor’s immigration status against them, threatening to turn them over to authorities if they seek help.
Neha encourages her neighbors to go beyond learning about the problem to invest in prevention efforts, like Apna Ghar’s educational outreach. Statistics show that girls are 300% more likely to experience violence in adulthood if they were abused as a child, and boys are 600% more likely to be perpetrate violence if they were exposed to violence as a kid, she said.
She proposes that, together, we must teach children, teens and young adults about healthy masculinity, relationships and acceptable treatment of women and LGBT individuals. We must also facilitate programs that teach perpetrators of violence how to genuinely rebuild and repair relationships with those they’ve harmed.
And though SAAM lasts only a month, Neha’s vision for a violence-free future is everlasting. She’ll keep working until all people are treated equally and violence is eradicated.
But she can’t do it without you.