United Kingdom: Saheli Asian Women’s Project

Ipsita Dey

Originally from Fremont, CA, Ipsita Dey grew up writing stories and appreciating history classes. Now a senior at UCLA, she is majoring in Microbiology, Immunology, and Molecular Genetics(MIMG). After taking a class on medical anthropology during the spring of her sophomore year, Ipsita decided to add an Anthropology minor. The next quarter, she learned about the Lemelson Anthropological Honors Program, which provides grants for undergraduate students who wish to perform research abroad.


Ipsita applied and was awarded the grant. As she had worked with the Bay Area domestic violence organization Maitri in the past, she decided to research domestic violence in South Asian immigrant communities in Manchester, United Kingdom. As a second generation daughter in a south Asian immigrant community, she wanted to analyze her own culture within the context of domestic violence issues. Manchester has a large South Asian immigrant population, and therefore offered a promising location for her research.


Although she was passionate and motivated, the project posed some difficulties. As Ipsita describes, “getting started was so, so hard. I didn’t even know how to properly draft a professional email.” Ipsita reached out to domestic violence shelters to locate a site at which she could carry out her study. She eventually connected with Saheli Asian Women’s Project, a center which helps women fleeing domestic violence, specifically focusing on Ipsita’s target population.


From left to right: Claudia (Saheli employee), Yemi (Saheli employee), Priya Chopra (Saheli CEO), Ipsita Dey (UCLA Anthropology student)
After settling into her research role, Ipsita spent her days interviewing domestic violence survivors who lived at the Saheli refuge site. The site serves as a safe, secure home to six women who have left their homes due to domestic violence. Private bedrooms, communal spaces, and a children’s play space are provided to the residents.

Most of the women Ipsita met faced domestic abuse within arranged marriages. As Ipsita learned through her interviews and analysis, concern for family honor was a key reason they complied. She also studied how the women’s immigrant status affected their abilities to leave their homes, despite the risk involved with staying. As immigrants in a new country, largely dependent on their husbands for financial support and cultural understanding, the women often felt trapped in their marriages. Ipsita’s ultimate goal is to use her knowledge and research to help the women overcome this feeling.

With an understanding of the severity of conditions the women face, Ipsita approached her work with the utmost care and dedication. Combining her disciplines of study, she is researching the effects material culture can have on the recovery process. This approach to treatment stems from research on the effects of environment on recovery. By implementing sentimental objects as cultural anchors, the women are reminded of their cultural identities- something often lost when leaving your husband and, by default, your community as well. She has been analyzing the effectiveness of cultural jewelry in the women’s therapy. Other cases have been highly successful, so her hopes for material culture therapy are high. To support her research in the effects of material culture, she cites the changes in maternity wards in the 1980s and ‘90s, when they were all white, sterile, and and intimidating; now they’re cheerful and full of color. This simple change has had a significant impact on the attitudes and mental well-being of patients.

From left to right: Ruksana (Saheli volunteer), Shafqat (Saheli Project Worker), Ipsita Dey (UCLA Anthropology Student)
Ipsita is grateful to have received the Lemelson grant because it allowed her to follow her passions. “Only an optimistic school like UCLA would give a wide-eyed undergraduate like me the grant money and opportunity to do this,” she said. The opportunity to study global development through foreign research and discern for herself what changes she would like to see in the world has been invaluable to her. “Bringing awareness to issues is so important. UCLA has given me the tools to be successful in my research abroad, and it has shown me how I personally can make a difference with the issue.”

She has gained more from the experience than just research and findings. She learned exactly what it means to give a voice to someone who has been silenced. Some women were grateful just to have someone there who was willing to listen to their stories. One woman she interviewed admitted she was never taught how to read and write in her first language. At the end of the interview, she took Ipsita’s hand in her own and said, “You would never imagine how much pain it gives me that I can’t write my feelings and thoughts. My biggest dream, after having this terrible life that I wouldn’t wish on anyone, is to be able to write and express my story. You are allowing me to fulfill this dream.” In that moment, Ipsita realized the impact her involvement could have.

Back in Los Angeles, many local organizations work to improve the lives of those who have experienced domestic violence. UCLA offers programs like Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS), which provides advice on how to assist and support a friend experiencing similar issues. If you would like to get involved through student organizations, the American Medical Student Association (AMSA) addresses domestic violence through various events, or consider becoming a peer counselor through CAPS. For even more resources, visit the Joyful Heart Foundation’s website and learn how to get involved.

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