If the walls in Sudha Nair’s office could talk, they would tell heartbreaking stories.
A violent man who punished his live-in partner by making her swallow small stones while their children watched. A working mum whose husband controlled her movements and never allowed her house keys. A woman who was blinded after her spouse took a chopper to her face.
It’s depressing, but Pave, Singapore’s leading agency dealing with family violence, isn’t a place for self-pity. It’s where work gets done. Doctors mend broken bones, but here, social workers tend to crushed spirits and splintered families. And Sudha is leading the charge.
As Pave’s executive director, she has met women who’ve endured horrific violence – they’ve been kicked, punched, or nearly strangled by abusive partners.
While some of them put up with the pain for years, they crack when faced with… themselves.
“I get women in my group work sessions to stand in front of a mirror,” says the 58-year-old. “Some of them can’t even look at themselves. I remember one who said, ‘I’ve lost myself’ while another said, ‘I lost my voice’.”
“My question to them was: ‘Now that you know this, what can we do?’”
This is one activity Sudha carries out to help women survivors – some of whom have spent decades imprisoned by fear – regain confidence and control of their lives. “We often tell them: ‘You are not a doormat. You are a person – so be that person.’”
A veteran social worker of 30 years, Sudha made the news in 2015 for being the first social worker to be appointed a Member of the Public Service Commission (PSC), the body responsible for the appointment and promotions of high-flying civil servants. Though she’s modest about it, observers says the appointment speaks volumes of the respect Sudha commands within establishment circles.
She is famously introverted (and admits that she abhors interviews), so not many people outside the social work sector realise that she founded Pave in 1999 as Singapore’s first centre dedicated to preventing family violence.
Thanks to her, domestic abuse, once considered a shameful secret, was thrust into the spotlight. Victims finally had a voice, an outlet, a number to call. Pave handles approximately 1,000 casework clients a year – in the last financial year, it saw 995 clients, a 9.3 percent jump over the previous year.
Right now, Sudha is busy preparing to open Singapore’s third child protection specialist centre in January 2017. Pave will operate the facility, which will off er counselling and therapeutic services to child victims of violence. It is equipped to take up to 350 cases a year.
“As social workers, we hear a lot of negativity,” muses Sudha. “What we must give our clients, by the time they leave us, is hope. That no matter how bleak things are, change is possible, and that we’ll be there for them. We will ride out the storm together.”
Friends and colleagues describe Sudha as a “whirlwind” and “superwoman”.
Her work ethic is legendary. She replies to e-mails with breathtaking speed and is known to survive on three to four hours of sleep a night. A member of Pave’s management committee tells me, incredulously, how he’s popped into the office at all hours of the day – early in the morning, late in the evening – “and somehow Sudha is just always there. I don’t know how”, he marvels.
Though she heads an organisation, Sudha remains elbowdeep in casework. “Social work is her life and advocacy is in her blood,” says colleague Soh Siew Fong. “She still works with clients to keep her finger on the pulse of what we do.”
The petite social worker also has a lion-sized reputation in government circles. She advocates fearlessly for policy changes to help the underprivileged, backing her arguments with troves of data and case studies. “I often think Sudha is a walking encyclopaedia, museum and history department all in one,” says colleague and former university
classmate Pang Kee Tai. “She does her research and can tell if you don’t know what you’re talking about.”
In person, Sudha is spunky and to the point, her speech peppered with self-deprecating asides. A sense of humour is a must in this job. “If not, you’ll be the most miserable person ever,” she quips.
“Everyone has this idea that social workers are kind and gentle… basically mushy people or goody two shoes,” she says. “Many think our work is about having a good heart. I think it’s about having brains. You have to really think about how to help people effectively and contribute to society.”
Yet her voice grows tender as she adds: “I’ve always had a soft spot for cases involving children.”
She recalls a heartbreaking case years ago – a 13-year-old girl whose father had told her to “kill herself”. Unable to endure the taunts, the teen asked to be placed in a girls’ home. “Though she had wanted it, leaving her in the home and watching her watch me walk away… that was very painful,” Sudha says quietly.
Studies show that family violence deeply affects children. Frighteningly, experts believe that mere exposure to violence and threats – listening to their parents scream and shout – can negatively affect the brain development even of babies.
Kids who witness abuse are also more likely to develop emotional and behavioural issues – aggression, depression, an inability to form relationships. Worryingly, they may perpetuate the cycle of violence when they
“Cases with children prompt me to move things faster,” says Sudha. “While the adults may have made their decisions, children don’t have a choice. We have to be their voice.”
PAVING THE WAY FOR CHANGE
Incidentally, it was three children who inspired her to start Pave.
After graduating with a degree in social work from the National University of Singapore (NUS), Sudha joined Ang Mo Kio Family Service Centre (FSC) in 1987 and rose to become its director.
In 1999, she received a voice message she would never forget, from a child who simply said: “Auntie Sudha, please come. My father beat my mother.”
She arrived and found the house a wreck. Amid the broken furniture, a bleeding woman sat silently on a bed with three children, the oldest of whom was only eight. Their father had been on a violent rampage from 10pm to 5am.
That day, Sudha accompanied the woman as she trudged wearily, children in tow, from hospital to neighbourhood police post to central police station, where she recounted her story over and over again.
“That’s when I thought: When you’ve been through a crisis and have to go everywhere with kids who haven’t even eaten breakfast… that’s not right. That’s absolutely not right,” she says.
It sparked the idea for a one-stop centre that would provide victims with integrated services – casework, group counselling, help in applying for protection orders, and more.
Under Sudha’s watch, Pave began operations as a part of Ang Mo Kio FSC in 1999. “We started off with nothing. Just three social workers doing this over and above our [normal workload],” she says. “The Ministry [of Community Development] came in to give us $50,000, which barely covered one person’s annual salary!”
The budget would later be increased, and Pave would go on to become an independent entity in 2002, with its own premises. Despite leaving for NUS in 2004 to teach and pursue a PhD in social work, Sudha never lost touch with Pave; she continued to meet clients and also advised the organisation. In 2012, she returned as executive director, a post she has held since.
Colleague Kee Tai credits Sudha’s leadership for helping Pave take flight. “One thing about Sudha is her ability to make connections with people who matter,” she says. “To her, it’s not about who’s big or who’s small – it’s about the issues.” She recalls how Sudha got acquainted with former senior district judge Richard Magnus who, like her, shared a vision for bringing justice into the community.
The result was that the Family Court sponsored a ground-breaking video-link facility in Pave. For the first time, victims who urgently needed protection orders could apply for one at Pave, using its direct video link-up with the courts. “It was revolutionary. It made it easy to get justice,” says Kee Tai. “Nobody else had done it, and nobody else had thought that it could take off . She was always one step ahead.”
AN EDUCATION FOR LIFE
Sudha, born the sixth of eight children, was unwittingly nudged into social work by her late sister.
After her A levels, Sudha, who was originally from Malaysia, volunteered with the Consumers Association of Penang. The group was active in environmental advocacy, and fought for the rights of the dis-empowered. It got her fired up and she announced, to her parents’ dismay, that she wanted to quit school. “I thought what I was doing was an education in itself,” she guffaws.
It was her sister who secretly filled up an application form to NUS on her behalf. When Sudha found out, she grudgingly agreed to give university a shot – and was drawn to the social work course after reading the prospectus. It was love at first lecture. “I felt like I had found my niche,” she recalls.
If formal education gave Sudha the theoretical foundations to be a social worker, it was her clients who put the meat on the bones. “The biggest education I got in my entire life came from my clients. Even today, they are still teaching me,” she says.
One of her most memorable cases occurred in her second year of work, when she helped a woman in an abusive marriage.
Then an eager young thing, she placed the client in a shelter and contacted a divorce lawyer – something she thought her client wanted.
She realised that she had made a mistake when, one day, the client showed up at her office and caused a commotion. The woman, under obvious emotional strain, spotted Sudha and lunged forward, brandishing a broken glass bottle. “She grabbed my shirt and tried to stab me,” recalls Sudha, who screamed for help. “It took five people to pin her down.”
Stunned, Sudha concluded that she had severely misjudged her client’s readiness. “I took over from her,” she admits. “I was so gung-ho that I didn’t realise she wasn’t ready for a divorce.”
She describes the incident as her Waterloo, her biggest defeat. It was also her biggest learning moment.“As a young social worker, you think you are a miracle worker. You think the change process revolves around you, rather than the client,” she reflects.“That incident showed me that you have to pace your client. You have to listen, and be ready only when they’re ready.”
It didn’t put her off social work. Instead, she was “grateful” for such a valuable lesson early in her career. Every case, she says, teaches her something new.“I hope I never stop learning,” she declares. “If I ever think I’ve arrived as a social worker, I should quit. That’s the moment I wouldn’t be useful anymore.”
A social worker, says Sudha, is a bit of a detective. Not every client volunteers information readily – everyone has secrets to keep, family members to protect.
To complicate things, some families initially approach social workers with other problems like debt or homelessness. This can mask any abuse that may be happening in the background.
“We learn to ask the right questions,” says Sudha. “For instance, why is a child misbehaving? It’s easy to say peer influence or stress… but is something going on in the family that makes him want to spend time elsewhere? Is the home no longer safe?” Once abuse has been identified, Pave establishes the safety of victims. Spousal violence is a
common problem forming 60-70 per cent of the agency’s caseload. And the victims are overwhelmingly women.
Pave’s tack is to invite all willing parties – the men, the women, the children – to join its group workshops, each lasting at least 10 weeks.
These sessions are powerful for male perpetrators of violence, who are often as isolated as their downtrodden partners. “You can’t tell your friends that you beat up your wife last night,” remarks Sudha.
The groups help them realise they’re not alone. The men also challenge one another’s belief systems.
“A man will say, ‘My wife provoked me, so I whacked her’. And another guy will respond, ‘That’s not appropriate’,”
explains Sudha, who reveals that some former abusers have joined Pave as volunteers. Save for a minority, she says this of most of the men she’s met: “They are not violent 24/7. They are nice men with bad behaviours.”
“And if you can learn a bad behaviour, then you can unlearn it.” Empowerment is a big issue when dealing with women who are survivors of abuse.
“I always ask my women clients,” says Sudha. “When they are 80, do they want to look back and say ‘Poor me, I had a terrible life’, or do they want to take control so they can go, ‘The first part of my life was horrible, but I moved on and made it better’?”
Sudha likes to recount the story of Diana (not her real name), a single mother who escaped an abusive partner. When Sudha first met her, Diana was saddled with newborn twins and was sleeping rough in her then-boyfriend’s lorry – the couple was effectively homeless.
While Pave arranged to find her temporary housing and a job, an enterprising Diana baked and did ironing for others to earn spare cash.
Today, she is back on her feet with a job, and waiting to collect the keys of her new four-room flat. She’s also facilitating a support group for single mothers. To Sudha, she’s a prime example of how someone can claw their way out of nothing.
“I’ve had so many women tell me, ‘My life is gone’. I tell them ‘No, it’s only just beginning’,” says Sudha.
HIGHS OF THE JOB
Pave’s work is far from done. There are still issues to be addressed. Sudha is especially concerned about elder abuse, an issue that’s often under-reported. There’s also the matter of partner violence between unmarried couples. At the moment, the Women’s Charter’s definition of domestic violence is limited to married heterosexual couples, which means that dating and cohabiting couples have fewer legal options. They do not, for instance, qualify for personal protection orders.
But Sudha is optimistic that things will change. “If you hammer hard enough, someday, somebody will hear you,” she says.
She laughs when asked whether dealing with spousal violence has made her lose faith in men. “I’m not turned off by relationships! I think there are good men out there.”
She adds that there are plenty of cases with happy endings. About 70-80 per cent of the couples she sees stay together. “The greatest joy is seeing my clients move on. When you see families doing well, or when a couple tells you they’re going to have a second child… those are the highs.”
At the end of this interview, I ask Sudha if she has any relationship advice for women. Ever pragmatic, she cuts to the chase: “Don’t start your marriage in debt. Watch out for signs of controlling behaviour… and run as fast as you can!”
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Her World Woman of the Year 2016 Press Conference – Dr Sudha Nair