Maid under the stairs

Thousands of South Asian women in the United States are silent victims of domestic and sexual violence unleashed by partners who control their lives.

By Betwa Sharma (Debate)

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Published: Sat 15 May 2010, 9:44 PM

Last updated: Thu 2 Apr 2015, 10:27 AM

They are helpless in a foreign country because of language constraints, economic exile and a cultural stranglehold. The troubles of the South Asian women in the US are reflective of other immigrant communities from South America and Africa that also battle domestic violence. Experts note that victims, across the board, get stuck in the cycle of abuse because of language and education barriers, lack of legal access and the risk of deportation.

The Hispanic community, for instance, has the same tradition of extended families as the South Asians that make it more difficult for women to break from the ranks.

“Many of the struggles South Asian survivors face echo across other immigrant groups,” said Purvi Shah, a consultant on violence against women who has worked in the field for 15 years. “It is for this reason that we all must work to eliminate these barriers and to mobilise our communities to end abuse before it even begins.”

Domestic violence is described as the “most pervasive yet the least recognised human rights abuse in the world” by the United Nations. One in three women has been physically assaulted at least once in her lifetime as has one in four pregnant women.

Voices that oppose the abuse in the immigrant community have grown stronger than ever before but poorly funded grassroots groups have their limitations. Despite social and financial constraints in the past two decades, more than 20 support and advocacy groups against domestic violence have grabbed a toehold in the immigrant community.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that in the US each year, women experience about 4.8 million intimate partner-related physical assaults and rapes. In 2005, 78 per cent of victims from the resulting 1,510 deaths were women.

“The number of women being battered may not have decreased but the women seeking help has increased,” said Mallika Dutt who runs Breakthrough, an international human rights organisation that operates in India and the US. In 1989, Dutt co-founded the first domestic violence group for South Asian women in New York. The activist describes how painful it was for a new community launching itself in America to see its dirty linen aired in public. “Men would come and spit at us during rallies. They would call us home breakers and lesbians,” she said.

The situation is different now. The community has transformed from first-generation immigrants to confident second-generation citizens who are not solely preoccupied with making a living but are more sensitised to social problems of their neighbourhood.

Even as more women reach out to domestic violence groups, a toxic set of circumstances prevent the majority from getting assistance. Brides coming from South Asia are particularly vulnerable if they do not speak English and are dependent on their husbands to survive because their visa status prohibits them from working, getting a driving license or a social security number.

A few women try to earn some under-the-table cash but men keep them isolated by locking them in the house without a phone. This has caused domestic violence groups to concentrate on economic empowerment through programs like computer training, language classes, assistance with college applications and placement agencies.

Still, others keep quiet because they cannot afford to lose face in the community or shame their families. If the couple has a dubious immigrant status, then the risk of deportation seals the silence.

Reaching out for support also means lying and risking discovery. “We have had situations where he has followed her right up to our center,” said Rosaana Conforme who works with Sakhi. “They usually cannot come back.”

A large number of women who seek help return to abusive relationships due to lack of options coupled with false hopes of change in her partner. “It can be very frustrating to see this but in the end it is her decision,” said Conforme.

Studies also show that the present financial crisis has led to an increase in violence because men who are stressed out let off steam by beating their wives. “We are seeing more women coming in because of the instability in the family,” said Tiloma Jayasinghe, head of Sakhi.

However, economically empowered South Asian women are also silent victims of domestic violence because of the cultural handcuffs and the shame factor. Once children come into the picture, plans of leaving are retired.

Geography offers no respite for the South Asian woman. Back home the community will OK the violence while the family blames the woman for being a bad wife. Abroad, state protection is more accessible but she is completely alone, which gives the husband greater license to abuse.

The US offers better services for battered women compared to the countries they leave behind where, despite stringent laws, victims are subject to harassment by the police especially in rural areas. “The legal system is broken and enforcement is a big fat mess,” said Dutt. On the other hand, many South Asian immigrants cannot access government services because of the language deficiency. “She would do a double take before going to the cops,” said Jayasinghe. After surveying 158 courts in 2006, the National Centre for State Courts concluded that courts had sparse non-English language instructional material on protection orders, rarely posted signs on availability of interpreter services and had limited relationship with community-based organisations. Sakhi plans to introduce a scheme where a woman going to a precinct or courthouse will carry an index card that reads “I have the right to communicate in my language.”

The inability of governments, even in developed countries, to cope with the widespread epidemic makes prevention vital.

Betwa Sharma is the New York/United Nations correspondent for the Press Trust of India and is a freelance journalist

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