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India Currents gave me a voice in days I was very lost. Having my articles selected for publishing was very validating – Shailaja Dixit, Executive Director, Narika, Fremont

Children are not just witnesses but also victims of domestic violence. Without the right support, this intergenerational violence inflicts a devastating trickle-down effect on the generations to come, with an increased risk of repeating the cycle of violence.

A grant to end intergenerational violence

In October of last year, one family foundation decided to step in to rein in the ripple effect of domestic violence. In an initiative led by Anita Bhatia, its CEO and Executive Director, the Ramesh and Kalpana Bhatia Family Foundation announced a groundbreaking donation of $3 million to Sakhi, one of the oldest women’s organizations based in New York, serving the Indian-American community. Their aim, said Bhatia in an exclusive interview with India Currents, was to break the cycle of intergenerational trauma by supporting Sakhi’s South Asian Safe Families Initiative.

The $3 million grant, spread over the next 10 years, is the largest gift of its kind to any South Asian  American social service organization. Sakhi will use the multi-year grant to develop a culturally rooted approach to deepen multigenerational healing for South Asian families experiencing gender-based violence.

Ramesh & Kalpana Bhatia with family
The Bhatia Family (image courtesy: Ramesh & Kalpana Bhatia Family Foundation)

What is wrong with me?

This initiative is very personal to Anita Bhatia who spoke openly and honestly about her own childhood growing up with the trauma of violence.

As hard as it was to share her story, Bhatia believes that it is very important to open the door for more such honest conversations in our community.

“My mom was pretty abusive towards me,” she said. “And I think one of the things for me personally that I’ve spent my whole life trying to figure out is  – what was wrong with me?”

When Bhatia got older and had her own child, she confronted her mother about the abuse, asking,  “I don’t understand how you thought disciplining me that way was the way to go. Because I would never, and I can’t even imagine doing or saying the things to my daughter that you did and said to me.”

Bhatia’s mother admitted to her daughter that she did not know any better because of how she herself was treated. “It’s what happened to me. It’s how I know to parent. I did not know that there was even another alternative. I just didn’t know better. I’m so sorry.”

Ripple Effect of Intergenerational Violence

Bhatia says she was heartbroken by this textbook response to intergenerational trauma. She could not imagine the pain her mother must have felt to be confronted with an accusation from a child she loved, “You hurt me.”

Anita Bhatia
Anita Bhatia (image courtesy: Ramesh & Kalpana Bhatia Family Foundation)

But that moment, says Bhatia, was the beginning of open communication and healing. It took time and honesty, she admits, before she was able to finally forgive her mother.

“I don’t think you actually ever truly heal from it. But I do think you learn how to manage and cope and you’ve accepted it and obviously healed to a point where you’re able to, you know, really make a difference and do good in your own world. But I don’t think it ever leaves you. And so my goal is to stop it from ever happening.”

It’s important, says Bhatia, to understand what a healthy relationship looks like. As an adult, dealing with abuse from a spouse or intimate partner is very different from being a child and the abuser is your parent, the very person who is teaching you how to become an adult. 

Healing and Therapy

Bhatia herself went to therapy by herself for many years. 

“Therapy is extremely important. Healing with my mom has been extremely important as well.” 

“My mom is one of my best friends. And I love her more than anything, I would never want a different mom. And I think that what’s important is that just because we had a tough time growing up – doesn’t mean that that person’s a bad person.”

The key says Bhatia is educating people to be different. Her mom and her family benefitted from working through their issues. “We’ve talked about it and we’re continuing to heal. My mum is fantastic. You know, she’s really worked hard on being a better person. And I’m so proud of her for that.”

Anita Bhatia dancing
Anita Bhatia dancing (image courtesy: Ramesh & Kalpana Bhatia Family Foundation))

Conscious parenting

Bhatia’s experience of intergenerational trauma has made her more determined to be the best mother to her own daughter. She works on making sure her tone and choice of words and how she disciplines her child are appropriate.

“It’s not easy. I find that there are times when I may internally get so angry that I could react in an inappropriate way. But because of the work that I have done, I’m conscious enough to know that, okay, that’s a feeling I’m having – I’m upset.” 

When her emotions get out of hand Bhatia gives herself a timeout. “I would go to my room. Sometimes I would cry for like, a minute. Or I would take deep breaths. And I would call myself down. And then I would go back and I’d be like – okay, let’s figure it out. So definitely, just my own experience, and really trying to be very conscious in my parenting has made a difference.”

Lack of awareness

Bhatia is grateful that therapy helped her heal and was instrumental in breaking her own cycle of intergenerational trauma. But she is deeply concerned by the lack of awareness and openness in the South Asian community about the need for therapy.

In her own situation, she says when she tried to cajole her parents about going to therapy her mom would refuse. She’d say, “ I’m not gonna go to therapy.  What did they know about our family? They don’t know anything. They don’t know about our culture.”

Without question, in the short term, finding a culturally appropriate therapist is a tough challenge to overcome, says Bhatia “I understand our dynamics are just different from other cultures.” One potential solution is to encourage our children to go into the mental health field because it offers another way that our community can heal in the long term.

A bold investment

Kavita Mehra, the Executive Director for Sakhi for South Asian Women, called the Bhatia family’s donation a bold investment in helping Sakhi innovate and transform models for healing intergenerational violence in South Asian communities. “Our vision is that the South Asian Safe Families Initiative will further heal these deeply detrimental cycles of violence and create a restoration that will be felt for generations to come,” she added.

Anita Bhatia’s parents began The Ramesh and Kalpana Bhatia Family Foundation in 2006 to fund causes that could “help people help themselves.” When Anita Bhatia took over the reins in 2016, she used her background in healthcare and nonprofits to convince her parents to go bigger and more strategic in their donations to create a long-term impact. Women empowerment became one of their areas of focus.  

Sakhi’s South Asian Safe Families Initiative

At Sakhi, the foundation initially funded a $300k project for children of survivors. The success of that program fueled the 10-year South Asian Safe Families Initiative to create change that is both impactful and innovative.

“To be honest, it’s a lifetime of healing for anyone who has truly been in an abusive situation,” says Anita Bhatia.

What’s on offer are education and mental health services to ancillary survivors, such as children and parents living in a household, who are affected by cycles of violence. “We want to make sure that as a family, people are healing together because you’re never in a silo,” says Bhatia. 

How can we stop this cycle of violence?

The South Asian community is not supportive of DV survivors who chose to leave their abuser. Often, the victim and her children are left to fend for themselves while facing ostracisation in the wider community, worsening the trauma that victims are experiencing.

While the family unit can provide strong bonds, Bhatia says that complex family situations can sometimes be detrimental to survivors, and possibly negate healing. 

“If you sort of look at gender-based violence, and you think about any survivor in our community, but particularly a woman, you know, they’re facing a lot of backlash, and their families are isolated.“

Bhatia says fear of isolation and the stigma associated with violence can sometimes make survivors feel like the abuse is worth it. 

No more ‘band-aid solutions’

The men in the community have to step up, says Bhatia. “You think about the role the male plays in our community, and if a man is brave enough to be vulnerable to say ‘hey guys, this is something bad is happening at home,’ maybe we can start seeing change.”

Maintaining the status quo will not change things for the next generation. 

This is why including youth as part of this healing process is really critical, says Bhatia.  The South Asian Safe Families Initiative is a step in the right direction for the community, especially for its children who are innocent victims.

“We keep putting band-aids on the situation. And honestly, we’re not even doing a great job putting band-aids on the situation.  What we need to do is take a small step back and say – What is the problem? How do we fix the problem? So we’re not constantly running out of band-aids.” 

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Anjana Nagarajan-Butaney

Anjana Nagarajan-Butaney is a Producer/Founder of DesiCollective Media, where she creates audio, video and written content that impacts the South Asian diaspora. She is also a writer for magazine...