In traditional South Asian families, women trapped in abusive situations don’t leave for fear of societal scorn.
“What will people say?”
Our social structure, based on arranged marriages and multi-generational households, regard family as sacrosanct – staying intact is prioritized over individual wellbeing.
“Culturally in the AAPI community, …victims may be encouraged to stay in their situations for their families, for their communities, for the larger family,” said Monica Khant, at an April 23 EMS briefing on domestic violence (DV).
“That was something I had seen first-hand, that leaving their situation might being shame or embarrassment to the family.”
So, victims stay to avoid disrupting family dynamics, losing status, financial security, or children, but mainly because they have very few alternatives.
But during the pandemic, quarantining at home with an abusive partner because of stay-at-home orders, has made a difficult situation even worse for DV survivors. In fact, studies by the NIH report increasing risk of family violence during the Covid-19 pandemic, stating that “domestic abuse is acting like an opportunistic infection, flourishing in the conditions created by the pandemic.”
According to the CDC, approximately 1 in 4 women and 1 in 10 men report experiencing some form of IPV each year. But with the COVID-19 pandemic, law enforcement agencies across the country are reporting an alarming upward trend in domestic violence.
By March 2020, compared to March 2019, calls reporting DV increased by 18 % (San Antonio Police Department), 27% (Jefferson County Alabama) and 10% (New York City Police Department).
Among women of color and immigrants who face additional structural and cultural challenges trying to access support from the government and community, even before the pandemic, DV rates have spiked.
Narika, a 30-year-old, Fremont-based, domestic violence advocacy group with 90 % of SA clients connected to the Bay Area, reported a 3x increase in DV calls since the pandemic began, while the API-GBV has found that 64% of Indian and Pakistani women had reported intimate partner violence IPV.
Yet fewer survivors are calling for help despite being trapped at home in abusive situations. At API-GBV which recorded a 76% drop in calls and in people seeking shelters, Khant explained that survivors are unable to access phones or information on computers, so less calls are coming in for assistance.
You Can’t Tell the Police!
In South Asian communities, inaction and compliance by DV survivors has its roots in in a patriarchal society which views DV as a taboo subject. Though we worship goddesses and powerful female icons (Mother India, Kali), female stereotypes in secondary roles to men are equally revered (dutiful, submissive, wives like Parvati, Draupadi), and DV remains a systemic, pervasive issue. Families are expected to stay intact. In fact, by raising awareness, Narika has been accused of breaking up families and planting ideas in survivors to move out.
Bindu Fernandes, the Executive Director of Narika explained that survivors don’t want to ‘out’ their family.
Survivors who reach out will say,
“I don’t want to cause any trouble, but if I die, I just want someone to know what’s happened,” and, “I’m probably going to be pushed down some stairs so I want somebody to know that could happen,”, but unequivocally add,
‘BUT YOU CAN’T TELL THE POLICE.’
In many cases in South Asian community says Fernandes, this is the story.
Findings from an ATASK (Asian Family Violence Report: South Asian) survey in Boston supports her claim. In the survey, 44% percent of South Asians said they knew a woman who has been physically abused or injured by her partner. Yet 5% of male and female respondents said that a woman who is being abused should not tell anyone about the abuse. Even though they overwhelmingly endorsed battered women seeking help – from a friend 82%, the police (74%), a family member (66%), a shelter (50%) or a therapist (48%); in reality, very few women actually do.
Their dependency and inaction, steeped in inflexible tradition, propels a vicious cycle of IPV and in-law violence.
Cultural norms and traditional roles force women to stay silent. Attitudes expressed in the ATASK focus group convey the insular mindset within South Asian families which prohibit survivors from coming forward and seeking help. Focus group members felt that the woman in marriage becomes the property of her husband and no longer belongs to her parents. The group felt that in-laws play a critical role in ‘family violence’ within South Asian families especially in cases of dowry disputes. A woman cannot turn to her own family for help once she is married and parents are not supposed to intervene in the daughter’s marriage. Sometimes parents don’t take divorced daughters back.
Survivors face challenges accessing assistance because of a complex mix of family dynamics, immigration status, cultural mores, lack of English proficiency and technology access, and financial dependence
In the AAPI community, when survivors with limited English proficiency call law enforcement, said Khant, the officer may speak to the abusive partner who has the dominant English proficiency which enables them to control the narrative. The same language access issue applies when survivors seek help from medical or hospital facilities need interpreters; having to rely on translation services adds time to getting the attention they need, so sometimes they may not go. In Brooklyn for example, a nurse said it took over an hour to get a translator for a survivor who used a less mainstream Asian language.
Women who do not have valid immigration status or are on temporary status are not eligible for assistance, for even Covid19 Testing.
In the Bay Area, many immigrant women are dependents of H1B visa holders employed by Silicon Valley’s tech sector. When the Trump administration revoked their EAD 4 work permits, they lost their right to work and experienced increasing abuse, domestic servitude, and financial dependency.
Khant said that AAPI community members who work in the service industry, the loss of jobs and lack of work increased financial dependency on abusive partner who is earning income, a key factor in DV survivors not being able to leave. Some of the immigrant DV survivors are ineligible for unemployment benefits because they don’t have valid work authorization permits and may not be allowed to apply for other benefits
Survivors who have lost jobs face eviction. According to the Census Bureau’s housing survey added Khant, 1 in 5 Asian renters reported that they were behind in rent payment as of September 2020. This forces dv survivors to stay with partners in violent and unsafe situations because they cannot afford to pay back rent. Narika said they issued $50,000 in cash assistance requests in the past year.
Transnational abandonment is the new manifestation of DV inflicted on immigrant women already besieged by the pandemic and loss of EAD-4 work permits. Narika, reports 2 to 3 cases of transnational abandonment a week, where vulnerable immigrant women are abandoned in their country of origin by their husbands. This phenomenon is particularly prevalent within the SA community, in marriages where victims face domestic violence, emotional abuse, cultural alienation, or financial exploitation. Once they are deliberately removed from the US, these disposable women lose legal protections, rights to their homes, finances and even children. Narika reports an instance where a woman was dropped off at a grocery store and never saw her husband again.
There is no accountability as courts do not prosecute perpetrators or accept cases when victims are absent. Narika reports that abusers take advantage of differences in laws governing marriage and assets between the US and the victim’s country of origin. Nor is help available through VAWA which has few protections for abandoned victims who don’t reside in the US
Where do we go next?
While there is a compelling need for broader language service access and more food pantry and housing relief, there’s a growing demand about addressing DV outside the traditional systems in place.
Khant’s work has involved observing existing laws (or a lack of laws and assistance in place during certain administrations) and recognizing the nuances in immigrant cases related to the legal system of DV. But first, she said, we need to acknowledge biases in response in communities of color Khant. In the land of opportunity with its many resources for DV survivors, Khant suggested a new approach is necessary to address DV in the South Asian community.
Traditionally DV survivors have been encouraged to follow the traditional systems in place – law enforcement, justice system, filing a complaint and following through with the courts.
But the pandemic has made it difficult for families to seek help from law enforcement or the justice system, so many families would rather go a new route to find resolution. At Narika, Bindu Fernandes shares that restorative justice is one approach that could form a pathway to helping families heal.
“DV is a delicate subject because it involves intimate relationships, family secrets, and it’s a subject many of us are reluctant to raise either publicly or in private. It’s embarrassing, sometimes even shameful to talk about. But we also know that staying silent (about the topic), won’t make it go away. Suffering in silence makes people give up. Lose hope,”remarked Sandy Close, EMS Director, at the briefing.
Khant said her experience as an immigration attorney shows that, “If divorce or leaving the abusive situation is not the first choice, it’s choice survivors only take after many attempts at reconciliation.”
Using social services or less criminally endorsed systems, “may get better traction in AAPI community,” said Khant, and help families find a path to reconciliation.
Meera Kymal is the Contributing Editor at India Currents.
Anjana Nagarajan-Butaney contributed to this story.