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Maitri at Sevathon 2019

Cultural Norms, A Generational Curse For DV Victims

(Featured Image: Maitri at Sevathon 2019 walking to support Domestic Violence Victims)

As Domestic Violence Awareness Month comes to a close, India Currents presents a 2-part series discussing abuse and its impact within the South Asian American community. This is the second and final installment, which discusses the cultural implications of domestic violence, and how these expectations have changed amid the pandemic. Find the first article here.

I know of people who are being subjected to a lot of violence and they are people you wouldn’t even suspect”, emphasizes Kasturi Basu.

Immigrant women often don’t walk away from abusive marriages because they fail to recognize the abuse. Rather, toxic and aggressive behavior is miscoded as spousal affection. In a phone interview, domestic violence survivor Mala Sharma recalls forgiving her second husband “many times” despite his threats and derogatory language. 

“I convinced myself that he wasn’t so bad,” Sharma says. “My first husband used to hit me, this one only swears.” 

According to Neelofer Chaudry, Executive Director of New York-based nonprofit Domestic Harmony Foundation, South Asian American victims are taught to internalize their abusers’ attacks from a young age. Cultural taboos create troublesome expectations for immigrant families. 

“These women grow up in a South Asian household and are [told] not to say anything about what happens in the house. Do not talk to anyone about it, even relatives,” Chaudry says, echoing the stifling attitudes within these households. “Because it [domestic violence] is so taboo and shameful, there’s this internalization — ‘what’s wrong with me, is it my fault that I’m being abused?’” 

Kasturi Basu echoed Chaudry’s thoughts in her own narrative, discussing the prevalence of domestic violence in her own social circles. “My friends knew, but in the South Asian community, people don’t want to talk about it. I would put makeup on my bruises and go to parties” says Basu. Guilt and community expectations also work against abuse victims. “If the children didn’t perform to his expectations, he would make our lives miserable with verbal, physical, and emotional abuse.” 

America’s Model Minority Myth, the expectation that Asian Americans represent financial and familial success, further restricts victims from speaking out. In a 2017 op-ed published by the New York magazine, political commentator Andrew Sullivan attributed Asian American “prosperity” to the maintenance of the ‘solid two-parent family structure.’ The assumption that all South Asian American households are ‘solid’ and monolithic, Chaudry suggests, is problematic. 

“It’s been hard,” Chaudry says. “There’s this pressure on our community to be perfect. When we first started talking, we were heavily criticized by [fellow] South Asians. We were called home wreckers, asked ‘why are you airing out our dirty laundry?’ We’re scared to discuss what’s considered a ‘private issue’ between husband and wife. Abuse is never private. It’s the responsibility of the community to speak up.” 

Organizations like the Domestic Harmony Foundation offer emotional support services for their clients, where trained professionals can address survivors’ conflicted emotions about their relationships. They also host annual youth leadership programs to empower the next generation and dismantle toxic social norms. 

“When it comes to abuse, there’s a tendency to repeat behavior,” Chaudry adds. “If a son sees his mother being abused, he is more likely to repeat that. It’s a social moray, which is [why] we want an opportunity to break the cycle. When you bring survivors together and have them share experiences with one another, they see that they’re not that different.” 

Reaching out, moving on 

In 2017, Sharma ‘nervously’ reached out to Houston nonprofit Daya after divorcing her second husband. She had no source of income. Her phone was flooded with desperate messages from her ex-husband, many of them threatening or pornographic. She removed his name from their apartment’s lease and changed the locks, prompting further harassment. 

“Daya really helped me,” Sharma said. “They first helped me secure a restraining order against my husband, who later went to jail after I filed a complaint with the police. Daya worked hard, offered me counseling services where [I learned] that I am not wrong,  that this is not my mistake.” 

Sharma is an exception. According to the US National Library of Medicine, only 11 percent of South Asian women who report domestic violence actually receive counseling services. 3 percent are successful in obtaining a restraining order against their partner. The numbers are low, says Daya Executive Director Rachna Khare, because mistrust and disillusionment run high in the South Asian American community. 

“It’s discouraging because there are some immigration protections for survivors of crime,” Khare says in a Zoom interview. “But they’re difficult to access. For example, if you’re married to an H1-B visa-holder and you’re a dependent..it could take years to get a U-Visa, if ever. Is it safe to wait?” 

Khare is referring to the U Nonimmigrant visa, which permits victims of crimes such as sexual assault, domestic violence, and human trafficking to remain in the United States. Although U-visas are designed to protect the immigration status of all abuse victims, only 10,000 of them are accepted a year. Those denied are “given priority” for the next year, which is why so many South Asian women who apply are expected to remain undocumented for years. 

Law enforcement across the country also has a history of undermining U-Visa petitions, as indicated by an assessment from The Center of Investigative Reporting. According to their analysis, U-Visa petitions have dropped since 2018 because “nearly 1 of every 4 [agencies] create barriers never envisioned under the…program.” The effects, Khare says, are devastating — and not just for the victims. 

“It’s interesting that people look at domestic violence work as just charity.  In reality, our work is about keeping our community safe,” Khare says. “Abusers are likely to continue their violent behavior if we ignore this crisis… Their children will need extra interventions and support at school and their families are more likely to experience negative health effects… Domestic violence prevention and services  are investments in public safety and healing that hold abusers accountable and allow survivors to stay in their homes safely and flourish.”

COVID-19: Locked in with an abusive spouse

The COVID-19 pandemic has considerably aggravated the situation. Lockdown restrictions have forced victims into a vulnerable space with their aggressors. The usual support systems, such as neighbors and family friends, are no longer available. 

Boston-based organization Saheli reported an increase in 911 emergency calls where their advocates had to assist non-English speaking South Asian Americans.

Meanwhile, the advocacy organization Domestic Violence Women United says that the coronavirus pandemic has added “multiple layers” to the atrocities of violence that are permissible within South Asian American households. DV Women United was formed by three women — Kasturi Basu, Sushmita Dutta, and Ms. Ghosh. Some being domestic violence survivors themselves founded the organization eight years ago as an anonymous support system for other victims. 

“When you have children in a violent relationship, they are not going to school or having any other outside interaction during COVID,” said Kasturi, a principal at Alum Rock Elementary School. “When they’re at home more often, they witness more abuse and may also be subjected to more violence themselves. It’s a completely different environment.” 

Kasturi also said the virus itself can be weaponized against victims of domestic violence. Many abusers prevent their spouses from seeking any outside support, using the pandemic as their rationale. In some relationships, Kasturi mentioned that aggressors even threaten to spread the coronavirus to partners, thus adding to an unhealthy power dynamic. 

After the fact 

Three years ago, Sharma was alone and unemployed in a country she says she did not trust. Today, Sharma is a qualified beautician and proud business owner. With Daya’s help, she established her own salon in Houston where she pursues her passion within the beauty industry. 

“Daya really worked for me, to show me how to do business. They helped me to get a business loan, taught me how to run a business, find clients, meet with people…they taught me [the way] you teach a schoolchild,” Sharma says. 

Although financially independent, Sharma’s fight continues. She is the mother of two children who are still living in Nepal and is struggling to obtain green card status in the United States. Sharma lived with domestic violence for more than 13 years, an experience that has colored her vision of South Asian marriage and cultural expectations. 

“Asian men need to compromise,” Sharma says. “Even my own father and brothers never gave my mother any respect. And [Asian] women need to speak up. They need to connect with other people. I want them to know how much power they really have.” 

She ends the call on a hopeful note. 

“I’m not afraid of anyone anymore,” Sharma says and laughs. “I feel like I’m flying in the air.” 

If you or someone else is struggling with domestic violence, please refer to the resources below. 

National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-7233

Maitri Helpline: 1-888-862-4874 (https://maitri.org/)

Narika Helpline: 1-510-444-6048 (https://www.narika.org/

Domestic Harmony Foundation: 1-516-385-8292 (http://dhfny.org/

My Sister’s House: 1-916-428-3271 (http://www.my-sisters-house.org/


Kanchan Naik is a senior at the Quarry Lane School in Dublin, California. She is the Youth Editor of India Currents, the editor-in-chief of her school newspaper The Roar, and the Global Student Square editor for Newsroom By the Bay. Follow Kanchan on Instagram at @kanchan_naik_

Srishti Prabha is the Assistant Editor at India Currents and has worked in low income/affordable housing as an advocate for children, women, and people of color. She is passionate about diversifying spaces, preserving culture, and removing barriers to equity.

‘I Blamed Myself’ Says Sharma on Staying in an Abusive Marriage

Amid the coronavirus pandemic, South Asian American victims of domestic violence have fewer options than ever. As Domestic Violence Awareness Month comes to a close, India Currents presents a 2-part series discussing abuse and its impact within the South Asian American community. 

*Certain names have been altered to protect the privacy of the interviewees. 

45-year old Mala Sharma met her second husband at a student union in 2012, and they soon shared a cramped Houston apartment to begin their new life together. Sharma had recently fled Nepal and an abusive marriage, gaining asylum status in the United States for her condition. She had endured the violent, volatile tendencies of her first husband for more than ten years. 

A local politician, her first husband had an unhealthy control over her life even after divorce, prompting Sharma to “go undercover” for fear of being killed. She says she trusted her new partner, believing that she knew and understood domestic abuse. 

She was wrong. 

“He was so nice to speak to in the beginning,” Sharma says in a phone interview. “But as I came closer to him, his real habits were revealed. He began swearing at me, pushing me everywhere…there was lots of verbal abuse.” 

These incidents only escalated. Sharma says her husband isolated her from friends and family, threatening to ruin her reputation if she retaliated. When she finally divorced him in 2017, he spent days waiting outside her apartment, screaming. He constantly harassed her online, on “everything from phone calls to text messages to Viber.” Their marriage ended in a restraining order and jail time. 

“I was so scared,” Sharma says. “I blamed myself, kept telling myself that I was a bad wife, bad daughter, a failure.”

Kasturi Basu came to the country when she was 25 years old to live with her once-divorced husband. Soon after she landed, she got pregnant. A little while after that she found that she had married a dangerously violent man. With two daughters, she was stuck in a physically abusive marriage. Over the years, the police came out to her house a dozen times but it wasn’t until police found her bleeding and insisted on documenting the episode that her husband finally went to jail. 

After several years, Basu managed to secure a restraining order, but her husband took her to court contesting it. When she tried to extend the order, he contested it again. Basu was emotionally and financially destitute after years of her husband’s manipulation — and so she finally gave up. Basu has been subjected to multiple divorce trials by her husband and currently is fighting the divorce in appeals court. Still, with some distance from her abusive husband, she was able to begin the slow, painful process of healing and recovery. 

Sharma’s and Basu’s stories echo one told by thousands of South Asian American women suffering from domestic abuse. Violence, insults, intimidation — these are only a few of the atrocities immigrant women experience and are slowly taught to accept. 

At the intersection of the coronavirus pandemic and precarious immigration status, Indian American women are more vulnerable to abuse than ever. 

Statistically Unsafe 

According to a 2003 study published by the US National Library of Medicine, roughly 40% of the 160 South Asian women sampled from Greater Boston, Massachusetts reported ‘experiencing intimate partner violence,’ including physical, psychological, and sexual abuse. Most of these women had freshly immigrated from South Asia within the past two years and had no family or social support system in the United States. The study also indicated that a majority of the non-US born participants initially had no knowledge of support services for domestic violence victims or did not have the bandwidth to reach out. 

And the numbers are on a troubling rise. A 2010 study published by the National Institute of Justice indicated that younger generations of Indians and Pakistanis immigrating to the United States today are much more likely to endure all kinds of partner violence than their older counterparts. 

New Country  

“Immigrant populations are more vulnerable than other populations”, says Zakia Afrin, Manager of the Client Advocacy Program for Maitri. Maitri, an SF/Bay Area-based organization, provides legal help, housing, counseling, resources, and a live helpline to South Asians in situations of Domestic Abuse.

“It is heightened when you are away from your home country,” affirms Bindu Oomen-Fernandes, Executive Director at Narika, a Bay Area nonprofit dedicated to assisting South Asian survivors. “Imagine…you don’t know anybody but your husband, you don’t know things like 911, you don’t have access to local resources, and you’re afraid of deportation.” 

Aggressive partners assert financial and legal superiority over their spouses, often by holding their immigration status hostage. Fernandes discusses how many husbands on an H1-B visa withhold their wives’ papers — what Fernandes calls ‘immigration abuse.’ 

“There have been cases where we question a survivor and she says she doesn’t even know her visa status,” Fernandes says. “And in circumstances where the abuser files for divorce, she realizes she doesn’t have her documents, doesn’t know where the passports of her children are. She can’t even make plans to leave because her status changes rules around deportation.” 

“Financial dependence is huge,” says Maria Arshaad, one of Narika’s program managers. “When these women come into the country, they’re not able to work. Even if they have a degree back home, [often] the credentials don’t transfer or their visa doesn’t [allow] them to get a job.” 

Without economic autonomy, domestic violence survivors cannot care for themselves or their children. Nor can they afford appropriate legal services and counseling. Sharma, for example, spent several months living with her second husband even after divorcing him. 

“I was working at a salon for $3 an hour,” says Sharma. “He was working at a local gas station. I did not want to live with him, but he convinced me to stay together to save money.” 

Even if a survivor can make plans to leave, where can she go? Restrictive visas and income inequality leave few options for South Asian American women. 

“This is not the end of the road. There are services available and the systems and communities have come a long way in recognizing that. Just talk with a DV advocate. Please explore your options before you give up,” urges Afrin.

Maitri and Narika are great resources if you are in the Bay Area. Sometimes the best, first step is letting someone know that there is a problem.

Find the second article HERE.


Kanchan Naik is a senior at the Quarry Lane School in Dublin, California. She is the Youth Editor of India Currents, the editor-in-chief of her school newspaper The Roar and the Global Student Square editor for Newsroom By the Bay. Follow Kanchan on Instagram at @kanchan_naik_

Srishti Prabha is the Assistant Editor at India Currents and has worked in low income/affordable housing as an advocate for children, women, and people of color. She is passionate about diversifying spaces, preserving culture, and removing barriers to equity.

Engaging Men & Boys!

Maitri (www.maitri.org ) invites all MEN and BOYS to write their thoughts or experiences on gender based violence / intimate partner violence / family violence and abuse for our community blog: Engaging Men & Boys! Your blurb will be published with your name and photo on the Maitri Bay Area Website, Facebook page and newsletter.

Help in raising awareness! Domestic Violence is real and by working together we can prevent it! Share your voice to challenge the cultural norms and attitudes that support gender violence, domestic violence, victim blaming and prevent help seeking!

Guidelines for submission:

• All men and boys (over 16 years of age) can participate.
• Send your blurb with your name, a short (3-4 lines max) introduction and a profile photo.
• Word count: Max: 800 words. Language: English.
• Maitri will have final editing and publishing rights.
• Send your write up to outreach@maitri.org
• If you have questions, contact: outreach@maitri.org

Maitri Raises over $650K at its Annual Gala

Maitri Board members with Cindy Chavez and Ash Kalra

Maitri celebrated 27 years of empowering South Asian community members suffering from familial violence, human trafficking, elder abuse, and cultural alienation with a glittering and successful gala on March 3, 2018, in Palo Alto, California. The occasion was graced by Silicon Valley CEOs, VCs, community leaders, entrepreneurs, and community members who generously donated over $650K.

The funds will be used for strengthening Maitri’s comprehensive suite of services and programs ranging from a helpline, a transitional house, outreach and prevention, a non-profit boutique, legal advocacy, mental health, and economic empowerment program. Noreen Raza, Maitri Board of Trustees and Gala Co-Chair, says “We exceeded our goal and am so grateful and proud of our community once again stepping up to the challenge of funding critically needed programs and services for South Asian survivors of familial violence and abuse.”

Jeffrey Iqbal. Photo credit: Saurabh Desai

Shamik Mehta, Co-Chair Maitri Board of Trustees and Gala Co-Chair says, “For the first 10-plus years of Maitri’s existence, we were completely dependent on community funding with the result we were able to create many unique and culturally sensitive programs best suited to the needs of our clients. And, as a result, maintaining program agility and fiscal prudence has become a part of our DNA.”

Photo credit: Saurabh Desai

Sonya Pelia, President of Maitri says, “The shift in consciousness around familial violence and abuse in the South Asian community over the last few years has been nothing short of amazing. At the same time, we find that our unique cultural competency and strong leadership has established Maitri in the forefront of mainstream domestic violence agencies in the Bay Area.”

During the evening, Maitri was recognized by Santa Clara County Supervisor Cindy Chavez and commended by Assemblymember Ash Kalra (D-San Jose) for the agency’s transformative work in empowering survivors of domestic violence and abuse. The evening wrapped up with a dazzling musical performance by the talented Jeffrey Iqbal, a globally recognized singer and musician, and his band.

Maitri is a free, confidential, nonprofit organization based in the San Francisco Bay Area, empowering South Asian survivors of family violence, cultural alienation, human trafficking and elder abuse. In these 27 years, the agency has responded to over 46,000 helpline calls and empowered more than 4,000 survivors with it’s transformational programs and active policy work.

Readers’ Reactions: Cover Story on Domestic Violence

Email from Rasana Atreya, author of “Ties that bind – why women don’t walk away from abusive marriages.” 

Within two hours of posting this story on Facebook, 11 women (some whom I do not know) messaged me privately about how the article was essentially their life.

I’m truly humbled. Thank you for giving me this opportunity, India Currents.

Email from reader, Jyoti Mukherji, Atlanta

As a woman I am deeply disturbed by the facts and arguments presented in the June issue of India Currents (“Ties that bind – why women don’t walk away from abusive marriages” by Rasana Atreya). It appears that the article is an infomercial to help attorney Indu-Liladhar Hathi find new clients.

If we are talking about low-class, uneducated people living in Indian villages, we may find cases of physical abuse of women by their husbands and mothers-in-law who burn them live. But in America, it is impossible to even think of such abuse.

One needs to go deeper to find the real causes why these kinds of cases have started to surface recently. My reasoning is as follows: Most marriages are marriages of convenience not based on love. Men go to India for a couple of weeks and find a bride who is educated, so that both can work and fulfill the Indian-American dream of getting rich. However, since there is no emotional bond, their true selfish motives take over, and the marriage begins to fall apart. The only way a woman can get legal status in these situations is by amnesty.

In the case cited in the article, the woman states that she came to America on a student visa and got married. To my knowledge, people who are on a F-1 or H1B visa marry for securing a green card. They deceive their husbands by filing false reports of psychological and emotional abuse; in fact, they cannot file a report of physical abuse since there is no violence involved.  These women know the loopholes in the immigration laws and they abuse them in order to get legal status. Keep in mind that during the last ten years the number of illegal people from India has increased to over half a million. Add another million on H1B visas and you get the picture.

Organizations like Raksha (in Atlanta), and Maitri and Narika in the Bay Area are set up to help these women because in America we have shelters for battered women. These organizations get government help-so, they have flourished.

Indian people have exploited another area which is daycare for senior citizens, because the government pays $95 per person per day!

I despise the fact that people from India know how to circumvent laws. They are experts in sponsoring their distant relatives as blood relatives and they also bring their aged parents so that they can collect Social Security and Medicaid benefits. Many seniors are snow birds and spend winter months in India in properties they have hidden from the American government. I ask-why not let elderly parents stay in India and give them financial support?

We need to raise our moral standard, which does not come from the temples we build. It is time Indians stop deceiving the country that gave us a good life and abundant material success.

Email from reader, Deepika Parikh

As an Indian woman who has lived in USA for 48 years, I am infuriated and appalled by Ms. Mukherji’s response to the problems of domestic violence in our society in America.

How uninformative and ignorant to think that the violence only happens in low-class, uneducated (two derogative words) families in Indian villages. It is unbelievable that an educated, upper class woman like Ms. Mukherji would have so many misconceptions and mis-informations about violence in marriages.

If there are people like her in our society, no wonder abused women are afraid to report anything against their husbands. After reading her letter, abused women will feel abused repeatedly by people like her.

The ‘Ties that Bind’ article describes several issues that inflict violence very well, especially in our culture, and why women tend to be silent about them. Surprisingly, the only thing she learned INCORRECTLY from the article is that the student woman, in the case cited, wanted to get a green card so she accused her husband of abuse. How pathetic!

My hats off to the many volunteers and employees in organizations such as Maitrii, Narika, Raksha , Sakhi, Manavi, Sahara and many more in the US that work diligently to help abused South Asian women. It is an insult to these hard working people to say that “these organizations get government help so they have flourished”. Do people have any idea what kind of emotional stress these people go through EVERY DAY to be able to help these abused women young and old, (yes, old women too).

One more question to Ms. Mukherji, how can you compare the working adult children calling their able bodied senior parents and taking undue advantages of US government in daycare for senior citizens to these abused women who constantly live with their charming monster husbands day in and day out in constant fear of safety of their children and themselves?

We need to raise awareness of what goes on behind closed doors in our society and lend a helpful hand instead of making judgements about unfortunate situations without proper information.