A Reporting Series On Domestic Violence Among South Asians Becomes A Project to Advance Change

The DesiDost Project and Chai with Sahelis is a series on the impact of domestic abuse and transnational abandonment in the South Asian community, supported by the USC Center for Health Journalism and its 2021 Domestic Violence Reporting Fund, in partnership with Desi Collective, Narika, and India Currents.

As domestic violence spiked during the pandemic, a new form of violence against women – transnational abandonment – began to manifest in South Asian (SA) immigrant communities. One domestic violence worker called transnational abandonment “one of the most sinister and damaging forms of abuse” they had witnessed.

Transnational abandonment happens when abused immigrant women are abandoned in their country of origin by their husbands. It’s a phenomenon particularly prevalent in arranged marriages within the South Asian community, which views domestic violence as a taboo subject.

Narika, a 30-year-old, Fremont-based, advocacy group with 90% of South Asian clients connected to the Bay Area, reported a threefold increase in Domestic Violence (DV) calls to their Helpline since the pandemic began and documented two to three cases of transnational abandonment a week. Most survivors were H4 dependents of H-1B visa holders employed by Silicon Valley’s tech sector.  Victims face domestic violence, emotional abuse, cultural alienation, or financial exploitation from their husbands and in-laws. Once they are deliberately removed from the US, these disposable women lose legal protections, rights to their homes, finances and even children.

While the success of South Asians in the Silicon Valley tech sector gets a lot of ink, not much is written or known about the spouses of these tech workers who come on dependent visas. We decided to explore this phenomenon – and launched the Desi Dost Project.

Our stories revealed how these disposable women   face domestic violence, emotional abuse, cultural alienation, or financial exploitation from their husbands and in-laws. Once they are deliberately removed from the US, lose legal protections, rights to their homes, finances, and even children without adequate support networks or access to legal or financial resources.

The patriarchal nature of South Asian culture suffocates open discourse on these taboo topics. DV survivors, mainly women, endure the trauma of domestic violence without support from their family or community. The fact that over 24 DV agencies operate in the U.S. to support South Asian survivors, is a telling reminder that DV taints our community, and that women continue to stay in abusive situations because ‘log kya kahenge’ — what will people say?

Initially, that’s what drove our reporting. What would people say if we asked our community why they don’t step up when our men abandon our women? Would survivors tell us the truth if we asked why they stayed in abusive relationships?

We intended to explore the dynamics of domestic violence in South Asian families in a culturally sensitive way to raise awareness through honest conversations with survivors and advocates.

But when our research into transnational abandonment in the U.S. produced only a few academic studies and no media coverage, it became the focus of our investigation.

We began conversations with survivors, caseworkers, therapists, academics, and advocates, then added family law experts and immigration lawyers to the roster. Our research expanded to review both US and Indian legal implications for abandoned foreign nationals.

We examined the aftermath of abandonment — what happens to survivors battling legal systems in two countries, India and the U.S. Without adequate support networks or access to legal or financial resources, they fall through the cracks between family law court and immigration court, because the two courts don’t talk to each other. We searched for solutions to address patterns of violence, abandonment, and resources for survivors.

It was a huge learning curve. Over four months, we interviewed 9 survivors and 12 experts over 5 months to build a clear picture of the issue and identified legal solutions (U Visas and VAWA provisions) to address abandonment issues and resources for survivors. Some became amazing allies — Bindu Fernandes at Narika, immigration lawyer Shah Peerally, family law experts Dorchen Leidholt and Carolien Hardenbol at Sanctuary for Families and Mona Kafeel of Texas Muslim Women’s Foundation. They supplied information, clarified legal complexities, and introduced us to their networks. Tanya Momi, a survivor and artist, shared her artwork for free.

Getting to this point has taken commitment. From July through October, we recorded three deeply personal stories from survivors for a unique storytelling project Chai with Sahelis – audio stories told by survivors in their own voices. Hear their stories:

  1. https://centerforhealthjournalism.org/fellowships/projects/it-s-not-just-thappad-rennu-s-story-chai-sahelis-desi-dost-project
  2. https://centerforhealthjournalism.org/fellowships/projects/chai-sahelis-desi-dost-project-priya-s-story
  3. https://centerforhealthjournalism.org/fellowships/projects/don-t-take-my-child-me-anjali-kour-s-story-chai-sahelis-desi-dost-project

We also published two in-depth articles on the dynamics of DV, transnational abandonment and the impact of dual jurisdictions on immigration and child custody.

How Priya Won A Second Chance At Her American Dream: A Story of Transnational Abandonment
Priya became another victim of transnational abandonment when her abusive husband took her back to India and left her there. She fought back to rediscover her American dream.

How Anjali Got Her Son Back: A Story of Transnational Abandonment & Child Custody
Anjali Kour survived domestic violence and transnational abandonment to win back custody of her son in the US courts. But her life continues in legal limbo.

Community Engagement

The most innovative and impactful community engagement piece was celebrating “Chai With Sahelis” with survivors at Narika’s offices in Fremont.

We gave each survivor a $500 stipend and a candle embellished with a Desi Dost sticker. We organized an art project — a canvas on which survivors and their children wrote messages of hope, for Narika to exhibit in their office.

Over tea and snacks, the women shared experiences and tips about training, childcare, and affordable housing. One offered the other a job on the spot. There were tears, but the overall vibe was encouragement to stay positive and move on.

Our Findings

Some findings were disheartening. One unedifying truth that emerged in “Chai with Sahelis: (sisterhood) was the glaring lack of solidarity among the female family and friends that survivors turned to for help.

Rennu Dillon, featured in the audio story “It’s Not Just a Thappad,” said friends asked her, “Why are you leaving him? Sab aadmi aise karthe hain (all men do this). You have nice kids, a nice house, nice cars. Live with this.”

And though we discovered safety nets in VAWA, the U-Visa, humanitarian parole, and severely under-funded DV support groups, it became clear that there was no pathway to resolution in U.S. Immigration and Family Court for survivors stuck in the country without legal status.

But six months into our investigation, an exciting prospect emerged. In the next stage for our project, we will explore options that could help abandoned DV survivors and policy makers understand  the chasm between U.S. immigration and family law courts. Unexpectedly, that possibility has evolved into a second phase of our project — through online and social media storytelling and other engagement strategies.

We are thrilled that USC has offered us mentors to help develop ways to continue the impact reporting and engagement on this topic.

The stories were published on the India Currents website and social media platforms and USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism, and spotlighted on Ethnic Media Services. Links sent to our networks and allies to share on their platforms expanded outreach. Our next step is to move this story from the confines of its ethnic media narrative and try to take it mainstream as a women’s rights issue.

Community engagement was key

The most challenging but rewarding part of Desi Dost was the community engagement. Over a period of four months, we recorded interviews in one- to three-hour sessions with each survivor. That drained us emotionally at first, but with self-care we learned to bring our full selves to each interview with empathy and curiosity.

It was important to gain survivors’ trust. Signing memorandums of understanding gave them full vetting rights over the final audio story and helped build trust but created some nail-biting moments as we went to publication.

Anjali Kour, who is still fighting a legal battle, wanted final approval from the family matriarch in India. When consent was withheld the day of publication, we spent two days reworking her story to represent her challenges without compromising her privacy, safety and family ties. Giving survivors that right is part of the journey to reclaiming control of their life.

It was hard to get data on DV in our community. National surveys had only aggregated data available, and data from DV agencies was limited. So, we created a DV community survey on India Currents and shared that template with a cohort member (Pooja Garg) to establish baseline data.

It was challenging sifting through the volume of material to build a coherent story from hours of interviews with experts, especially getting to grips with family and immigration law in India and the U.S. Weekly meetings with our mentors kept us focused and our monthly cohort meetings with the USC team kept us on track.

It was our first time gathering and interpreting court documents as evidence. The cost of copies was prohibitive, and one survivor had over 50 pages listing just court hearings. We learned to pinpoint key words that identified court decisions and obtain specific documents to support our survivor’s story.

This project was supported by a grant from the inaugural Impact Fund for Reporting on Domestic Violence offered by USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism.  Our reporters (Meera Kymal and Anjana Nagarajan-Butaney ) were one of four teams invited from USC’s 2021 grantee cohort to present this project at the USC Advisory Board on Feb 1, 2022. This year the reporting team was awarded a second grant to continue their work on this project.

What lies ahead is an exciting opportunity. Changing hearts and minds takes a generation but we can create more impact by concentrating on tangible short-term goals and making it easier for survivors to understand their rights, the limits to our current framework and opportunities for change.

Women facing violence need proof that they can take control of their lives. Ultimately, we want these stories to shape the narrative and shift perceptions on what healthy relationships mean so that survivors in our community get the help they deserve.

Meera Kymal is the Contributing Editor at India Currents and a 2021 grantee from the USC Center for Health Journalism, reporting on domestic violence in the South Asian community.

Meera Kymal is the Managing Editor at India Currents and Founder/Producer at desicollective.media. She produces multi-platform content on the South Asian diaspora through the lens of social justice,...