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Unite & fight back

Last updated: 10 December, 2010

HELPLINE

A group called South Asian Network is helping young women from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh fight domestic abuse, reports Kamayani Bali-Mahabal

Many South Asian women, particularly Indian women, in the United States of America lead lives of insecurity and fear. The reasons for this could vary - from financial insolvency or lack of clarity on immigration status to the lack of proficiency in English. South Asians, incidentally, are the third largest Asian community in the United States. There are at least 1.9 million people of South Asian origin currently living in America, according to US Census 2000.

It is to address the specific needs of the South Asian community in California that the South Asian Network (SAN), which offers comprehensive and free services in South Asian languages on issues like health access and health education, immigration and civil rights, was set up.

Hamid Khan, one of the founding members, says: “SAN has established trust and credibility within the South Asian community. Its aim is to inform and empower by acting as agents of change in eliminating biases, discrimination and injustices targeted against persons of South Asian origin and by providing linkages amongst communities through shared experiences.”

But apart from assisting South Asians, SAN has been able to assist women who have suffered domestic violence to get out of abusive relationships. Saima Husain, Associate Coordinator of AWAZ (Voices Against Violence), a wing of SAN, says: “Domestic violence and, in general, violence against women, is not taken seriously, especially in South Asian American society. People believe it does not happen in their community, in their culture, in their religion, in their socio-economic status.”

Husain points out that there is a lot of internalisation of blame. “Survivors are not able to address domestic violence because it would bring shame on the family and prevent a sister or cousin from contracting a good marriage,” she observes. To date, SAN has assisted 1,545 survivors of violence and their children by providing case management, legal assistance, shelter placement, and mental health services through counselling, art workshops and support groups.

Husain explains that the survivors they help are dependent on their perpetrators — financially, linguistically, and in terms of immigration status. Also most of them do not have any support in the US. Often, they have no one to talk to here. There is an additional problem which Khan reveals, “There is still a lot of stigma attached to any acknowledgment that something is wrong in your marriage/relationship. South Asians generally don’t talk about it.”

Aisha Ishtiaq, a community advocate in Los Angeles, says: “The sad reality is that for many women, the culture of abuse is the only way of life they know. Back in their homelands that cover the broad area of South Asia (especially India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh), they are brought up thinking that their husbands have a right to hit them.”
The difference between a survivor of domestic violence in the US and one from the South Asian community is that the latter does not have access to family and friends or other forms of support. But Husain tries to explain to these women that there is a way out for them. “I tell them there are more services for survivors in the US, there are shelters available, and there are ways to petition yourself without compromising your immigrant status. In other words, there are more choices for someone who seeks safety and is ready to look for options,” she says.

There are indeed many women who are grateful for such advice. As one woman, did not wish to reveal her name, testified: “The Awaz programme got me back on my feet and provided me with the moral and mental support when I was going through a lot of mental, financial and emotional distress. They walked with me, saw me until the moment when I got completely disentangled from those major issues. I am now free to move on with my life and focus on my daughter’s future without having to worry about the past.”
Many survivors have reported that the legal assistance they received through SAN has proved a most valuable resource. For instance, it helped them to initiate restraining orders and address divorce and/or family law issues.

But the challenges are many. Husain says, “We have noticed that religion is often used to justify violence. We have worked with religious leaders to bring greater understanding within religious communities. Two religious leaders participated in our documentary on violence prevention and we have also conducted numerous workshops in which such leaders have spoken about family violence, respect, healthy relationships, and so on.”
There are other outreach activities too. Support groups are hosted, so that the women can eat together, learn from each other. “It’s important for the women to know that they are not alone. We work to change the system, offering training to law enforcement institutions, fire fighters, and domestic violence shelter staff. We also accompany survivors to police stations, and do co-case management and translation work for the shelter staff and the police,” Husain explains. Things may be slowly changing. Some community leaders have begun to recognise that domestic violence is truly a problem and are now referring cases to SAN. Some religious leaders have even provided shelters for survivors in temples, while others have participated in publicising the issue by speaking out. Link up and fight back, that seems to be the SAN solution.

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