"Did daddy ever hit you in the stomach when you were pregnant with me? Did you feel scared? Did you ever think he would kill you?" Melissa, 10, asks her mother Xiomara Fuentos, who migrated to Canada from El Salvador.
Fuentos had miscarried a baby after being beaten by her ex-husband. Janet Menezez's daughter Angela, 24, wants to know why her mother did not walk out of an abusive relationship sooner. "Why did you stay? That's where my idea of you being weak comes from...I wasn't angry at you. Just disappointed I guess."
"This wasn't the life I wanted for myself. It is not about a fairytale. I just wanted to be happy," Nigerian-born Nneka, a lawyer, tells her children. The pretence of her picture-perfect family - educated, articulate, wealthy - was shattered in public after a brutal attack in which her husband threw her face down on the sofa so she could not breathe. Nneka's daughter intervened to save her.
"After you were separated, did you ever feel lonely?" Gurjas asks her mother, Amandeep Kaur, who arrived from Punjab, India, following an arranged marriage with an Indo-Canadian. She mustered the courage to seek help when her husband's physical assaults became unbearable and her son also started hitting her in imitation of his father's behavior.
These are vignettes from filmmaker Deepa Mehta's latest one-hour documentary, 'Let's Talk About It', which views familial abuse among immigrant families in Canada through the experiences of these four women. While domestic violence among mainstream Canadian women has been a subject of many media reports and documentaries, the plight of immigrant women is yet to receive its due attention. What sets this particular film apart is not just the subject but its treatment. Mehta hands over the camera to the children of abused women. They quiz their mothers about the abuse and the result is powerful, for it lays open the wounds - not just of the women, but of these children too.
In Canada alone, more than 1 million families have experienced some form of domestic abuse in 2005, according to Statistics Canada (StatCan), a government agency. Spousal violence statistics have seen a steady increase over the last few years. Criminal harassment by a spouse - which often precedes more serious crimes, including murder - rose by an alarming 53 per cent between 1995 and 2001. In 2002, women accounted for 85 per cent of reported cases of family violence. And younger women are at greater risk. StatCan Report 2004 said young females aged 25 to 34 experienced the highest rates of spousal violence.
While the StatCan report does not segregate domestic violence data with reference to communities, organisations working with South Asians say they are witnessing a rise in the number of domestic violence victims. "One in every four South Asian women is abused - physically, emotionally, financially or psychologically," says Baldev Mutta, community development officer at the Peel Health Department, Toronto, a government agency. Mutta also runs the Punjabi Community Health Centre based in Brampton, a Toronto suburb, that helps abused women start their independent lives.
Mehta says she chose to focus on immigrant women because "although I have seen a number of documentaries on women and abuse, I hadn't seen one on immigrant women". She adds that while the problems may be the same, "The way immigrant women deal with them is different. Often alone and strangers in this country, they don't call the police. By and large, it seems most immigrant women want the abuse to end, but not the marriage, which might have something to do with the fact many don't have family here."
Mutta, whose centre helped Amandeep start her life afresh, says violence is prevalent in "all cultures, all religions and all strata of society". However, he adds, immigrants from cultures where marriage and family are paramount face added pressures. Often there is intense pressure from elders, community, friends and relatives to keep problems within the family closeted. Therefore, although many women call his agency for help, only 20 per cent actually go through with the counselling.
Activists working with immigrant communities also point out that the western approach of one-to-one counselling generally does not work with immigrant women because it is too isolating. "A counsellor is not supposed to establish a personal relationship and is not supposed to give advice but only lay out options. Nor is the counsellor supposed to speak to the client's partner. But in South Asia, it is very common for women to turn around and say 'you tell me what to do', not because she is disempowered but because she trusts you. Unless you are familiar with that context and culture, you cannot offer effective services," says Amala Ambalawarner, a counsellor at Toronto-based Family Services International, an NGO working to provide immigrant settlement services.
Mutta's centre offers group therapy, where women are paired off, to create a network of support and help recreate the family they have left behind. This alternate family, as Amandeep mentions in Mehta's film, went a long way in helping her chart a new life. When her son and daughter say they are proud of her, Amandeep says quietly, "I am proud of you and myself too." Mehta says she gave the children the cameras and the freedom to ask their parents tough questions because she wanted to show that children suffer almost as much as the abused spouse. "The women are the victims, but so are the children. And the children are the ones who will perpetuate the cycle [of violence]."
She spent a day showing the kids how to use the equipment and then let them be interviewer and interrogator over the weekend. "We got the film on Monday," says Mehta, whose latest feature film, 'Water', opened the Toronto Film Festival in September 2005.
One of the most powerful segments in 'Let's Talk About It' is an interview between Sheena, 13, and her father Harish Sammi, the only abuser who agreed to be part of the film. Having turned to alcohol in the aftermath of a car accident and financial problems, Harish became abusive after bouts of heavy drinking. Asked if he regretted hitting his wife, a repentant Harish says, "I have to accept what I did," and adds, "We came abroad, but our mentality that I had to be the breadwinner and she the homemaker did not change. And when there is a clash of ego, things fall apart." And he speaks for everyone when he says, "In all of this episode, it is the kids who suffer the most."