Successful marriages are built on love, trust, tolerance and mutual understanding. But, unfortunately, many descend into nightmares filled with violence and pain. In fact, it is reported that one out of three women in the world are victims of abuse or sexual violence in their lifetime. Domestic violence is not restricted to physical blows but encompasses emotional, sexual and financial abuse; stalking; and intimidation. It cuts across cultures, races, castes, classes and religions. Predictably, a majority of the victims are women.
Sample this: In the United States, an estimated three million women face battery and about 10 million children are exposed to domestic violence every year. But when it comes to abuse, the numbers are far greater in the South Asian community than any other ethnic group in the US. According to Daya, a Houston-based non-profit organization that helps victims of domestic violence, two out of five South Asian women have experienced partner violence - a rate disproportionately higher than that of other minority groups.
Activists believe that the reason behind this alarming statistic is that the issue of domestic violence has not been adequately addressed by the community. Mohammad Levesque-Alam, Communications Coordinator, Sakhi, a community-based New York organization committed to ending violence against women of South Asian origin, puts it this way, "Community support is greatly needed to raise awareness and break down barriers of shame and isolation for survivors."
The problem is accentuated by factors like cultural, religious and linguistic barriers; isolation from family and friends; dependency on the abuser, usually the spouse; fear of deportation; and the lack of knowledge of legal rights and resources.
Also, what is unique to the South Asian community, is the role the extended family - like the mother-in-law or brother-in-law - might play as a source of abuse. In fact, a 2006 study, 'Victims of Intimate Partner Violence More Likely to Report Abuse From In-Laws', co-authored by Dr Anita Raj, Associate Professor, Boston University School of Public Health, confirms that South Asian women in the US are subjected to emotional and physical abuse by their in-laws. However, according to Dr Raj, "Abuse by in-laws is not likely to be a result of cultural practices, but rather supported through traditional, patriarchal ideologies that promote female submission and servitude to the husband and his family."
In addition, she explains that it is a major misconception that domestic violence is caste, class, religion or economic group specific. "It is a phenomenon that affects women in the metropolitan areas across the globe as much as it does women in villages in South Asia," she says.
Levesque-Alam also shatters the myth that South Asians are a "model minority". "Many South Asians are professionals and so there is a prevailing stereotype that the community is somehow free of problems that afflict other communities, and that abuse does not happen in middle-class communities. Unfortunately, it does."
But, he says, there is a general reluctance to acknowledge the problem because from the standpoint of an immigrant there is always the fear of being marginalized or singled out.
But why do women stay on in an abusive relationship? Why don't they just pack their bags and walk out? There are never any simple answers to such questions. One of the primary concerns for women is retaliation from their abuser. The fear of attack makes them stay rather than leave and risk being hurt. Also, often women are isolated from family and friends by their abuser, and feel alone and helpless. Economic dependence, the nature of the abuse, and childhood experience, too, contribute to decisions a woman make while she is in an abusive relationship. Sunita Mishra (name changed), a domestic abuse survivor talks about her harrowing experience. She says, "It is hard to be resilient when you are going through the ordeal. There is pain, anger and helplessness and you feel all alone."
According to Dr Raj, the main reason for the perpetration of domestic violence is the perception that a man has the right to control his wife and use violence to maintain that control. To prove this point, Levesque-Alam talks about a case where the husband started hitting his wife after losing his job. Although it may be argued that the stress of being unemployed and thereby losing economic control over the family had "caused" him to attack his wife, the underlying problem, says the activist, was that the man was trying to re-assert his power through abuse.
In the tussle for power between parents, the biggest losers are of course the children. They are also most likely to be at the receiving end of the abuse. Dr Raj says, "It is hard to imagine the considerable impact and psychological trauma on children as they witness violence against their mothers." Furthermore, in the long term, studies show that children who have witnessed violence at home are likely to end up in abusive relationships themselves.
Today, however, women are trying to break the cycle of abuse and suffering. Daya, which reaches out to women through its helpline, crisis counseling and legal clinic services. It claims that from a total of 335 calls received in 2003, the number had shot up to 4,252 in 2007. Similarly, Sakhi receives more than three times the number of new calls for support than they did in 2001. Interestingly, men have also contacted the NGO on behalf of the abused women in their lives. These calls have risen from a mere eight per cent in 2006 to 12 per cent last year. Mishra says, "I came to a breaking point and realized I could not take it anymore and was throwing my life away when I deserved so much better. I had allowed someone to walk into my life to hurt and humiliate me. Once I accepted the reality that change had to come from me it was enough to gather whatever self-esteem was left in me to seek help from the nightmare."
This change has been possible due the progress that has been made in addressing the issue of domestic violence. Dr Raj believes that increasingly good laws against the practice have been enacted. These will perhaps become effective redressal tools and also deterrents in the future.
In addition, organizations and support groups have become better equipped and innovative in dealing with difficult situations. California-based Maitri is a good example of this. It started in 1991 as a free non-profit phone line through which "women could either speak to a volunteer or leave a message so that someone could call them back". It has now sought the help of South Bay legal organizations such as Asian Law Alliance, to provide free legal services to women in need. It has also set up a low-cost home for women in the process of rebuilding their lives.