Indian Women, Down Under and Tortured`
Pyali Shah, 40, had met her husband on the Internet. Both hailed from Karnataka and both had been previously married. It seemed a perfect match until Pyali arrived in Australia and began experiencing relentless mental and physical abuse.
"My husband, a widower with two children, just wanted a baby-sitter. He would lock me up and beat me. There was no money. I faced the constant threat of being thrown out or sent back to India. He would surf the Internet for other women and compelled me to have an abortion," recalls Pyali, a psychologist by profession, whose abuse was detected at the hospital when she had gone there for an abortion. Pyali was sent to a refuge and provided with counseling and support.
The scourge of mental, physical and sexual violence in the sanctity of one's own home, which started as a trickle, has become a deluge in recent years with more Indian immigrants coming to Australia. "We now get 30 to 40 cases a year, which is huge. In most cases the abuse is not so much of a physical nature as it is financial and emotional. The biggest concern for Indian women in Australia, who continue in an abusive relationship, is the fear of losing their sponsorship/spouse visa. When there are children involved, there is the fear of not being able to get custody due to financial or visa status," says John Russell, a social worker, who has been working with such women. "We try to alleviate their fears and refer them to relevant support services thereby providing means to a positive change in life," says Russell, who did his Masters in social work from Mumbai's Tata Institute of Social Sciences.
The experience of violence is exacerbated with no one to turn to in a new country and an alien environment. Many girls refrain from seeking help from their parents back home due to fear of tarnishing family honor.
Pooja Malhotra, 28, hasn't had the courage to return home for the past two-and-a-half years despite having faced abuse from the second day of her arrival in Melbourne. "I come from a reputed family and didn't want to go home until I could stand on my feet and regain my self-confidence," says Pooja, who was an independent, educated girl, working in the hotel industry, until she married her school friend.
"We were best friends and had grown up together. He came to Australia in 2002 to study and kept regular contact over email and phone. On one of his visits to India, he proposed and I was rushed into a registered marriage despite some reservations from my family, who wanted time for a proper wedding," she recalls.
Pooja had a social wedding after nine months and moved into her in-law's house to discover physical abuse between her in-laws. "It was difficult to comprehend as my father-in-law was very good to me. However, things were beginning to change with my husband too. He would now call only once a week. If I called he would get irritated and snap," she says.
After a long wait for the visa, when Pooja arrived in Australia, from the very next day she was subjected to constant criticism, total neglect and isolation. "He would make me do sexual things against my wishes and openly talk to his father about it. I lost all confidence. The mental abuse took its toll. From a jovial, vibrant person with plenty of friends, today I can't trust anyone anymore," says Pooja, who is still clearly traumatized.
Violence against women is a silent crime crossing all cultures. As many as 443,000 Australian women, or six per cent of the female population, have experienced violence from their partner or former partner, leading Prime Minister Kevin Rudd to call for a "zero tolerance" policy on violence against women.
According to figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics: One in three Australian women have experienced physical violence and one in five women have experienced sexual violence. Less than one-third of all physical and sexual violence is reported; approximately 90 per cent of women who experience sexual assault do not access crisis support, legal help or other support services such as telephone helplines.
Shefali Gupta met her husband while surfing the Internet. "We were both working in Information Technology. Once I came here, things were well until I became pregnant. I felt absolutely cheated as it became apparent that he only married me to serve him and earn the money to support him and his family back home in India."
"I was imprisoned in my own home, allowed to meet only his friends - I had no one of my own in Australia. He would tap the phones and my name was not put on any utilities bills or tax papers and hence I didn't have any proof of residence. Once our child was born, things became worse. There was no proper food or medicine and I gradually lost my health and morale," says Shefali, who was able to move out after three torturous years in the relationship.
Things are not easy for victims of domestic violence but once abuse is reported at least there is a way out. The Magistrate's Court can issue an intervention order that provides protection to the wife in the form of legal sanctions against the husband. Also, as per the law, single women, who are unemployed - including those with children - on permanent residency visas are eligible for welfare payment from the State, which is enough to rent and raise the children. In cases where the woman is on a spouse visa, she has to prove to the Immigration Department that the husband has been violent to avail of the welfare payment. Where there are children involved, parents get shared custody or the father at least has access to the child once a week and the non-custodial parent, usually the father, is required to pay child maintenance.
The Federation of Indian Association of Victoria (FIAV) has been helping such women stand on their feet again. "Last year, the FIAV launched a project to educate the Indian community in the state about family violence and its prevention. We have been distributing posters and pamphlets, designed by Indian students, with information on where to seek expert help and assistance," informs Sushil Sharma, FIAV Community Services Director. Sharma also heads the Indian Welfare and Resource Centre (IWRC), which receives A$1,000 from the Indian Government towards support and rehabilitation of each case.
The FIAV has also aired a series of interviews in Hindi, Punjabi, Tamil and other regional languages with women who have experienced violent relationship; and conducted seminars relating to the cultural complexities of family violence.
Some men, like Shefali's husband, have remarried, so the cycle continues. But family violence is not restricted to women alone, for every nine females there is one male victim. The FIAV, with funding from VicHealth (Victorian Health Promotion Foundation), has released a DVD, "Don't Suffer in Silence", featuring moving interviews with women who have experienced family violence and an insight into the possible causes and symptoms by community psychologist, Khorshed Khisty.
Some of these women with shared custody of young children are not only battling to survive but fear the adverse impact of the crisis on their children. Launching the DVD, Olympic skier and Director at VicHealth, Kirstie Marshall, said family violence impacts babies and children just as it does the adults and elders in the community. "Hence it is the responsibility of each individual to take steps to prevent this growing problem in our society."
Footnote: All names have been changed to protect identities of women, who have had the courage to break this silence and come forward to tell their stories.
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