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Empowering Immigrant Women
by Linda Light Bookmark and Share
Over the last couple of years, there has been a spate of violent attacks on South Asian women by their husbands in Greater Vancouver, British Columbia, that have rocked not only the anti-violence community and the South Asian community, but the public at large. Given the disturbing frequency of these attacks, most of them resulting in the death of the woman, it has been difficult to avoid the question: "Is this violence a cultural phenomenon? Or is there something in the South Asian culture that is causing this horrible victimization of women?"

These questions have been predictably posed by the media and have been addressed by the province's Attorney General, Wally Oppal, himself a South Asian. Much discussion has taken place about the role of women in the South Asian culture, and the acceptance of violence against women in a culture that still supports arranged marriages and the revered status of males in the family.

There is little known about the incidence of violence against immigrant women in Canada. In fact, there are no national statistical studies on the incidence rate of domestic violence against immigrants compared to that of the general population or of Canadian-born women. Even the primary statistical survey of violence against women in the country, the Family Violence in Canada: A Statistical Profile series (2007) does not report on these distinctions. Therefore, there is no real factual evidence that the incidence of violence against women among immigrant groups is greater than that against Canadian-born women.

However, a United Nations Population Fund report (2006) described gender- based violence as "perhaps the most widespread and socially tolerated of human rights violations". This is a serious problem in all cultures, races, religions and social classes. In fact, a 1996 World Health Organization report described the incidence of violence against women worldwide as ranging from 20 per cent to 50 per cent depending on the country.

There is a small but growing body of knowledge in Canada about domestic violence in immigrant communities, including some of the unique factors affecting immigrant women who are victims of violence. Abused immigrant women experience extreme social isolation as a result of not only deliberate tactics on the part of their abusive husbands, but due to language barriers, cultural differences, and lack of support from their cultural community. These women often experience poverty and marginalization in the workforce and also lack access to available services because they don't know about them, don't know they are entitled to them, don't know how to access them, or don't have the language skills to make use of them.

Many recent immigrants have come to Canada from societies that are more patriarchal than Canadian society. As many of these women come to understand that they have a right to equality in this country and as many of their husbands resist this growing awareness, the power dynamics in relationships may begin to change, resulting in an increase in violence. While no culture officially condones violence, most rationalize it in one way or another. In some traditional cultures, this violence may be rationalized by traditions or religious beliefs. And these rationalizations may be used not only by the abuser, but also by his family and community members.

Whatever, the reasons or the rationalizations, recent research has shed some light on the needs of abused immigrant women in BC (British Columbia). Many of these needs are the same as the needs of any abused woman: a safe haven, information about their rights and available services, an effective justice system response, and emotional and practical support as they encounter the justice or health care system. However, abused immigrant women also have unique needs specific to their situation as immigrants.

Two predominant themes emerged from research that was recently conducted by the Justice Institute of BC on the empowerment of abused immigrant women. First, abused immigrant women have a multiplicity of needs that have to be addressed if they are to escape violent situations and make it on their own. Second, in order to address these needs, it is important that a comprehensive, caring service be provided by one key agency or service provider, rather than forcing a woman to navigate a network of systems that she neither understands nor knows how to utilize effectively.

The multiplicity of needs that has to be addressed, include helping women deal with language barriers through translation, interpretation, or providing services in their own language; providing them access to information about their rights, options, and available services; helping them to address their immigration and sponsorship issues, often used by abusive husbands to keep the women under their control; assisting them to meet their material needs, like affordable housing, and job re-training or employment readiness programmes; and breaking through their social isolation, which is often extreme and exacerbated by lack of support from their cultural community.

The comprehensive, caring services that are made available to the victims should be flexible enough to meet their wide range of needs and should be sensitive to their cultural and immigration realities. These include a proactive approach to providing services, advocacy and accompaniment to services to ensure that the women are able to get what they need, and following up with women to ensure that their needs have been met.

These services are not so different from what all abused women need, and what they have a right to expect. The anti-violence community in Canada is continuing to advocate for such an effective, specialized response to violence, especially to violence against immigrant women in BC.

Given the public outrage generated by the recent domestic violence tragedies in the South Asian community in this province, the government might just be motivated to respond. But what is also needed is education and increased awareness within the immigrant communities. Without support from their own communities, the abused women will continue to be isolated from the help they need and be shamed into staying with abusive spouses. 
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