Breaking the Silence

In the U.S., South Asians have risen to become leaders in their communities, industries, and government, forging a unique and proud identity in the American landscape. This can sometimes create the illusion that there are no problems in our immigrant community. In reality, South Asians in America face a variety of challenges that we must confront, and one of the most important is the widespread prevalence of domestic abuse in our households. A product of a variety of cultural and societal factors, it is a problem that is shameful and dangerous to ignore.

The problem of domestic abuse in the South Asian community has been studied on a few occasions with striking results. When the Asian Task Force against Domestic Violence (ATASK) conducted a study in Massachusetts in 2000, it found that “44 percent of South Asians know a woman who has been physically abused or injured by her partner,” and “31 percent know a woman whose partner insults or humiliates her regularly.” Professors Anita Raj of Boston University and Jay Silverman of the Harvard School of Public Health published a study in 2002 that found similarly disturbing results: When a sample of South Asian women in Boston were surveyed, 40 percent of them had experienced physical or sexual abuse in their current relationship, but only 11 percent went to seek outside help for their problems. Studies on this issue have not yet been performed on a larger scale, but the results from Massachusetts, a state with a thriving South Asian community, are indicative of a larger and worrisome reality across the nation’s South Asian households.

The reasons for this problem are rarely discussed among South Asians because it forces us to confront some of the more difficult truths about our culture. When ATASK conducted its study, it also convened focus groups that discussed the possible reasons for domestic violence in the community. The phenomena that they cited are all too common for many South Asian households. They include the idea that a woman is “given” to the husband’s family when she is married, becoming the property of her husband, which creates a culture in which it is taboo for a woman to go outside the family for help. Women are often apprehensive about discussing problems or reaching out for help because of the stigma that the culture associates with divorce and separation. A great deal of importance is put on the idea of loyalty to one’s husband and family and toughing out difficult family lives, but these “values” are all too often used as rationalizations for maintaining unhealthy domestic situations.

Highlighting these elements of the culture is not a criticism of the entirety of South Asian immigrant culture; all cultures have a darker side. And studies specifically demonstrate that the problem is not related to cultural practices such as arranged marriage but the idea of the woman as property. The main takeaway from these stigmas and cultural issues is that South Asians must fight the problem by taking a culturally specific approach to change ideas about gender roles in our households, neighborhoods, and communities.

Many nonprofit organizations have recently arisen to do exactly that. Apna Ghar (in Hindi, “our home”), is a nonprofit in the Midwest that has a hotline and a shelter specifically geared towards South Asian immigrant women, with social workers who understand the stigmas and cultural issues that bring about such situations. Apna Ghar is able to relate to the experiences of women in the South Asian immigrant community, and works with women (and often their children) on a case-by-case basis to rebuild their lives after incidents of domestic violence. The organization has also brought widespread attention to this problem, gaining praise from local corporations, governments, and then-Senator Barack Obama. Many other South Asian nonprofits, including ATASK and Saheli in Boston, are effectively addressing the issue using similar missions and methods.

Young members and friends of the South Asian community can take a unique leadership role in confronting this challenge. We can volunteer to help victims of domestic violence and support the organizations in need. Most importantly, we can raise awareness about domestic violence in our community. By discussing the issue with our families, neighborhoods, and religious organizations, we can make it clear that our generation does not believe that domestic violence is ever acceptable, and that seeking help for this issue is necessary. We must make the idea that women must be treated as equals an essential tenet of our community and that the liberty to lead life without intimidation is a basic right, not a luxury. This week, the Harvard South Asian Men’s Collective is helping to support the Apna Ghar shelter and raise awareness about domestic violence in the South Asian community. We encourage the Harvard community to join us in confronting this issue and break the silence about this disturbing problem.

Ravi N. Mulani ’12, a Crimson editorial writer, is an applied mathematics concentrator in Pforzheimer House. Francis G. Thumpasery ’13 is Crimson editorial comper in Grays Hall. They are both members of the South Asian Men’s Collective.

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