TWENTY-TWO years ago, six young Indian women living in the United States – Radha Sharma Hegde, Shashi Jain, Rashmi Jaipal, Vibha Jha, Shamita Das Dasgupta and Kavery Dutta – founded Manavi to support victims of domestic violence. They were jolted into action after the story of Amita Vadlamudi, a battered Indian immigrant woman who killed her husband unable to tolerate his abuse, brought the issue of violence within homes out in the open.
When Manavi was born in 1985, it became the first South Asian women’s organisation seeking to address this issue in the U.S. Based in New Jersey, the non-profit and non-governmental organisation (NGO) handles the cases of an average of 300 women victims of domestic violence annually.
Frontline caught up with Shamita Das Dasgupta recently while she was on a visit to India. Quoting from a study, she described the disturbing pattern of domestic violence in the nearly two-million-strong Indian immigrant community in the U.S. The study, conducted among 160 highly educated South Asian women by A. Raj and J. Silverman and published in the Journal of American Medical Women’s Association in 2002 showed that 40.8 per cent of the respondents had been physically and/or sexually abused in some way by their current male partners; 36.9 per cent of this number reported that the victimisation happened one year before the study. However, only 3.1 per cent of the abused South Asian women in the study had ever obtained a restraining order against an abusive partner. The study says this rate is substantially lower than that reported in a study of women in Massachusetts, in which over 33 per cent of women who reported intimate partner violence in the past five years had obtained a restraining order.
Excerpts from Shamita Das Dasgupta’s conversation with Frontline:
When I started working among women victims of violence in the U.S. independently some 30 years ago, there was almost no one working in this area. The main reason for violence is the gender discrepancy of power. Most immigrants seem to carry with them their native cultural prejudices…they attempt to keep their dominance through violence. Also, among immigrant women there is this extraordinary tendency to keep the marriage intact regardless of the cost. Women tolerate violence. The social customs that approve endurance perpetuate the violence.
From hostility to awareness
When we started work in 1985, we got so many calls from so many battered women that it surprised us. Initially, we faced only hostility from the community and disbelief from the victims, as if there was no hope. But now women’s awareness of laws is improving and with help in hand more and more women are reporting such instances of violence to the police or to NGOs. The awareness generation done by Manavi and other similar organisations has proved useful. We must acknowledge, however, that there are still those among the Indian diaspora who are not aware of their rights. When it comes to women standing up to violence, community responses such as “this is not necessary” and “why wash dirty linen in public?” are common. But over the years, these responses have dwindled. At Manavi, we conduct visible community events such as marches and campaigns to generate awareness. Our organisation has also been featured in newspapers such as The New York Times and in radio talk shows. Our success has inspired several members of the South Asian diaspora to take up the cause of battered women. But we have come a long way.
Next year [in 2008], Manavi will conduct its third National Conference, urging South Asian Women to rise up against violence. Our short-stay home, Ashraya, provides shelter to battered women, whom we later refer to government homes if they need help.
Role of the American state
The U.S. government has played an important role in assisting NGOs to tackle the issue. During the 1970s, there was a significant women’s movement in the U.S. which held the state responsible for the welfare of women. A model under the Coordinated Community Response was developed to bring together state agencies and NGOs. NGOs get grants to run shelter networks. The Violence Against Women Act, 1994, has addressed the issue of domestic violence adequately. Also there are common torture and harassment laws that address issues of abuse. Many American States have adopted practices such as mandatory arrests and no-drop prosecution to ensure that victims of violence get justice.
Speedy justice is a remarkable feature of U.S. courts. For instance, an Order for Protection can be issued overnight to victims to prevent violent or threatening acts – including stalking – harassment, and contact or communication from the abusive spouse. It can be either a criminal or a civil order. However, no verification is necessary under Federal law to issue an Order of Protection. Federal law requires that all valid Orders for Protection of any jurisdiction be enforced to protect victims wherever violation has occurred. Immediate action is taken by the police when protection orders are violated. Initiation of criminal procedure and arrest is quick. Though the police are trained to handle cases of domestic violence sensitively, much more remains to be done in this field as the problem is widespread. Also, there are issues such as contradictory legal systems, conflicts related to cultural issues such as stree-dhan – dowry and mehr – distrust of law enforcement, racism and xenophobia; language issues and perceptions of credibility pose problems.
Immigrants hang on to their culture in a very strong way because of the constant fear of losing their identity in a foreign land – even to the extent that they hang on to an imaginary culture… These cultural notions often get distorted. For instance, several women I have dealt with assume that Indian culture accepts violence against women, which I think is a tremendous distortion. I ask the victims: Why ignore the empowering aspects of our culture? We urge these women to wake up and ask who benefits from perceived cultural notions?
I remember the case of this particular young woman from India who had two children and was physically abused and starved in her in-laws’ place in the U.S. When she came to us she couldn’t even speak proper English. We helped her to separate from her husband. She found herself a job in a hotel and was determined to bring up her children on her own. Today she is independent, drives a car and her children are doing well too. It is this resilience and courage of women that encourages us to keep going.
Today, thanks to the support system made available to battered women, several of them are able to stay aboard and find a job. We help them find these jobs, provide training, if need be. And most of them manage to survive on their own. Several women seek divorce from abusive husbands and carry on with their lives with dignity. But the problem of domestic violence is very much there and I feel the struggle has to go on.
(Originally published in Frontline, issue dated Dec 22-Jan4, 2008 as part of the Cover Story on ‘Violence against Women’)