We need more prevention programs, increased funding for support services, domestic violence penalties that are consistent and firm, and we must change how family courts handle cases involving domestic violence
Priya Bathija, Trustee and former President, South Asian Bar Association Foundation
I am a survivor of domestic violence.
Ending a mentally and physically abusive relationship was the hardest thing I have ever done. Nearly 13 years later, the details of my relationship are still hard to share. I know I am lucky to have escaped. I’m thankful to be alive and that my life is free from abuse, control and the exhaustion that comes from living in fear.
But, every October, as Domestic Violence Awareness Month begins, I am reminded that not everyone has been so lucky. Especially this year, during a global pandemic that requires us to stay at home, many experiencing domestic violence will not have access to the support and resources they need to break free from their abusers.
Domestic violence was an epidemic long before COVID-19. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in four women and one in 10 men experience sexual violence, stalking, physical violence or psychological aggression in their lifetime. The National Domestic Violence Hotline reports that more than 12 million adults experience domestic violence each year in the United States, which includes those situations where abusers exercise power and control over the victim through verbal, psychological, financial, physical and other types of abuse.
The South Asian community faces higher levels of domestic violence due to elements of South Asian culture – including stigma of divorce, patriarchy, immigration-related social isolation and concepts of honor – that make the identification of abuse and help-seeking more complicated. Community-based surveys conducted by the University of Wyoming and University of California found that nearly 40 percent of the South Asian women surveyed had experienced some form of intimate partner violence. Organizations working with South Asian survivors estimate that number to be even higher.
The stay-at-home orders necessary to prevent the spread of COVID-19 create isolated environments that increase the potential for abuse. Those who would have gone to work or school are now trapped at home with their abusers. They no longer interact with neighbors, family members, teachers or others that may provide a respite from abuse or key routes of support. In some cases, their abusers have taken away access to phones, cars or credit cards, making it extremely difficult to leave or connect with outside resources.
These factors initially masked the increase of domestic violence. At the beginning of the pandemic, the number of calls to domestic violence hotlines dropped by as much as 50 percent in some regions. For example, Sakhi, a domestic violence organization serving the South Asian community in New York City, saw a 53 percent decline in calls to their helpline between February and March as COVID-19 cases across the city soared.
As stay-at-home restrictions were lifted, the calls began to rise again. Sakhi reported that the call volume between April and June exceeded pre-pandemic levels. Narika, a domestic violence organization for the South Asian community in Fremont, Calif., also witnessed a spike of three times the calls post-lockdown. Manavi based in New Jersey and the first South Asian women’s rights organization in the country, is seeing an increase in calls now and reports that the forms of abuse during the pandemic are more intense and severe.
These and many other organizations are working to end domestic violence and address its impact on our community. In 2020 alone, the SABA Foundation, a non-profit that evaluates and funds organizations helping the most vulnerable in the South Asian community, awarded eight of its eleven grants to non-profit community-based organizations directly helping domestic violence or gender-oppressed survivors.
Many grant recipients will use the funds to increase assistance to South Asian survivors during the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, Mai Family Services in Michigan, intends to hire a legal advocate to provide survivors the legal and support services they need. Saheli in Boston, Daya in Houston and Jahajee Sisters in New York City all intend to provide additional financial support to survivors for rent, utilities, groceries, legal and support services, childcare and transportation.
The work being done by these organizations is critical and a lifesaving resource for our community. More, however, must be done to end domestic violence. We need more prevention programs, increased funding for support services, domestic violence penalties that are consistent and firm, and we must change how family courts handle cases involving domestic violence.
All of this will take time. However, in the meantime, there are steps each of us can take to make an impact.
- Learn. Understand how domestic violence impacts the South Asian community. Clicking on the links in this piece is a start. A quick Google search for “domestic violence in the South Asian community” also leads to a number of helpful resources. In addition, the South Asian Americans Leading Together report, The Disparate Impact of COVID-19 across South Asian American Communities, highlights the challenges faced by domestic violence survivors during the COVID-19 pandemic.
- Donate or Volunteer. If you are able, make a financial contribution to organizations addressing domestic violence in the South Asian community or to the SABA Foundation. You can learn more about the SABA Foundation and its grantees here. Many organizations also have fundraisers that you may want to support. For example, Apna Ghar, a domestic violence advocacy organization in Chicago, has replaced their annual 5K, Strides against Violence, with a virtual fitness challenge throughout this month. In addition, these organizations need volunteers to assist at shelters, manage hotlines, provide interpreter or translation services, and help with outreach, education, fundraising and special projects.
- Speak up. Domestic Violence Awareness Month brings together voices across the country in an effort to raise awareness and send the clear message that this violence will not be tolerated. Many organizations offer social media resources you can use to amplify that message. The Domestic Violence Awareness Project’s #1Thing campaign allows individuals to share what they are doing to combat domestic violence. In addition, the #ListeningFromHome campaign from No More helps those experiencing domestic violence during the COVID-19 pandemic.
- Watch and listen for abuse, and if necessary, take action. Domestic violence is not something that just happens to other communities or other people. It happens in our community and it could happen to your friends or family members. Watching a friend or family member experience abuse is hard, and finding ways to start a conversation around abuse can be even harder. If you have noticed warning signs of abuse impacting someone in your life, The National Domestic Violence Hotline can offer advice and resources to help guide your conversation. You can visit their website or call them at 1-888-799-SAFE (7233). If the need is more urgent and you hear somebody getting hurt, or you think their life is at risk, call the police.
- Support. I know firsthand that the trauma associated with an abusive relationship does not end when the relationship ends. Survivors may need your support helping to find a job or a safe place to stay. They also may need a safe place to speak about their experiences – and as you create that safe place, it is critical to remember not to blame the survivor for the abuse they have endured. The National Domestic Violence Hotline also has resources to help you support survivors.
We all have a role to play. This October and throughout the year, I hope you consider taking action so that others may have the opportunity to do what I did … survive.
Priya Bathija is vice president, Strategic Initiatives at the American Hospital Association, where she leads a number of efforts to increase access to health and health care. She also serves as a trustee and former president of the South Asian Bar Association Foundation, a non-profit organization that evaluates and funds organizations helping the most vulnerable in the South Asian community.
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