Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Yet more on domestic violence, South Asians and refugees.

First, let me say right now I do not consider myself an expert on refugees and domestic violence. No way! I admit to occasional arrogance but not in this case. (Nothing quite as scary as doing a google search on a subject you know nothing about and discovering your own blog post among the top dozen entries. Ouch!)

As stated, domestic violence is a tricky issue. And when it involves refugees (or other immigrant groups) it becomes even more complex.

Fortunately, refugees unlike many other immigrant women do not need to worry about their legal status or the need for sponsorship from a spouse in order to stay in this country. (Refugees receive an I-95 visa, which allows them to stay in this country and ultimately receive a green card and apply for citizenship. Therefore, their status in this country is generally not dependent on remaining with their spouse, an issue that complicates some domestic violence issues.)

However, the issue is still not simple. There are language and cultural barriers. Many people have no idea of how to communicate with refugees. They throw around terms in front of them like "order of protection" when the refugee has no idea what the concept even refers to. They begin speaking without establishing communication or rapport first. Even if an interpreter is not available, then there are some ways that are better than others to communicate. i.e. keep things simple, assume no common culture unless it's established that there is one, use vocabulary that the person knows, avoid technical terms, idioms or phrasal verbs (a phrasal verb is a two word compound word with a special meaning like "going out" or finding out" or "looking up"), repeat things back to them, have them repeat things back to you.

As for prevalence of the problem, this is probably quite difficult to say. Definitions of domestic violence vary widely and often people who are in a domestic violence situation don't realize it. Therefore defining and recognizing the problem, a first step before any quantitative measurement can take place, is quite difficult.

And specifically measuring the problem among refugees is extra difficult. They tend to sort of live on the margins of society and often don't communicate or interact well with the rest of us. When they do, they often aren't quite sure what we wish to hear and furthermore are not terribly likely to just blurt out family problems unless really, really desperate. Even when documented cases take place, like this one a sample of one is statistically insignificant. It means nothing. (Rumor is he thought his wife had an affair. Is this in any way significantly linked to the fact that they are Burmese? Not in any way I know.)

And among the mainstream culture, the people who spend the most time around refugees are often fearful of making them look bad because there are always some people out there who are anti-immigrant or racist or fearful of their jobs or what have you and one does not wish to fuel those fires.

For instance, a couple posts down I wrote an op-ed piece about the problems refugees have learning to drive and how some of them drive without licenses. I did my best to group Chinese graduate students in there in order not to make local refugees look bad. (At this point, however, I'm sick of it. As mentioned of the eight Nepali-Burmese I know, three have driven without drivers licenses and two continue to do so regularly. And did I mention that two of them owe their former roommates sums of money of a hundred dollars or more and are making no effort to pay it? These people are a public health threat.)

But anyway, I was writing about domestic violence, a subject I admitted that I knew very little about.

When one knows very little, research is always a good thing. With that in mind, I read the following article. "Domestic Violence in South Asian Communities in America: Advocacy and Intervention," by Amita Bhandari Preisser. It was pulbished in the academic journal "Violence Against Women," 1999: 5: 684-699, which I access through the University at Albany's databases.

It's an interesting article and describes the formation of an organization called ASHA, the Asian Women's Self-Help Association, which is based in the Washington DC Area. It describes the formation of this organization and its work on domestic violence issues among South Asian (Pakistani, Indian, Bangladeshi, Sri Lankan, Nepali and members of the South Asian diaspora) people. I do not have any first hand information on this organization and have never had any contact with it. Therefore I am merely repeating what the article says, and at times with my own interpretation. Of course, those with a strong interest in the subject would do well to read the article itself.

First, an aside. (Always an aside.) As stated, not all cultures are the same. Nor are they inherently equal. And sense of guilt and shame are often culturally based. If you read your old testament there is at times a sense that a person commits sin even if they did not willingly choose to commit the act. The same is true in traditional Chinese culture. In other words, the act itself is bad and shameful even if the person had no choice in whether or not it was committed or was forced into doing it. For instance, in traditional Confucian cultures, such as China and Korea, the response to rape was often suicide by the victim. This is because being raped is shameful in these cultures. In our culture, we believe that the shame should not lie with the victim, but, as stated not all cultures see things the same way.

As an aside, when I write about other cultures I tend to use China-oriented examples to make points. Although Chinese are not terribly common among refugees, they are a very different culture that I have great familiarity with so I find them useful for making examples to sort of give people the perspective I wish them to have.

As I understand it, in South Asian cultures the family is important. Of course, this could largely be a sham, one of those lies cultures tell to outsiders so often that they come to believe it themselves, but that's the assertion. (I mean in Taiwan, family is said to be important and what that really means is that the wife is not supposed to complain when her husband hangs out in brothels or that the children are supposed to question when their parents say stupid things. But if one is willing to put up with all this there will always be a network of people who will take you in and assist you. Go family! Remember a strong family is not necessarily a good thing. Yet they still insist their family structure is superior to ours because most American women would get a divorce if their husband hung out in brothels. Does this make their family structure stronger or just show lower standards? You decide.)

It also needs to be said that in Chinese, and presumably South Asian, cultures admitting a problem can be a shameful thing. Therefore few do it. And the people who do, and thus bring shame on their group, are often ostracized because of it.

Which is why, for instance, you can still get situations like when a Chinese graduate student, PhD candidate studying in Albany told me that there was no domestic violence in China. (This is bullsh*t. There's lots of domestic violence in Chinese culture.) Instead of acknowledging a problem, the initial reaction is to hide it and therefore save face and keep up public appearances.

By contrast, here in America we have a tendency to actually seek out problems, publicize them and then see this as an important first step towards fixing them. American society is full of activist types. And these types just love to tell you about the problems they have discovered, particularly if they think they can get you to help them fix them. In fact, a friend of mine is a college professor and states that one of the things he really enjoys about being on a campus is constant exposure to nineteen year olds who have just learned the world is not fair, and wish to tell everyone they know about it and try to correct this lack of fairness. No matter what the cause is, there is someone in America who wishes to publicize it. It's part of our society and it's part of what makes this country great.

(And, yes, perhaps I was mean to Una Hardester. Then again, she did mis-state at least one set of facts in her post, something I think she'd want to be careful about. But the world needs young, self-important activist types determined to fix things even if they do take themselves much too seriously sometimes. When I was her age, I was busy trying to save the world from nuclear war and keep the US out of Central America, and I took these causes and myself much too seriously too. Hey Una, remember the Contras? Does the name Eden Pastora ring any bells? The acronym MAD? And if so what about Biafra? No matter. The problem with such types is, of course, when they live in a fantasy world and expect the rest of us to live there too. If that happens nothing ever gets fixed. Personally I avoid causes these days. Want to make the world a better place? Just find a refugee who needs help buying a cell-phone and take him to the mall and help him figure out the contract. When you do, you might even get to hear some bizarre story about cooking curried bear meat over a campfire in the woods of SE Asia. It's much simpler than attending meetings and listening to jargon and watching frustrated politicians and young activist types compete with one another to see who can be taken the most seriously. And if it makes her critics pause and think, well although I think I've only seen Una Hardester in person a few times, she's always looked noticeably unhappy when I've seen her.)

Which brings me back to the article on South Asian Domestic Violence.

Here's some excerpts of significant portions, with my thoughts in parentheses.:

1) sense of shame in admitting the problem. (Undoubtedly there's a culture aspect here but one also wonders if anyone has tried to tie domestic violence issues in with Stockholm syndrome? And there's that bizarre mentality of "I am truly a superior human being because I am martyring myself so much for this relationship and marriage" which is occasionally seen, too.)

2) Examples of husbands seizing the wife's assets and not letting her use them because "he knows how to manage the money better."

3) Pressure from other women within the community to remain in the relationship "for the sake of the children." (Is it really in the children's best interest to live in an environment where their mother gets victimized?)

4) maintaining silence. Shame in taking action such as having the abusive spouse removed from the house.

5) Husband using finances to control the wife.

6) Fear of authorities, partially because of the cultural gap.

7) Counseling and intervention strategies need to be culturally appropriate.

8) Quote: "Providing competent services requires clarification of issues and the use of a much more comprehensive definition of domestic violence in the South Asian context. Domestic violence against South Asian women is embedded in the contxt of cultural, historical and economic relationships. The force of class, caste, intrafamily structures, religion, immigrant status, and economic status all have elements of control, which could be directed at women." (from page 692 of the article.)

9) Quote: "In the South Asian community, domestic violence occurs not simply between a woman and her spouse but between a woman, her spouse, in-laws, and the community at large. One reason for this may be that certain practices and traditions have legitimized the subordination of women to elders in South Asian cultures. A woman may subscribe to this value system and not consider it negative in the normal course of life. But when abused, issues such as obedience to family elders, upholding of family honor, fear of losing children and dictates of religious practices may influence her to suffer in silence rather than seek help. The experience of violence of a South Asian woman includes coercion, exploitation, ostracism, and discrimination within her family and the community." (also from page 692 of the article.)

10) Perpetrators include such persons as sister-in-law, mother-in-law and brother-in-laws.

11) abuse includes not just physical but also economic abuse. Also common is emotional abuse centered around control. Article lists isolation, coercion, threats, intimidation, belittling and insulting in public as well as using children to manipulate


Also not stated in the article, is that in some communities where institutions such as arranged marriages occur, often the strong sense of community and extended family and fear of reputational harm can actually curb incidents of domestic violence. When it occurs someone steps in, someone respected, and often says that the behavior is not acceptable and should stop and be discussed. However in America, among refugees and other immigrant, at times, this sense of community breaks down. What goes on behind closed doors remains hidden.(Actually this is mentioned on page 694, although I had missed it when I read the article the first time.)

The article also includes a list of 18 social service strategies as well as 15 legal intervention strategies.

For a full lists, see the article. Here's some excerpts.:

Social Service Intervention Strategies.
a) recognize the multidimensional nature of the problem
b) understand her natal family is often back home and she is seeking help because she has run out of resources
c) understand emphasis of kinship issues
d) understand communication patterns are different
e) understand roots of fear, reluctance or seeming lack of trust in formal institutions
f) issues of identity, privacy, marriage, dowry, caste, religion, child rearing, collective sense of identity, role and structure of family life all need to be taken into account
g) identify for her your roles as service provider, explain the extent to whcih you can assist her and your limitations

Legal intervention strategies
a) understand the familial authority relationships, gender and generational, and their role in the abuse
b) provide both criminal and civil remedies
c)provide all elgal options and consequences and an understanding of hte US legal system
d) monitor court cases and the role of the police
e) develop a kinship relationship with the woman to enhance communication. Do not mistake her silence for passivity. It takes a long time to build trust.

In conclusion, in my opinion, the article is well worth reading.

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