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Opinion: Domestic violence a crime without borders

Immigrants suffer silently in the US, isolated by language, economic hardship and cultural norms.

Thousands of South Asian women who immigrated to the U.S. are suffering from domestic violence. Here, an Indian woman offers prayers inside a church at Bagdogra on the outskirts of the eastern Indian city of Siliguri, April 2, 2010. (Rupak De Chowdhuri/Reuters)

NEW YORK — Thousands of South Asian women in the United States are silent victims of domestic and sexual violence unleashed by partners who control their lives. They are helpless in a foreign country because of language constraints, economic exile and a cultural stranglehold.

The troubles of the South Asian women in the U.S. are reflective of other immigrant communities from South America and Africa that also battle domestic violence. Experts note that victims, across the board, get stuck in the cycle of abuse because of language and education barriers, lack of legal access and the risk of deportation.

The Hispanic community, for instance, has the same tradition of extended families as the South Asians that make it more difficult for women to break from the ranks.

“Many of the struggles South Asian survivors face echo across other immigrant groups,” said Purvi Shah, a consultant on violence against women who has worked in the field for 15 years. “It is for this reason that we all must work to eliminate these barriers and to mobilize our communities to end abuse before it even begins.”

Domestic violence is described as the “most pervasive yet the least recognized human rights abuse in the world” by the United Nations. One in three women has been physically assaulted at least once in her lifetime as has one in four pregnant women.

Voices that oppose the abuse in the immigrant community have grown stronger than ever before but poorly funded grassroots groups have their limitations. Despite social and financial constraints in the past two decades, more than 20 support and advocacy groups against domestic violence have grabbed a toehold in the immigrant community.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that in the U.S. each year, women experience about 4.8 million intimate partner-related physical assaults and rapes. In 2005, 78 percent of victims from the resulting 1,510 deaths were women.

“The number of women being battered may not have decreased but the women seeking help has increased,” said Mallika Dutt who runs Breakthrough, an international human rights organization that operates in India and the U.S.

In 1989, Dutt co-founded the first domestic violence group for South Asian women in New York. The activist describes how painful it was for a new community launching itself in America to see its dirty linen aired in public. “Men would come and spit at us during rallies. They would call us home breakers and lesbians,” she said.

The situation is different now. The community has transformed from first-generation immigrants to confident second-generation citizens who are not solely preoccupied with making a living but are more sensitized to social problems of their neighborhood.

Even as more women reach out to domestic violence groups, a toxic set of circumstances prevent the majority from getting assistance. Brides coming from South Asia are particularly vulnerable if they do not speak English and are dependent on their husbands to survive because their visa status prohibits them from working, getting a driving license or a social security number.

A few women try to earn some under-the-table cash but men keep them isolated by locking them in the house without a phone. This has caused domestic violence groups to concentrate on economic empowerment through programs like computer training, language classes, assistance with college applications and placement agencies.

Still, others keep quiet because they cannot afford to lose face in the community or shame their families. If the couple has a dubious immigrant status, then the risk of deportation seals the silence.

Reaching out for support also means lying and risking discovery. “We have had situations where he has followed her right up to our center,” said Rosaana Conforme who works with Sakhi. “They usually cannot come back.”

A large number of women who seek help return to abusive relationships due to lack of options coupled with false hopes of change in her partner. “It can be very frustrating to see this but in the end it is her decision,” said Conforme.