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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.

Studies also show that the present financial crisis has led to an increase in violence because men who are stressed out let off steam by beating their wives. “We are seeing more women coming in because of the instability in the family,” said Tiloma Jayasinghe, head of Sakhi.

However, economically empowered South Asian women are also silent victims of domestic violence because of the cultural handcuffs and the shame factor. Once children come into the picture, plans of leaving are retired.

“Women will endure anything for their children. By the time they grow up, women are too emotionally drained to leave,” said Razia Meer who works at Manavi, the oldest domestic violence group in the U.S., which is based in New Jersey and founded in 1985.

Geography offers no respite for the South Asian woman. Back home the community will OK the violence while the family blames the woman for being a bad wife. Abroad, state protection is more accessible but she is completely alone, which gives the husband greater license to abuse.

The U.S. offers better services for battered women compared to the countries they leave behind where, despite stringent laws, victims are subject to harassment by the police especially in rural areas. “The legal system is broken and enforcement is a big fat mess,” said Dutt.

On the other hand, many South Asian immigrants cannot access government services because of the language deficiency. “She would do a double take before going to the cops,” said Jayasinghe.

Title VI of the Civil Rights Act requires state courts receiving federal assistance to provide interpreters to people who need them. The police are also required to facilitate translation — sometimes under high pressure, like when rescuing an incoherent, hysterical woman from a dangerous situation.

But domestic violence groups find that enforcement is slack and men are able to manipulate the situation to their advantage. The cops, for instance, often tell women to return with someone who speaks English and judges have even asked the victim’s children and friends to interpret.

In 2009, a report produced by the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU found that out of 25 million people in the U.S. with limited proficiency in English who need an interpreter, 13 million live in states that do not require their courts to provide interpreters in civil cases and another 6 million are in states that charge for an interpreter.

After surveying 158 courts in 2006, the National Center for State Courts concluded that courts had sparse non-English language instructional material on protection orders, rarely posted signs on availability of interpreter services and had limited relationship with community-based organizations.

Sakhi plans to introduce a scheme where a woman going to a precinct or courthouse will carry an index card that reads “I have the right to communicate in my language.”

The inability of governments, even in developed countries, to cope with the widespread epidemic makes prevention vital. “How many interpreters can NYC provide?” asked Dutt. “No country is ever going to have enough resources to take care of battered women.”

Betwa Sharma is the New York/United Nations correspondent for the Press Trust of India and is a freelance journalist.