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Getting Creative to Combat Domestic Violence

The Violence Against Women Act, signed into law by President Clinton in 1994, has radically changed the way Americans think about sexual and domestic violence. But recent evidence suggests that VAWA has protected certain populations of Americans far better than others.
(Photo: Max Maier/Shutterstock)

(Photo: Max Maier/Shutterstock)

As advocates strategize to maximize the potential of the Violence Against Women Act, marginalized groups are arguing for a need to expand the range of protections available to women of color.

The South Asian community has become particularly active on this issue in the past few years, with a significant number of culturally targeted advocacy organizations emerging to raise awareness of the unique ways that domestic violence impacts South Asian women.

“We’d like to move toward being present at the next re-authorization [in 2018] for the Violence Against Women Act,” noted Tiloma Jayasinghe during a recent event at New America. “That would be a good indicator of how we’ve muscled up more than what we are now.”

Jayasinghe was joined by Aparna Bhattacharyya of Raksha, Inc., Manjusha Kulkarni of the South Asian Network, the New York Anti-Violence Project’s Sharon Stapel, and Shilpa Phadke of the Center for American Progress’s Women’s Initiative for a discussion on how VAWA can best accommodate the needs of survivors of domestic violence within the United States’ rapidly expanding South Asian population.

Despite this growing presence, federal policy on issues affecting South Asian women has faced a remarkably difficult road to becoming law.

Between 2000 and 2010, the number of South Asians living in the U.S. (defined as individuals originating from India, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and the Maldives) grew by 81 percent, officially making it the “fastest growing major ethnic group in the United States” according to U.S. Census data.

Despite this growing presence, federal policy on issues affecting South Asian women has faced a remarkably difficult road to becoming law. The 2013 re-authorization of VAWA is a good example—despite protections for immigrants already existing in previous versions of the domestic violence policy, GOP legislators blocked the bill after finding its expansion of specific minority-oriented protections disagreeable.

And while the act eventually passed, the final version of the bill lacked the bite that many activists were expecting.

“My frustration is that when this law passed in 2005, survivors were supposed to get some path to apply for temporary work authorization,” Bhattacharyya explained. “Ten years later there’s still not a way to apply for this relief.”

The inclusion of visas for immigrant survivors of domestic abuse in particular has become more of a political football in the wake of President Obama’s recent actions on immigration, but protections for immigrant women have actually existed within the VAWA legislation for the past 15 years. In 2000, U-visas were created to give non-citizen survivors of domestic violence a legal means of staying in the country and securing employment, but incredibly high demand coupled with federal delays in the visa application process have left survivors unable to access the benefits granted by the legislation.

“Imagine being undocumented and having to support yourself. How do you survive?” Bhattacharyya wondered. In her opinion, finally implementing the provisions governing work authorization for immigrant survivors is a much needed step in making VAWA live up to its goal of “increasing access for survivors.”

But for Kulkarni, increasing access won’t mean much if survivors are too afraid to report abuse. “One of the main gaps that our community faces as a result of VAWA is really the focus on law enforcement,” she pointed out. “A limitation of when you look at law enforcement is [knowing if] they are prepared to deal with our community, and in a lot of situations they just frankly are not.”

Since some forms of immigration relief (U-visas for example) are only available to survivors that comply with criminal investigations, instances of police incompetence can have very real effects on the lives of immigrant survivors, with fears of deportation trumping the desire to report and cooperate.

“I think we are talking about marginalized communities generally, but I also think we are discussing intersecting themes,” Stapel noted after emphasizing how her work to pass VAWA protections for queer communities overlaps with the current work being done by South Asian domestic violence organizations.

As the director of the New York City Anti-Violence Project, she has worked to reduce domestic violence in LGBTQ communities, yet “to this day I still have people tell me that domestic violence doesn’t exist in LGBT communities,” Stapel admitted.

When asked about her experiences during the last VAWA re-authorization cycle, Stapel said that “framing is so critical” when promoting so-called “niche” issues to a larger community.

This tension between policy and social perception raises an important question: If VAWA only deals with part of the problem, what else can be done to support survivors? “I think that the power of stories and personalization tend to help,” Shilpa Phadke observed. In her work at the Center for American Progress, Phadke has found that storytelling can be a powerful tool in making community members “comfortable on issues that they’re not comfortable with.”

But raising awareness about the need for cultural change is arguably a lot easier than actually producing it, especially in communities that have deeply entrenched notions of gender relations. To deal with this problem, Kulkarni and Bhattacharyya offered two approaches to engaging the community in domestic violence awareness—direct conversation and a broad offering of community resources.

“We’ve had couples come in for health care, and our staff has been able to spot it [signs of gender violence],” Kulkarni acknowledged. As an example, Kulkarni recalled a moment when a husband became verbally abusive to his spouse, and a member of the South Asian Network stepped in and refused to help the couple until the husband apologized.

Raising awareness about the need for cultural change is arguably a lot easier than actually producing it, especially in communities that have deeply entrenched notions of gender relations.

“[After the incident] there were tears in her [the wife’s] eyes because no one had ever stood up for her,” Kulkarni said, reiterating the need for domestic violence organizations to actively promote gender justice in their spheres of influence.

Bhattacharyya agreed that addressing signs of domestic violence with a more direct approach often works in isolated situations among small groups, but quickly clarified that addressing domestic violence “is different for other organizations” that want to impact the community at-large.

In her work, Bhattacharyya has found that providing multiple services allows people to see her organization as an integral part of the community, which in turn makes it easier for the group to bring up uncomfortable issues like domestic violence and patriarchal traditions.

Unfortunately, this approach presents a unique challenge. Couching domestic violence within broader efforts for social justice in specific ethnic communities can do much to spread awareness internally about the problem, but this strategy can also have the unintended effect of sacrificing engagement at broader levels. The resulting balancing act leaves South Asian organizations in a difficult position where their advocacy must hover between over-generalizing and being too specific.

But the panelists were confident that the South Asian community could find a way to simultaneously encourage external allyship while also promoting an internal shift in perception. “If you talk about the issue you can’t forget the community, and if you talk about the community you can’t forget the issue,” Jayasinghe concluded.

This post originally appeared in New America’s digital magazine, The Weekly Wonk, a Pacific Standard partner site. Sign up to get The Weekly Wonk delivered to your inbox, and follow @NewAmerica on Twitter.