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Crisis of Domestic Violence Against Immigrant and Refugee Women Addressed at Chapter Forum
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Crisis of Domestic Violence Against Immigrant and Refugee Women Addressed at Chapter Forum

(December 2000)

Violence against women is universal and strikes in all cultures and classes. However, for immigrant women, the trauma associated with domestic violence is often compounded by problems associated with immigration and acculturation. Their cultural background can also shape how women experience and respond to violence.

These issues were addressed at a recent Chapter forum by a panel of social workers who work with immigrant women victims of domestic violence.

Ms. Tanvi Tripathi, who coordinates domestic violence services for South Asian women, discussed how stereotypes make it difficult to address domestic violence issues. There is a myth within this country that Asians are a 'model minority', said Ms. Tanvi Tripathi. We are viewed as upwardly mobile and as successful. Some members of the Asian community embrace this myth because it presents us in a positive light. The problem is that reality doesn't always match the myth of success. Within the South Asian community, there is a reluctance to accept the reality of domestic violence because it detracts from the myth of being a model minority group. There is cultural pressure not to reveal domestic violence. Women who do speak out may be seen as deviant and are in the position of having to prove their abuse. Ms. Tripathi noted that for women, their experience is of being victimized twice; first by their abuser and then by the community that does not validate their experience.

The South Asian community is not alone in paying limited attention to domestic violence.

Ms. Fran Gau, a social worker who directs counseling services for Asian women, related a tragic event that happened to one of her clients two years ago. A Chinese woman in a violent relationship was murdered by her husband who then killed himself. The mainstream press largely ignored this murder/suicide. Ms. Gau and her staff wanted to focus public attention on this tragedy so that people would know that a victim of domestic violence was killed. They went to the District Attorney's office and the police to get permission to hold a candlelight vigil. Their response was that they should hold the event in Chinatown. Ms. Gau and her staff outraged by the implication that this woman's murder was of interest solely to the Asian community, successfully sought to focus public attention on this tragedy through candlelight vigils in front of Brooklyn Court.

Immigrant women, many of whom are undocumented, may be afraid to go to an agency for help with an abusive relationship. They may not know that they have rights or that services exist. When they do seek help, resources, especially legal, housing, and health care, can be difficult to obtain.

Many women also feel tremendous shame about being abused by their mate and are ambivalent about disclosing it. Ms. Emira Habiby Browne, who works with the Arab community, said that in the Arab culture, women are taught that it is taboo to discuss marital problems with others.

Immigrant women may have trouble adjusting to American culture. Ms. Browne said. "In Arab culture, women are brought up to be dependent. In America, women are expected to be more independent. This cultural difference has made it a challenge to develop programming that deals with women's issues."

The panelists provided a number of recommendations for working with immigrant women who are victims of domestic violence. First and foremost is to be culturally competent. Social workers need to examine their own biases and perceptions. It is also important to understand that women may choose not to leave an abusive relationship. While safety is paramount, in some cases, it may be more realistic if the social worker engages as a partner in prevention and works toward helping the woman stay safely in a relationship. Social workers need to start where the client is and if a woman is resistant to leaving an abusive relationship, attempts by a social worker to press her to do so may be unsuccessful and backfire, driving the women out of treatment "Don't assume you know what's best," suggested Ms. Klara Alcalay, "Let reality shape your interventions. Work toward developing choices."

Ms. Gau noted the destructive impact of men's attitudes on women's self-esteem. She said that she runs a support group for battered women attended by five Chinese women. Three out of the five women have had cosmetic surgery, including nose jobs, liposuction, and cosmetic eye surgery. Ms. Gau thinks that this high incidence of plastic surgery results from the women being constantly told by men that they are stupid, ugly, and do not deserve to be alive.

Ms. Tripathi agreed that work must be done to change men's attitudes and that treatment for batterers is essential.

She additionally noted that the ability to speak the same language or be from the same culture was helpful in gaining trust and building relationships.

The panelists, who come from different countries around the world, painted a sobering picture of women's lives internationally. Some women migrate to the United States subsequent to experiencing the trauma of war or extreme poverty in their country of origin. Women may also be coming from a country where they have limited rights or legal protections.

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