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South Asian women in U.S. face a new form of abuse through abandonment

South Asian women in U.S. face a new form of abuse through abandonment

(Image by Gerd Altmann via Pixabay)
(Image by Gerd Altmann via Pixabay)

In traditional South Asian families, women trapped in abusive situations don’t leave for fear of societal scorn. “What will people say?” 

Our social structure, based on arranged marriages and multi-generational households, regards family as sacrosanct — keeping the family intact is prioritized over individual wellbeing. 

So victims stay to avoid disrupting family dynamics, losing status, or harming their financial security or children. 

Sometimes parents don’t take divorced daughters back. 

As domestic violence spiked among women of color and minorities during the pandemic, a new form of violence against women — transnational abandonment — began to manifest in South Asian immigrant communities. 

Transnational abandonment is a form of domestic abuse in which vulnerable immigrant women are abandoned in their country of origin by their husbands. This phenomenon is particularly prevalent within the South Asian community, and in marriages where victims face domestic violence, emotional abuse, cultural alienation, or financial exploitation. Their dependency and inaction, steeped in inflexible traditions, propels a vicious cycle of intimate partner violence or in-law violence. 

Narika, a 30 year-old Fremont-based domestic violence advocacy group with 90% of its South Asian clients connected to the Bay Area, reported a three-fold increase in domestic violence calls since the pandemic began and two to three cases of transnational abandonment a week. 

Transnational abandonment is a form of domestic abuse in which vulnerable immigrant women are abandoned in their country of origin by their husbands. The phenomenon is particularly prevalent within the South Asian community.

Once they women are deliberately removed from the US, these disposable women lose legal protections, rights to their homes, finances and even children. Narika reports an instance where a woman was dropped off at a grocery store and never saw her husband again. 

In the Bay Area, many immigrant women are dependents of H1B visa holders employed by Silicon Valley’s tech sector. When the Trump administration revoked their work permits, they lost their right to work and experienced increasing abuse, domestic servitude, and financial dependency. During the pandemic, the Asian Pacific Institute on Gender Based Violence recorded a 76% increase in hotline calls, reporting that 64% of Indian and Pakistani women had reported intimate partner violence. Narika has issued $50,000 in cash assistance requests in the past year. 

Mainstream media often underreports these issues. Stories offer domestic violence statistics under broad ethnic categories but few explicitly address the South Asian perspective. 

Our project “Desi Dost — You’ve Got a Friendwill use a culturally sensitive approach to investigate the dynamics of domestic violence in South Asian families, in a patriarchal society which views it as a taboo subject. We want to draw it out of the shadows and raise awareness through honest conversations with survivors, advocates, and community members, so victims and families recognize different forms of domestic violence that are wrapped in cultural codes, and to show a pathway forward through noncriminal options such as restorative justice. 

Our project, in partnership with India Currents and supported by the Center for Health Journalism’s Domestic Violence Impact Reporting Fund, will share stories of hope from survivors, to give other victims a sense of empowerment while offering safety net resources and expert advice pertinent to South Asian families. We will explore cultural taboos, restorative justice, intergenerational disconnect, transnational abandonment, and legal and financial protections to consider. For example, how does the Violence Against Women Act Reauthorization Act help our community when it has few protections for abandoned victims who don’t reside in the U.S.? Narika, the Bay Area domestic violence advocacy group, will partner with us. 

Ultimately, we want these stories to shape the narrative and shift perceptions on what healthy relationships mean, so that survivors in our community get the help they deserve. 

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