Children in Indian American community face intergenerational trauma from witnessing domestic abuse

Published on
July 10, 2021

Even as Indian Americans have made big strides in areas of education, science, and technology in their adopted country, the specter of family violence in the community has largely remained hidden.

According to surveys conducted by Anita Raj of the University of California, San Diego and Neely Mahapatra at the University of Wyoming, 40% of South Asian women in U.S. experience intimate partner violence. According to 2018 American Community Survey data, Indians make up 80% of all South Asians in the U.S. The fact that almost every state in U.S. has one or more nonprofits working to support South Asian victims of violence tells its own story. 

For many Indian Americans — a lot of whom are first-generation immigrants — their cultural norms are still firmly placed in Indian culture, and while there are many positive traditional values going back thousands of years, there is also a legacy of deep-rooted patriarchy. A glaring example is the practice of dowries for marriage. While the practice has been outlawed, it still thrives and underscores the position of women in the society. The image of meek, docile, and subservient woman is depicted as desirable in all cultural settings, which serves to take agency away from women. 

According to 1996 research by S.D. Dasgupta on Asian Indian women’s experience of domestic violence in the U.S., highly educated women also endure spousal abuse due to culturally enforced ideals of the good wife. More recent research by Teuta Peja at Loyola University finds that the stigma of divorce and fear of ostracization by family weighs heavy on the minds of women. 

A community that prides itself on close-knit family structures and generations living together also has a flip side: the story of generations of women mired in silence, acceptance, and abuse. Children who witness — and are often victims — of abuse see its acceptance and perpetrate the cycle further as adults, even as they carry the trauma from their childhood. Research conducted in 2012 on spousal violence against Indian women by Aparna Mukherjee and Sulabha Parasuraman confirms that childhood exposure to parental spousal violence shapes gender norms as well as perpetuates the cycle of intergenerational trauma. 

It has not helped that the community shirks away from open conversations about mental health and the effect of trauma and abuse on well-being. As a community, Indian Americans largely go through intergenerational trauma without awareness, understanding, or help. Lacking these supports, they continue to perpetuate and accept the cycle of abuse and control. 

In the course of my reporting, supported by the Center for Health Journalism’s Impact Fund for Reporting on Domestic Violence, I’ll seek to explore the short- and long-term effects of domestic violence on families and children in the Indian American community. 

What’s needed is an exploration of cultural attitudes within the community that play a role in perpetration of domestic violence. There is the effect of displacement and isolation on domestic abuse, especially in the case of first-generation immigrants. There is also the impact of witnessing domestic violence on children: the trauma and psychological impacts as well as the intergenerational effect of witnessing domestic violence. Still lacking are the treatment models that enable children to heal and avoid becoming abusers or victims. There are challenges posed by the community’s reluctance to engage in conversations about domestic violence, child abuse and mental health. The responsiveness of public agencies such as the police and child protective services is imperative in situations of domestic violence. There is the issue of distrust in the system within the community as well as the initiatives being taken for cultural responsiveness and sensitivity trainings. The role of emerging community- and family-based interventions becomes important in this scenario. 

While women achievers are celebrated in ethnic media, there is little discussion about the scourge that domestic violence is in our community. Khabar, the Atlanta-based magazine for the Indian community, will be partnering in this journalism project. Raksha, the Georgia-based nonprofit working with South Asian victims of violence, will also be a partnering to bring out the stories of survivors.