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A sinister form of domestic violence is doing grave harm to immigrant women

Topics in Health: Lessons From The Field

A sinister form of domestic violence is doing grave harm to immigrant women

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(Image: Three Sisters by Tanya Momi)
(Image: Three Sisters by Tanya Momi)

In mid-June, an unsettling post slipped into our Facebook newsfeed. It was a GoFundMe memorial fundraiser sent by a stranger directly from the Facebook account of someone we knew. Someone, in fact, we’d spoken to only two days earlier, about her devastating experience surviving domestic violence (DV). We knew our survivor, Leena, was in the hospital recuperating from surgery on a broken arm. Even from her hospital bed, she kept texting us about her recovery. 

At first we thought the fundraiser was a prank. Facebook accounts get hacked all the time. Then messages in our survivor networks confirmed that Leena was gone. 

It’s not easy to articulate our reaction to Leena’s death. For over a year and a half we had gotten to know her intimately. We knew that domestic abuse had destroyed her faith in marriage. Her own family had disowned her. We knew she struggled for money. Despite our disbelief, we understood why she invited her abusive ex-partner to be her roommate, so she could make rent during COVID. 

Leena had two young children by him. She was fighting to get special needs help for one. Twenty years earlier, her first husband had kidnapped her firstborn daughter and fled to Qatar. Leena was broken when that daughter refused all contact. 

As women and mothers, we couldn’t understand how life could target vulnerable women like Leena so unfairly. As journalists, we wanted to find out why. 

While the rapid spike in domestic violence cases during the pandemic drove our reporting, its impact on survivors like Leena gave us impetus. 

We began at Narika, a Bay Area domestic violence agency serving desis (South Asians). They received two to three calls a week from women abandoned in India. We discovered that in 2019 alone, the Indian Ministry of External Affairs logged nearly 4,000 official complaints about marital abuse and abandonment, which may be an under-count. Various reports suggest that as many as 30,000 Indian American women may have been abandoned in this manner. 

Many women arrived in the U.S. on dependent H4 visas after arranged marriages. If a marriage collapses, H1B visa-holder husbands could discard wives by simply withdrawing her H4 status to make her residency illegal. This still holds true. Unless a wife files a police complaint about domestic violence — few do — a husband can divorce her and withhold resources. Abusers exploit this legal loophole with impunity. No one says anything because domestic violence is a taboo subject in the desi community. 

We wanted to expose how immigrant survivors got trapped in legal limbo by immigration policy and transnational jurisdictions following abandonment. In the U.S. the practice is underreported, leading to a glaring lack of data, its victims unseen by policymaking audiences. 

So, we followed up on our reporting project by taking to the airways and social media to amplify this crime, and get survivors the justice they deserve. 

For both of us, the most revelatory part of this experience was the power of community engagement. Hosts on desi radio shows gave us a platform to reach immigrant audiences. Friends and colleagues retweeted our Twitter streams and Twitter space conversations with survivors and caseworkers. 

India Currents hosted a round table on this topic with a survivor, a lawyer, and a domestic violence community leader, with us leading the discussion. And our publisher was invited to showcase our project on KQED, the public media outlet serving the Bay Area. In August, an invitation to speak about our project and community journalism at NAHJ’s annual conference led to another invitation to write an op-ed for the San Diego Union-Tribune. 

Indiaspora, a nonprofit organization for a network of global Indian-origin leaders, also published our op-ed. Then they invited us to speak at their 10th anniversary forum on October 15 in San Jose, on a panel about taboo subjects. 

Very few men showed up to our session, choosing instead, to attend panels on Indian American success stories. While disappointing, that did not surprise us. But we had an unexpectedly positive outcome. Indiaspora conference leaders who came for a taster stayed through the entirety of our panel discussion. They want to move this conversation to the mainstage in future events. 

Without a doubt, transnational abandonment is one of the most sinister and damaging forms of abuse perpetrated on immigrant women. 

We’ve learned that domestic abuse occurs across economic strata in every community, but perpetrators of transnational abandonment in the desi community exploit not just patriarchal cultural norms, but also the immigration laws of the U.S. Yet, it’s barely acknowledged in the Indian diaspora or by policymakers. 

Our community needs straightforward conversations about our prejudices and fears. Men should have the courage to call out injustice among their peers. Women could be better allies to survivors. Our community has to step up and support domestic violence agencies who need funds to better serve survivors. 

Mainstream news can learn from community media like India Currents about the nuances of our culture, beyond the model minority myth. And lawmakers need to pay attention to this phenomenon to close loopholes in immigration law. 

As journalists reporting on domestic violence and abandonment, we wanted to make every survivor’s story count. We told Leena’s story in print, on audio, on Twitter, in conferences, and other platforms. And yet there’s a niggling feeling that we failed her, even though we did everything to support her cause. 

It's been a year and a half since we set out to investigate how domestic violence and transnational abandonment upended the lives of immigrant women like Leena. Even though we learned to listen to survivors without showing emotion, and reported their stories objectively, we’ve realized that these women view us as more than journalists. They’ve trusted us with deeply personal stories. Did they see us as friends? Maybe they do. 

Survivors reached out to us after our first stories came out. Each one had a disheartening tale of neglect and callous treatment by those closest to them. 

But they texted us about good news. A new boyfriend. A new job. 

They texted us when they were down. Leena sent us closeup pictures of her wounds. 

Then she texted heart emojis because we asked, “How's the healing going?” 

Her last texts said, “Fell down. Started depression meds. Wanted to be dead so bad. Will talk more this week.” 

We never got the chance to. 

The GoFundMe raised more than $4,000 for Leena’s funeral. It’s money she could have used when she was alive.


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