Dr. Anita Raj

BOSTON (WOMENSENEWS)–The abuse was so bad at times, Shirpa Vajeeb often didn’t know when one day ended and the next began. Life for the Indian immigrant had become a prison, her punishment for marrying an abusive man she did not know and moving with him to a country even less familiar.

For eight years Vajeeb was a prisoner of domestic violence, trapped in a complex web of cultural expectations, familial duties and U.S. immigration laws.

“If I did something wrong, if I make any mistake, he would ground me,” said Vajeeb, 29, who asked that her real name not be used, out of fear for her safety and that of her 7-year-old daughter. “It got worse after I had my child. He wouldn’t let me talk to friends; he would disconnect our long-distance service so I couldn’t talk to my family . . . And, yes, sometimes he would hit me.”

“It took me several years to leave,” she added. “I’ve just always believed that once you’re married, you stay married.”

Vajeeb’s story of verbal, mental and physical abuse by the man her parents arranged for her to marry in the early 1990s may be remarkable only because it is apparently so commonplace among the rapidly growing numbers of South Asian women, both legal and undocumented, living in the U.S.

In a study published in the April edition of the Journal of the American Medical Women’s Association, “Intimate Partner Violence Against South Asian Women in Greater Boston,” Dr. Anita Raj of Boston University and Dr. Jay Silverman of Harvard University found that 40 percent of the 160 South Asian women they surveyed in communities throughout the Boston area in 1998 were victims of “male-perpetrated intimate partner violence.” Of those women, 90 percent had been abused within the past year. Nearly 75 percent of the women reporting abuse were married, more than half (51.6 percent) had children, and two-thirds of those who reported physical abuse also reported sexual abuse.

According to the study’s findings, few women sought aid from social service organizations and many held self-blaming attitudes. Only 11 percent of those who suffered or continue to suffer from domestic abuse pursued some form of counseling and 16 percent said they sometimes deserve to be abused by their male partners.

“We believe it’s an issue in every community,” said Raj, 31, whose study focused largely on immigrant women from India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Nepal. “But I think it’s always a surprise to see how pervasive it is.”

Rapid Increase in Immigration Leaves Many Women Stranded

The 2000 U.S. census indicates that the number of Asian-Indians living in this country skyrocketed to 1.7 million, up 106 percent since 1990. Those in the immigration services industry attribute the population explosion to economic development within the high-tech sector–which often imports highly educated men eligible for special work permits. These men are often accompanied by spouses with holding a type of visa that does not permit them to seek paid employment.

Dr. Raj said she believes that immigrant women are “disproportionately affected” by domestic abuse, though few studies exist to allow for comparisons between different ethnic groups. How questions are asked, how “abuse” is characterized and the methods for obtaining information make it extremely difficult to compare and contrast, she said.

Those in the immigrant services industry do not worry about definitions; they are concerned about what they confront each day. Reema Kalra, an outreach coordinator for the Asian Task Force against Domestic Violence, Inc., a Boston-area advocacy group, said the greatest challenge for her organization is getting the word out–in as many languages as possible–about the availability of resources.

The Asian Task Force, founded in 1987, runs advertisements in foreign language newspapers, posts fliers in immigrant neighborhoods and hands out palm-sized informational cards at community festivals. The group operates a 14-day safe-home, a 90-day shelter and a 24-hour emergency hotline. It also provides a range of legal and immigration services. And yet, said Kalra, they can’t seem to reach the masses of women who so desperately need their help.

“With the Asian community, it’s hard to break certain stigmas,” said Kalra, a native of India who has lived in the United States for the past five years. “They think we’re trying to break up their family. The challenge is to show that if there’s abuse going on, the family is already broken.

“In many Asian languages,” Kalra added, “there’s not even a word for ‘domestic violence.'”

Spousal Visas Do Not Permit Holder to Seek Employment

Other organizations have since jointed in attempts to reduce domestic violence within the U.S. Asian community. Raksha Inc. is an education and advocacy group that works specifically with the South Asian population in Georgia (it helped Vajeeb escape her husband, obtain a work permit and win custody of her daughter). The organization was founded in 1995 and specializes in immigration policy and support services. But with tighter immigration laws following Sept. 11, said Aparna Bhattacharyya, the executive director, it’s harder than ever to get a non-U.S. citizen out of a dangerous relationship.

Unless they’re willing to prosecute, said Bhattacharyya, it’s difficult to help. Many battered women are here on spousal visas, linked to their husband’s special visa given only to those with job skills determined to be needed in the United States. This visa permits the skilled worker to be employed, but not the spouse.

“There are not a lot of options,” said Bhattacharyya. “You can’t go back to your husband. Shame sometimes prevents people from wanting to return home. In these cases, we just don’t know what to do.”

Recent amendments to the 1994 Violence against Women Act have made it easier for battered immigrants to gain access to support services and gain legal status. Among the changes two years ago was a new type of visa created for victims of certain serious crimes, including domestic violence, sexual assault, stalking and trafficking. The number of these so-called U-visas is capped at 10,000 per year. The Attorney General may adjust the status of those with U-visas to lawful permanent residents if they have been present in the U.S. for three years. However, they also must prove the abuse and help authorities investigate and then prosecute the crime.

Immigration Status a Power-Control Tool

Getting women to come forward with the allegations of abuse remains a hurdle. Whether it’s due to a lack of information, language difficulties or their undocumented status, battered immigrant women remain reluctant to seek assistance.

“Immigration status is often used as a power-control tool,” said Leslye Orloff, director of the immigrant women program at the NOW Legal and Defense and Education Fund in Washington, D.C. These women don’t understand that they can go to a service provider or a lawyer without being reported to Immigration and Naturalization Service, Orloff said. “Their fear of immigration and deportation perpetuates everything.”

Moreover, said Bhattacharyya, the problem is rooted in how Asian societies view women. Arranged marriages are still the norm, as well as the belief that a woman is the property of her husband, and her husband’s family, upon marriage.

“Divorce is not that common, or even close to the same scale as in the U.S. or some European countries,” said Bhattacharyya. “Just the concept that a woman’s life begins when your marriage begins . . . What happens when your marriage ends? Does your life end? I think one of the bigger problems is that we’ve been deemed the ‘model minority,'” added Bhattacharyya. “We’re seen as doctors, lawyers, engineers and professors. Can we admit that we have problems too, just like other people?”

Jeff Lemberg is a freelance writer living in Boston.

For more information:

Raksha Inc.:

Asian Task Force Against Domestic Violence:

NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund
Issue Brief on Immigrant Women:

For more information:

Also see Women’s Enews, July 8, 2002:
“Iowa D.A. Seeks Data on 100s of Prenatal Patients”:

Judge Issues Deadline to Clinic to Turn over Records

(WOMENSENEWS)–Not persuaded that pregnancy tests performed at a Planned Parenthood clinic are subject to medical privacy laws, an Iowa District Court Judge Frank Nelson has set a deadline of Aug. 18 for the clinic to turn over to law-enforcement the names and addresses of all women who tested positive for pregnancy during a nine-month period ending in May.

Planned Parenthood of Greater Iowa has been resisting a subpoena sought by the Buena Vista county attorney Phil Havens in June. Havens and county Sheriff Chuck Eddy say the records are necessary for the murder investigation of a newborn baby whose body was left at a county trash facility in May and went through a shredder. They contend that can they narrow the search for the dead infant’s mother only by eliminating from suspicion every woman in the area who was pregnant and has a baby to show for it. Three other medical facilities in Buena Vista County reportedly have turned over their pregnancy test information.

Planned Parenthood had appealed, arguing to Judge Nelson that pregnancy test results are private medical information. The judge however ruled that pregnancy test results are not medical records because doctors and nurses are not necessary to administer them. He said Planned Parenthood had offered no proof to the contrary.

“Astonishingly,” wrote Nelson in his latest order, “PPGI apparently considers itself and its personnel to be above the law and not required to respond to a valid issued and served subpoena.”

Jill June, president of Planned Parenthood of Greater Iowa, expressed her frustration with the ruling. “We sent him blank medical records and affidavits from our staff and he refuses to even consider or look at them. So now we have a giant hammer over our heads.”

She vowed the agency will keep its promise to protect patient’s confidentiality and plans to appeal to the order to the Iowa Supreme Court.

–Rekha Basu