by Srianthi Perera • The Arizona Republic
At 28, Sowmya Ayyar married a man she barely knew. Even though she lived in California, her parents arranged her marriage to a man in Arizona according to Indian tradition. She felt he was manipulative during their seven-month engagement, but she didn’t back out.”In the Indian community, it’s not looked right upon if you back out of an engagement,” said Ayyar, who lived in Gilbert.
But Ayyar wasn’t prepared for the isolation and abuse that she says followed. She says there was shoving and slapping, and since she wasn’t earning much, she was told she didn’t have a right to spend her husband’s money. Her husband, an engineer, also didn’t like her making friends, she said.
I phoned a friend every evening, and remember being very scared when the garage door opened,” she said.
Her parents weren’t much help. “You have to do what he says,” she said they told her. “You’re not cooking enough for him.” After she says her husband threatened to kill her, she left. Later, Ayyar contacted Arizona South Asians for Safe Families.
Back in California, Ayyar is divorced and getting her life back on track. But there are many in the Valley who haven’t escaped. As the Valley’s population of residents of southern Asian descent grows, incidents of domestic violence are increasing, volunteers say. There are an estimated 27,000 people of Indian origin in metro Phoenix. Adding those from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan and Sri Lanka, the number is 40,000. Since Arizona South Asians for Safe Families established a hotline in November 2006, more than 400 have called seeking help, and volunteers have answered more than 1,700 service-related e-mail queries. Apart from physical and emotional abuse, victims also are faced with financial abuse, culture-specific family manipulation, social isolation and a lack of community support, they say.
In India, marital rape sometimes is excused, and women may be abused for not cooking a tasty meal or for going out without informing the husband, said Arizona State University professor Manjira Datta. “Over here, we know there are laws. But, we say, ‘oh so what’s a little slap, what’s a little push, just get along . . . ‘ That’s our big thing: get along,” said Bharati Sen, a hospital administrator.
“Because of the stereotype that the south Asian community is very successful and it’s a model community, they don’t want the negativity to come out,” said volunteer Kalpana Batni. Like most fledgling non-profits, the group, which has 25 members, is struggling amid a lack of funds and volunteers. Its revenue during the 2009-10 budget year was $20,000. To mobilize the community, it will present a classical dance performance Saturday at Scottsdale’s Kerr Cultural Center.
Datta, Batni and Sen are among five volunteers who have taken the 40-hour training course from Arizona Coalition Against Domestic Violence in Phoenix. This enables them to work directly with the victims, whom they often accompany on visits to doctors, lawyers and therapy, sometimes translating. About 70 percent of their cases involve women whose visas are tied to their husband’s work visas. They can’t obtain a Social Security number, which means they can’t work and are dependent on the spouse. The situation is aggravated when they have children born in the United States. Some cases end up in divorce, which means the women must return to their home countries. Taking the child with them amounts to kidnapping, Sen said.
Another prevalent situation is mistrust, which hampers victims from seeking help. One outreach program, Chai-Chat, involves volunteers going to homes and speaking to groups of women. Volunteers believe they are making a difference.
“In some small way, we have succeeded in making this a public matter,” Sen said. “It’s not like, well, this should remain in the family. No, this is a public matter. It’s a crime.”
To volunteer – contact ASAFSF today.