Fired Up

Why A Westernised Approach To Addressing Domestic Violence Doesn’t Serve South Asian Communities In Australia

Content warning: This article discusses domestic and sexual violence in a way that may be distressing to some readers.
At least half of all women in Australia have experienced sexual harassment, abuse or violence. That’s 1 in 2 that has been sexually harassed, 1 in 3 that has been physically abused and 1 in 5 that has been sexually abused. Let that sink in. With #FiredUp, Refinery29 Australia makes an ongoing commitment to spotlighting this serious and pervasive issue with the goal of dismantling gendered violence in Australia.
With one woman a week, on average, being murdered by her current or former partner, and 1 in 3 women having experienced physical violence since the age of 15, domestic violence is devastatingly rampant in Australia. As a nation, we've begun speaking about the issue more and more, but many communities often feel disconnected from the mainstream conversation, which is something Kersherka Sivakumaran noticed happening within her own South Asian community in Australia.
The data analyst from Sydney has been aware of domestic violence infiltrating the lives of families from Indian, Sri Lankan, Pakistani, Bangladeshi and other sub-continental communities, all while the issue's been continually swept under the rug and seldomly discussed and addressed.
In a culture that faces a myriad of issues that can be linked to domestic violence — such as strict gender roles, dowry abuse, migration and citizenship, extended family structures and stigmas around mental health — westernised approaches to speaking about and addressing domestic violence are often not culturally sensitive or successful in engaging South Asian communities.
Knowing this sparked the idea of the Behind Closed Doors production, which after running earlier this year in Sydney, returned for two shows in December during the 16 Days of Activism against gender-based violence.
Using music, dance, lyricism, fashion and visual art with an all-female band, the one-hour live performance explores the ways abuse can manifest in South Asian families, with the hope of sparking conversations about raising awareness and taking action, free of judgment and shame.
"I realised the creative arts is such a great medium to use," Sivakumaran tells Refinery29 Australia.
"It's not just culturally appropriate, but also something that just runs through our blood," she says, explaining that food, music, dance and fashion are intrinsically significant parts of South Asian cultures.
Sivakumaran worked with experts in family domestic violence in South Asian communities to put this production together.
She says one barrier many South Asian people face in reporting domestic violence is the disconnect between cultural values and speaking up about the topic — and a more "westernised" approach from domestic violence support providers doesn't always take this into account.
"A barrier for South Asians is that [moving out for example] is very much a conflict with our cultural community and family values, because a lot of people live with domestic violence and choose to stay together, or choose to separate but still want to participate in that community," she says.
"And I think there's so much judgement around that decision — as if you're a bad person for still wanting to participate in a community. So that was where the idea came from: can't we tell our stories and raise a conversation without having to shame, judge or alienate someone?
Sivakumaran says the show "prioritises inclusivity by designing and adapting our approach to work with community cultural values rather than against them."
Kittu Randhawa is the founder of the Indian (Sub-Cont) Crisis & Support Agency (ICSA), a NGO for the South Asian community in Australia. As a case worker, Randhawa regularly speaks to South Asian women who've faced domestic violence and have turned to ICSA for support, helping connect them with mental health professionals and support providers. She also provides training to first responders, like police, on culturally sensitive approaches to dealing with domestic violence victims in South Asian communities.
"Unfortunately, most people in South Asian cultures will have seen some form of domestic violence," Randhawa tells Refinery29 Australia.
However, she says not everyone's necessarily aware of the various forms of domestic violence or that it's actually happened in their household. After the first round of Behind Closed Doors shows took place in May this year, Randhawa reflects on seeing South Asian audiences leaving the events with a greater understanding of how domestic abuse can manifest.
"A challenge within South Asian communities is that there are so many stereotypes of domestic violence. So while the west has done a really good job of making people aware, they haven't put it in context [for these communities]," she says.
"Most people [after the show] said, 'Oh my God, I didn't know the word for that. I didn't know that's what's been going on,'" she explains.
Since launching ICSA in 2014, Randhawa has researched what the domestic violence sector in Australia does to support victims. One of the key findings has been what Sivakumaran mentioned earlier, that often the first advice provided to victims is to leave their partner. But it's communicated in a way that leaves South Asian women feeling deterred from taking further action because the advice is at odds with their cultural values.
"The default response is to keep you safe, move you out of your home, or move the partner out of the home. That's considered the new norm," she says. "It's meant to move the perpetrator or the offending partner away, but that still doesn't always suit our communities," she says.
Many women don't want to leave home because divorce is considered a taboo in their community, they don't want to separate their children from their father, or they are financially dependent on their partner. Randhawa and Sivakumaran don't say leaving a partner and prioritising safety is a poor recommendation, but rather acknowledge why this advice is harder to digest for some South Asian communities, at first.
"For many South Asian women who separate from their husband, becoming divorced or a single parent leads to being ostracised by their family/extended family/ community and being ‘looked down upon'," Jatinder Kaur writes in Parity magazine.
"Rumours usually circulate that 'she was of bad character' [and] that is why
she is separated without any proof."
Kaur is a Brisbane mental health social worker who's completing a PhD examining family violence within Indian migrant families in Australia.
She also mentions that dowry-related abuse is prominent within South Asian communities, and victims are reluctant to report this "due to shame, stigma and fear of being deported back to India".
Last month, a new report found more than 15 per cent of South Asian women (born in Australia and overseas) reporting domestic and family violence were affected by dowry abuse.
This report, called 'Dowry Abuse and South Asian Populations in Australia', was compiled by Western Sydney University and City of Parramatta, with research from Settlement Services International and ICSA.
A dowry is a payment of money or an exchange of property or gifts from a bride's family to her husband upon marriage. Dowry abuse is "any act of coercion, violence or harassment associated with the giving or receiving of dowry".
While the dowry system is illegal in India, it remains a widespread practice there and in Australia. Melbourne psychiatrist Manjula Datta O’Connor has seen many South Asian women who are victims of dowry abuse come through her practice.
"I'd find these women were in an extremely high state of anxiety and hypervigilance," O'Connor recently told The Guardian. "They haven’t slept [properly], often for months. They haven’t eaten properly for months. They were anaemic."
Since speaking about this issue and actively campaigning against dowry abuse, O'Connor has faced backlash from within the South Asian community for being vocal about domestic violence.
She told the publication that "the patriarchal structures of our community were dead-set against me because they thought I was shaming the community by naming dowry abuse specifically, and that they wanted it to be left alone".
"But I was of the opinion that it needs to be named, otherwise the women themselves will not recognise it and the domestic violence service providers will not know it and the police will not know what to do."
Being shamed by the South Asian community for speaking up against domestic violence is all too familiar to Tarang Chawla, whose sister Nikita was murdered in 2015 by her partner while she slept.
"We received backlash," Chawla tells Refinery29 Australia, explaining a lot of blame was particularly placed on his mother. "People are blaming my mum for the actions of a male perpetrator who murdered her daughter. And to me, that never makes sense."
As well as facing backlash from people within the South Asian community stemming from "internalised misogyny and internalised racism", Chawla says he and his family were also criticised by people outside of their community.
"There's this perception that violence against women in South Asian communities is just to be expected. The way that these issues are often talked about is thinly veiled in racism."
Chawla agrees with Randhwa that South Asian women can struggle to navigate the mainstream system because of cultural differences.
"Whether it's emotional, psychological, financial, economic, social or spiritual abuse... these issues in South Asian communities are generally really multi-layered," he says. "I think, in mainstream Australian society, we're not creating enough space for those concepts to be understood.
"White support workers aren't across the dynamics of how violence is perpetrated within specific communities. And I think that's at the broader detriment of victim-survivors as well as the men who do seek support to change their behaviour," he continues. "If they're not being approached in a way that is culturally appropriate, then it's not going to lead to long-term outcomes for the community."

There's this perception that violence against women in South Asian communities is just to be expected. The way that these issues are often talked about is thinly veiled in racism.

tarang chawla
So how can this be addressed? Chawla says, "it has to be an open dialogue" between the family violence sector and culturally diverse communities.
"I think that those who work in the sector need to be open and receptive to faith-based leaders, community leaders and others educating them about the community," he explains. "There's a need for us to work together to embed intersectionality at the foundation.
"I think a lot of these systems have been developed for a specific audience in mind and then we tack on cultural awareness of cultural sensitivity after the fact.
"And while that's welcome, and it's good that we have that, that's why we're seeing — whether it's my sister Niki or Dr Preethi Reddy or others — these women being impacted in ways that are horrible and harmful."
If you or anyone you know has experienced sexual or domestic violence and is in need of support, please call 1800RESPECT (1800 737 732), the National Sexual Assault Domestic Family Violence Service.
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