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The intimate enemy

Middle-class women seem to confront violence in the most unexpected of spaces, the highly personalised family. This applies to women in all countries. Lakshmy Parameshwaran is a counsellor on the move who helps such women.

"IT IS important to remember that domestic violence doesn't discriminate on any grounds including, possibly, gender. As such, it is not a women against men issue, it is a family issue, and in turn, a community issue," observes Lakshmy Parameswaran, who is a great source of strength for so many women who have suffered violence within the family.

Founder, and presently the president of Daya, a Houston-based, voluntary, non-profit organisation, which helps women victimised by domestic and sexual violence in South Asia, Lakshmy is also a counsellor. She is involved in creating awareness on such issues among legal and law enforcement professionals, and student and community groups as well. Lakshmy, who was in Bangalore recently, took time off to offer her observations on domestic violence, an area on which she has written extensively.

How does one best understand domestic violence?

Domestic violence is an act of violence that occurs within a relationship. One partner attempts to control and subjugate the other through intimidation, verbal attacks, economic restraint, and threat of or actual physical/sexual violence. In cases of immigrants, the fear of being reported to the Immigration and Naturalisation Service, and possible deportation, become additional means of control. Domestic violence usually occurs between people who are or have been intimate.

In most cases, the perpetrator is a husband or a boyfriend. However, abuse of the elderly by adult children, or of young children by parents, can also be seen as domestic violence.

There seems to be an increasing incidence of such violence in the middle class.

As I said earlier, domestic violence cuts across barriers. If we see a high incidence of such violence among the educated classes now, it may be because women are reporting abuse more than they did earlier.

Legal and social possibilities against such violence, are they something we can look forward to?

Spousal abuse is a crime in the United States now. Victims can file criminal charges if there is actual physical or sexual violence, or if the victims fear for their safety. For instance, a complaint can be filed if a spouse verbally threatens to harm or kill her. If one is talking about criminal sanctions, perpetrators can go to jail, and can be mandated to pay a fine. They are also asked to participate in anger management groups.

Victims can obtain protective orders that would prevent the abuser from coming within a certain distance of the victim. Only cases with strong physical evidence are heard in courts. Others are shoved under the rug.

The most effective remedy then is change in societal attitude. If we begin to see domestic violence with the same seriousness as we do other instances of violence, we may be able to find a solution to this problem.

What can one say about violence, for instance, on Indian women in the West, and on women who are "Westerners" themselves?

Domestic violence cuts across age, race, religion, culture, education, and economic status. Domestic violence can range from a simple intimidating look to severe physical battering and killing. But statistics takes into account only those reported to the police or publicised otherwise, which are usually severe in nature. In the United States for instance, about 1.5 million women are physically assaulted or raped by their intimate partners every year. On an average, more than three women are murdered by their husbands or boyfriends every day.

The difference I see in abuse is that "western" women may be targets of extreme rage and cruelty, partly due to the size and temperament of western men: for instance, blocking doorways/driveways with their huge bodies, punching holes in walls, breaking furniture, burning sentimental objects, using guns/ knives without hesitation, and the like. In comparison, most South Asian American perpetrators do not have to resort to these extreme measures. The victims' immigration status, concern for family reputation, economic dependency, and religious/cultural beliefs make it easy for them to exercise control through understated methods of intimidation or threats. Daya receives over 200 calls a year, most of which are from Indian and Pakistani victims, a good number of whom have H1B visa or dependent visa.

Violence in the presence of children, what implications can one draw here?

Moral definitely, if not legal. Many women stay in the relationship as along as the children are not hurt. If violence occurs when children are asleep or in school, parents do not see any harm. What they fail to realise is that children are smart enough to pick up on clues: red eyes, swollen face, broken objects, drunken father, and the like. They can also hear the violence: harsh words, screams, and arguments. One middle-Eastern woman narrated an incident that rudely awakened her to reality. After her husband physically abused her, she, and her toddler son, went to her friend's house to spend the night. The boy became restless at night.

Usually, children who are anxious tend to cling to their mothers. This boy, however, gave his sleeping mother a slap on her cheek to get her attention. This was her rude awakening in more ways than one. She never returned to her husband.

Could you say something about measures you have undertaken to help women caught in domestic violence.

It is entirely up to the victims to decide what they would want to do with their lives. All we can do is to put some measures in place to enable them to move towards a violence-free lifestyle. Establishment of helplines such as Daya and Asha is the most crucial step we have taken.

There is a South Asian helpline in many major cities in the United States. We have given women an avenue to call and receive empathetic and non-judgmental responses. We let them know in no uncertain terms that they deserve a life free of abuse. This in itself is empowering for many.

These are smart women and they know, on some level, that violence is not a normal part of a relationship. But they are also trained, culturally and socially, to devalue and distrust their own instincts. Our job is to help them see this, so they can begin to reinstate the self-confidence they have lost. In the same way, we have a responsibility to our community — to enhance our awareness on how we damage our own children, both girls and boys. No one is born an abuser or a victim. We learn along the way that violence works, and that it is an acceptable means to get what we want, to feel good about ourselves. As crusaders, we believe that if we can learn something, we can also unlearn it.

NINA BENJAMIN

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