At the staff retreat to the home of Margaret Abraham’s home last month, many of us discussed the need to do more to prevent violence against women – not just within Sakhi – but as part of global efforts to promote and protect women’s rights. Although institutionally, we maintain our focus on our mission and are mindful of our capacity, we recognize that there are numerous avenues to explore so that we do our utmost to eliminate violence against women. And the discussion touched on the fact that it is not just domestic violence that is silenced in our communities. Other silenced topics include dating relationship violence, sexual violence, and violence amongst same sex partners.
For example, generally, our youth often are not allowed to date due to parental rules and/or community codes of conduct – particularly for girls. So young people not only keep silent about the existence of those relationships, but also if they have experienced violence. The fear of being blamed for the violence because they disobeyed parental or community rules, acts as a double deterrent against speaking up about relationships in general and seeking help and support. The statistics are shocking – approximately one in five female high school students report being physically and/or sexually abused by a dating partner and more than half of rape victims report being raped between the ages of 12-24. Compare that with the fact that only one third of teens who were in an abusive relationship ever told anyone about the abuse.
And that leads us to the fact that we silence the devastating impact of sexual assault. Within the spectrum of forms of violence against women, Sakhi focuses on domestic violence – which also includes the specter of marital rape. The topic of sex is generally taboo in many cultures and communities, and the South Asian community, despite a heritage that brought forth the Kama Sutra, the concept of Virangana and the Khajuraho temple, is no exception. Among South Asian cultures, women’s sexual purity and submissiveness is prized as femininity, whereas men are socialized to be sexually virile, leading to the normalization of women fulfilling men’s sexual needs and not their own needs within the construct of marriage. Accordingly, this also leads to the normalization of rape within marriage. Women often do not know that, although married, they still have bodily integrity and the right to refuse sex and that being forced to have sex is a crime. As advocates for women’s rights and for the elimination of all violence against women, we understand that silence around this issue may mean that the violation has not been perceived as violence, or that the woman feels shame in discussing the topic openly as it involves talking about sex. Silence does not mean that sexual violation has not occurred.
At Professor Margaret Abraham’s house, Sakhi staff recognized the importance to be able to listen and engage with the women with whom we work so that they know that they can speak openly about issues as taboo as sexual violence without receiving judgment or condemnation. Other forms of violence are also silenced in our communities, including domestic violence among same-sex partners. Many women who experience violence who are in same-sex relationships not only feel unsafe in that relationship because of the violence, but also in reaching out for support from social service agencies for fear of homophobic, or hetero-normative responses. It is vital to provide culturally appropriate and sensitive responses that take into account the particular needs of the LGBTQI community. The barriers to reporting incidences of violence within the LGBTQI community parallel those within the South Asian community in general: fear of reporting the violence because of subjection to homophobic and racist legal systems; fear of being subjected to multiple forms of oppression (anti-immigrant sentiment, religious discrimination, and other forms of prejudice and stigma.)
Sakhi has always taken pride in being an open service provider. We are aware that our responses must be appropriate for diverse communities, including the LGBTQI community. And we are also aware that more can always be done to ensure that the voices from marginalized communities of women are heard and that their needs are met by social service agencies who address domestic violence.
Through open discussion, Sakhi’s staff supports awareness about and sensitivity to the various form of violence against women. We hope to be a force against the silencing of discussion and the critical need to not just address, but prevent violence. Sakhi as a group took time out at Margaret Abraham’s home, to discuss these topics, as well as the trafficking of women and girls, and so-called “honor” killings. While we are a small staff, and we have particular expertise, our growing understanding of the myriad forms of violence enables us to be as responsive to these issues as we can. As part of a larger struggle to eliminate oppressions faced by vulnerable groups of women, we strive for an holistic approach to addressing violence against women by protecting and promoting each woman’s individual human rights.
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