South Asian Domestic Violence Survivors in Silicon Valley Grapple With COVID-19 Lockdown

Social distancing during the novel coronavirus pandemic has seen a global spike in domestic violence. Accessing help can be particularly challenging for immigrant populations.

San Francisco: Sometime in the third week of March, a South Asian woman in Silicon Valley attempted suicide, twice. As much of the San Francisco Bay Area went into a near-complete COVID-19-induced lockdown from March 16, the woman found herself trapped at home with an abusive spouse.

Silicon Valley is the name used to refer to a sprawling area around the city where many tech companies are based, though the wider Bay Area is also following the “shelter in place” policy, under which residents must stay indoors except for stepping out for essentials.

Organisations working with women in distress scrambled to find her space at a shelter. This was particularly difficult, as many shelters were not taking in new clients, for fear they may be a health risk for other women at the shelter during the pandemic. After numerous emergency phone calls, a non-profit finally found her place at a shelter that was still accepting new entrants, and she was able to leave her abusive household.

Her experience of domestic violence during lockdown is not an isolated instance of one woman dealing with an abusive spouse. Social distancing and stay-at-home instructions in place during the coronavirus pandemic have seen a global spike in domestic violence, as victims and perpetrators find themselves locked indoors with each other, giving women in abusive marriages no respite. In India too, the authorities have recorded an increase in DV complaints.

“The very conditions that are needed to battle the coronavirus – isolation, social distancing, restrictions on freedom of movement – are, perversely, the very conditions that feed into the hands of abusers who now find state-sanctioned circumstances tailor-made for unleashing abuse,” Anita Bhatia, deputy executive director, UN Women, wrote for the organisation’s website.

Countries across the world like Germany, Brazil, Greece and China, are seeing an increase in domestic violence during the outbreak of the novel coronavirus.

While the situation is horrific for all domestic violence victims, accessing help can be particularly challenging for immigrants, such as the large South Asian population in Silicon Valley, where many women have no support system, are far from their families, and are not accustomed to calling the police to complain of their husbands, or accessing legal systems. Many South Asians in Silicon Valley are recent migrants who have yet to acclimatise themselves to their new environment.

Over the last couple of weeks, ever since counties in and around Silicon Valley called for a stringent shelter-in-place, asking people not to leave their homes except for essentials, nonprofits supporting South Asian domestic violence survivors are working round the clock, devising novel methods of supporting women through the shutdown.

As people close their doors to the world, stories of abuse are tumbling out. A desi woman in the San Francisco Bay Area, divorced from an abusive spouse, stopped receiving the spousal support that the court had ordered him to pay her. She is now afraid she won’t be able to make ends meet. Her ex-husband used COVID-19 as an excuse for not being able to post the cheques to her, though he could have made an online transfer. He is also said to be using the pandemic to keep her from seeing her children, according to an organisation helping her. The woman and her ex-husband share custody of the children, who were with him at the time of the lockdown. He now refuses to let her see them till the lockdown ends, sources say.

In another instance, a man allegedly withheld his wife’s medication, citing the pandemic as a reason to cut costs. A South Asian healthcare provider in the Bay Area, working through the pandemic, returned from a long day at work and was beaten by her husband, who said she would infect the whole family.

Also Read: Victims of Domestic Violence in India Rarely Come Forward or Seek Help

Tina Aggarwal, a licensed marriage and family therapist at a Silicon Valley mental health startup, is afraid there will be a rise in child abuse too, as people who beat their spouses often beat their children. According to Prevent Child Abuse America, an organisation working to battle the abuse and neglect of children, 30 to 60 percent of children from homes where domestic abuse is present are also victims of abuse themselves.

“Some of the calls on our helpline over the last two weeks, were from women who were about to leave abusive relationships, but chose to stay back because they were afraid of exposing themselves, or their children, to coronavirus” says Saha Jamshed, programme manager and social worker at the North American Islamic Shelter for the Abused (NISA), based in the Bay Area. The organisation, formed nearly 20 years ago, aims at tackling rising instances of domestic violence among Muslim immigrants. A majority of its clients are South Asian.

NISA has seen a decrease in calls to the helpline after the Bay Area’s shelter-in-place orders, with women finding it hard to make phone calls as their abusers are at home. One woman hid in her closet to make the call.

“We tell those who are in immediate danger of physical harm that we’re there to support them and that we’ll help find them an alternative living arrangement,” she adds.

While residents have been asked not to leave home, they are allowed to do so for essential activities, like driving to a grocery store or exercising. (Running or walking on sidewalks is allowed). Seeking help in times of danger is essential, and organisations want women to know the virus should not deter them from doing so. While a large share of Bay Area residents own their own cars, some women share a car with their spouse or don’t know how to drive. If they cannot drive themselves to a shelter or find a friend to do so, nonprofits help book a taxi for them. While Bay Area trains have reduced in frequency, the public transport system, though not extensive, is still functional.

A large concern remains that many shelters are no longer accepting new entrants during the pandemic. NISA recently had one available space at their shelter, and Jamshed very nearly considered making an exception for a woman in need of shelter, but eventually decided against doing so, as she did not want to risk any of the women falling sick. “If the new entrant was a carrier of the virus, I would be risking the health of the other women. If one of the existing women at the shelter was found with COVID-19, I would be risking the new entrant. As we do not want to turn anyone away, even during quarantine, we are now looking to set aside funds to help accommodate women in hotels, as an alternative to space at a shelter,” says Jamshed.

Narika, a Bay Area non-profit that supports domestic violence survivors, particularly South Asians, is also looking at the possibility of having to raise money for extended hotel stays for women in need of shelter. Founded nearly three decades ago by immigrant women who felt the need for domestic violence services among local communities in the Bay Area, Narika runs free services like their helpline, as well as job programmes.

While the organisation has, for the last 28 years, run counselling services and support groups for women in person, for the first time, it has had to move these sessions to the phone instead. But talking over the phone is itself not safe for many women under the lockdown.

Narika received a spike in calls on its helpline a week before the shelter-in-place, as women anticipated being locked indoors with abusive partners as the pandemic crisis deepened, and sought advice on how they should deal with the situation. After the lockdown, the helpline saw a dip in calls.

Fear, uncertainty over reaching out

“On average, we would get 30 to 50 calls every week. Over the last couple of weeks, the numbers have gone down to around 20 calls a week,” said Bindu Oommen-Fernandes, executive director, Narika. She is convinced this does not reflect a decline in domestic violence, but a fear of reaching out. Narika has received emails from clients requesting the organisation not to contact them over the phone, for fear their husbands will pick up. She feels organisations like hers will have to rapidly move towards new tech options with which to connect with domestic violence victims.

“Abusers are using the pandemic to convince their victims that they now have no access to the police, hospitals or courts. This is completely untrue. While the usual routes to access services may have changed, victims are still supported by these departments. Narika will connect people to these essential services,” says Fernandes.

She does, however, fear a large decline in the reliance on courts in cases of domestic violence, due to Covid-19, with courts slowing down. “Women are even postponing restraining orders against their spouses at the moment,” she adds. When a client recently reached out for legal help, Fernandes wondered how she would find a lawyer who would work pro bono, at a time when business is slowing down.

“Domestic violence is a traumatic experience in regular times. Additional challenges with Covid-19 make the barriers to accessing help overwhelming,” says Zakia Afrin, manager, client advocacy programmes at Maitri, a Bay Area nonprofit that supports families and individuals facing domestic violence. Maitri, cofounded by acclaimed writer Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, began in 1991, when a group of women pooled together their resources to run a helpline for South Asian domestic violence survivors.

Maitri runs transitional housing programmes for people who have left abusive relationships. With Covid-19 restricting the movements of people living in these facilities, Afrin says they’re often traumatised a second time, as it reminds them of life with an abusive, controlling spouse, who would restrict their movements.  While Maitri’s staff is providing support virtually for all services, its housing program advocates visit clients at the housing facility on a regular basis to provide supplies and help maintain a sense of normalcy.

“We often tell survivors of abuse who face a dangerous home environment to step out of their homes when they are not feeling safe. But many South Asians don’t drive and cannot commute independently,” says Rovina Nimbalkar, executive director at Greenlight Clinic, a San Francisco-based organization that provides free mental health services to young people. Many South Asians are afraid of calling 911, as they grew up being afraid of the police. “They’re from countries where calling the cops was never a first option,” she adds.

Fernandes, from Narika, points out that many young South Asian brides who move to the US with their husbands, don’t even know the number 911.

When faced with a choice between living at home with one’s abuser and homelessness, an average South Asian woman will choose to continue living with her husband. Fernandes has observed that this is often not the case with other communities in America, where women sometimes opt to live in their cars, or be homeless for a period, as long as they can leave an abusive household.

Latinx migrants fare better

“In the case of the Latinx community, we’ve seen women opt out of an abusive marriage even if they lose their immigration status and are, for a period, undocumented immigrants. But for South Asian women, the idea of being undocumented is blasphemy,” she adds.

“South Asians believe in saving face. For centuries, we have not been raised to be individualistic. We do not think that we can simply walk out of a family and live on our own. Parents often do not support women who want to walk out of an abusive marriage. Looking good to the world is more important than taking care of our emotions,” says Aggarwal, who has spent considerable time with immigrant populations while working in the field of mental health.

She has worked with Latinx communities, and has seen many women walk out of an abusive marriage to live with their mothers, who help raise their kids. They do so without the shame that South Asian women feel in such circumstances, she says.

Aggarwal feels that many Latinx migrants are better assimilated into American society, having been in the U.S. for generations. Those who migrate often come with large extended families and have a support system in place. On the other hand, she points out that many Indians have moved more recently to Silicon Valley, largely for work, either alone or with a spouse, and do not have the family support system that many Latinas do. “This can be very isolating for South Asians, she adds.

In addition, many South Asians have never been taught the language of mental health and do not know that what they are experiencing is a mental health issue.  “Sometimes Hindi does not have words for many mental health issues as the terminology for mental health was developed in the west,” says Aggarwal.