Domestic violence: A closet for immigrant vulnerability

By Nicole Bauke, Medill, Immigrant Connect

For Ginger Duvaney, the first thing she would make sure to say to someone who says she is a victim of domestic violence is: “This is not your fault. You didn’t deserve this, and I’m on your side.”

For Radhika Sharma, it’s: “I believe you. No one should have hurt you, you didn’t deserve this.”

For Agnes Meneses, it’s to “acknowledge that what that person went through is valid. And figure out their situation. Make sure they are safe.”

And for Megan Rosado, “once you make sure that it’s safe, let them know that you’re here to listen. You never know the impact your intervention might have.”

According to all of these women, our society does not create a welcoming place for victims of abuse to come forward. Victim blaming, isolation, and gender norms can silence someone as powerfully as the abuser can. Cultural expectations can determine the dynamics of a relationship.

Immigrant women are particularly vulnerable

Megan Rosado, the Direct Service Volunteer and Education Coordinator at Connections for Abused Women and their Children, an advocacy group and domestic violence shelter for women, believes you can’t say domestic violence is worse for any culture or community. Each individual case is different. However, being an immigrant does create several unique obstacles.

“There is a fear of everything. It’s a tactic of isolation if they have limited English-speaking ability,” said Rosado. “When people are isolated, they aren’t talking to others who are saying it’s not okay. The community is very isolating, if everyone knows each other, then you can’t tell others what’s going on but you also don’t want to go to an outsider and encourage some beliefs about immigrants.”

Abusers have the upper hand when their partner is an immigrant, she said, because they don’t even have to use physical violence to control their partners. They can use their immigrant status against them.

“Pretty frequently it’s a psychological hold—you can be deported any minute,” said Joanne Villasenor, a supervising attorney for the children and family practice group at LAF (formerly the Legal Assistance Foundation of Metropolitan Chicago). “But it’s wrong thinking that going to court could result in deportation. Most judges don’t take citizenship into account. It’s not relevant to a divorce or an order of protection.”

Fear of deportation is one of the biggest reasons why a victim would choose not to report domestic violence. For Ginger Duvaney, the most important thing we can communicate to an immigrant victim is to not fear the police.

“There is a federal law that you can’t be picked up for deportation at a domestic violence shelter or domestic violence court house. Chicago is a sanctuary city, the police have a policy not to report immigrants when they are seeking safety from an abuser,” said Duvaney, an Equal Justice Works Fellow for the Domestic Violence Legal Clinic.

According to Duvaney, there are many reasons why women would not want their abuser deported either, such as for finances, for family unity, and possible danger.

Another barrier is language, according to Villasenor.

“If our client doesn’t speak English, they are going to be wary of the court system, even with a court interpreter,” she said. “Another thing that’s a big barrier is a lot of immigrant victims are very poor, not working themselves or working minimal jobs,” said Villasenor.

Undocumented immigrants are not qualified for many jobs and job training, but there are ways to become financially independent, said Radhika Sharma. It’s extremely difficult, she notes, but there are options, such as finding shared housing. Sharma is the manager of education and outreach for Apna Ghar, which provides legal services, counseling, and an emergency shelter suitable for immigrant survivors of gender violence. Figuring out how to become financially independent is an extremely important conversation to have with victims, she said.

Perpetrators find ways to disavow

“In domestic violent situations, the perpetrators may take away all the finances, so if the victim wants to leave, she can’t. She doesn’t have any means. And this ties into gender equal pay and gender equality on all fronts,” said Agnes Meneses, the Director of Strategic Initiatives at the Chicago Foundation for Women.

The Chicago Foundation for Women provides grants to organizations to create more opportunities for women in the Chicago area. Meneses believes domestic violence will continue as long as women are disadvantaged and treated unequally.

Click here for a map of shelters in Chicago.

“Guys don’t realize what domestic violence is. They will say they just called her an idiot, but they don’t know how hurtful that can be,” according to Ewa Susman. “And it’s a different system in the U.S. Men are surprised and they complain that the system favors women. Women can pick up the phone and police will take them without any evidence of abuse.”

Susman, a case manager for the Partner Abuse Intervention Program at the Polish American Association in Chicago, counsels domestic violence abusers who enter 26-week programs to learn alternative, non-violent behavioral responses. Her clients are men, and roughly 90 percent were court mandated to enter the program.

According to Susman, laws are more relaxed in Poland, and when men and women come to the U.S., no one tells them what is considered domestic abuse here. People bring to the U.S. the same ideas that they learned in Poland; they fear the police and mistrust the government, and they often mistrust their wives as well, believing they are manipulating them for their money. They act upon a need for control because in Poland, they needed that control.

“It’s different if they were born in the U.S. or if they came when they were thirty years old or fifty years old. They brought the patterns from Poland where there’s this traditional family ideal when father is the leader figure, and thinks that gives him power and control over the family.”

Patriarchy and gender expectations are at the core

Rosado says it has nothing to do with national culture. Instead, she points to our societal structure of gender norms.

“We have patriarchy everywhere, in every country, and to an extent, abusers know exactly what they’re doing,” she said. “There are a lot of people who aren’t immigrants, who will say, ‘oh it’s in my culture.’ Yeah, well we live in a patriarchal society.”

She notes that action figures have grown in size over the past few decades, that 007 has transformed from being a thin man carrying a small gun to now being compared to Rambo or the Terminator. Men are told they must be strong and powerful. She points to powerful political figures, like Donald Trump, who offer toughness or bombing as valid solutions to a problem.

“There is a total lack of accountability for men and boys who choose to use power to demean, control, and hurt others in any kind of intimate situation,” said Sharma. “People can get away with abusing those with less power because we allow it. We don’t have sanctions against it, we continue it by putting people in a state of less respect, less opportunities, less dignity than they deserve.”

The biggest perpetrator of domestic violence, said Sharma, is our larger societal structures and the inherited imbalance of access to education, jobs, and fair wages.

“It’s an inherent human trait as a child to strike out but society teaches away from that,” she adds. “Where are those very same sanctions when boys are sexually harassing a girl on a bus, when a teacher demeans a student, when a boss is allowed to get away with sexual harassment? When parents are allowed to force their daughters into marriage?”

These gender expectations also do harm in the opposite direction, said Pastor Paco Amador, the priest for one of the Little Village New Life churches. In his opinion, women offer one another support, but men do not want to do so in fear of appearing vulnerable or weak.

“I have seen a bunch of men who are really scratched up who won’t call. Men will not call as quick as women,” he said.

In general, Mayra Chacón says our society is very violent and perpetuates racism, sexism, and inequality that is caused by our institutions and states.

“Power and control run our society. Competition perpetuates violence,” said Chacón, who is on the board of directors for Centro Romero, an organization that serves immigrant and refugee communities of Chicago.

It’s not your fault and you are not alone

“It’s happening in every culture and every religion,” said Sharma. “Where are we as a society in saying this is not okay and in bringing consequences? Where are the opportunities for women? People will use cultural excuses but there is domestic violence in the most civilized cultures. It’s still happening. It’s happening in places where people don’t step in to say ‘you’re hurting your wife, your children, and it’s unacceptable.’ We are not a society speaking out to say, ‘you deserve respect, you will be believed, and anyone who hurts you or threatens you will be punished.’”

“They say in the Polish community that ‘you should do your laundry in your own house,'” said Susman. “Domestic violence stays in the house.”

Duvaney also pointed out the divorce case between Johnny Depp and Amber Heard as a dangerous example of victim blaming.

“We need healing spaces,” said Chacón. “Right now we make it incredibly hard for victims to come forward. Just look at what’s going on in the news with Johnny Depp; people want mounds and mounds of proof, and people are still more likely to believe she altered the photos or hurt herself. We aren’t very welcoming to victims.”

“A lot of people have a lot of healing to do, especially when the government and the institutions claiming to protect us are violent to people. How can we hold people in our personal lives accountable?” said Sharma.

The consensus solution to prevent domestic violence starts with talking about it and reaching out to victims to tell them it’s not their fault and they are not alone.

“We just have to normalize it. If you’re robbed, no one is going to get mad at you for reporting it,” said Duvaney. “We need to become trauma-insular. We need to address gender norms and healthier relationships around that.”

It’s much easier to point out flaws existing in other cultures than face it ourselves, said Duvaney, but we need to recognize that domestic violence is equally a problem in immigrant communities and in native communities. We need to believe victims and we need to support them.

“By believing them, by addressing the broader community of bystanders, peers, and community members who often lash out and blame victims and make them think they’re crazy, like they brought on the violence,” said Sharma.

Rosado, Susman, and Sharma all pointed to religious centers as places that should provide services and support for domestic violence victims. Pastor Amador wishes he did more. He wishes that the church did more training to address this issue.

“Gang violence gets more news, but domestic violence is more pervasive. Both should get press,” he said. “Now that you’re bringing it up, I’m thinking about how we should be doing much more.”

We must ask ourselves, “why did we let him get away with it?”

Education at a young age is the best prevention, said Sharma. Challenging gender norms and victim blaming are crucial.

“Anybody who is in a position to mentor should be passing on these ideas – congressional leaders, teachers, coaches, school counselors, the police themselves,” Sharma added.

Rosado points to sports as one of the places we see violence glorified in every day life, but believes we can balance it out by training sports coaches to incorporate other education into their practices.

It’s not about the character of the accused abuser, said Sharma. He can be an incredible leader and incredibly abusive. It’s not about one’s immigration status, and it’s no one’s place to speculate on any other part of a victim’s personal life. When someone admits to being a victim of domestic violence, it’s about believing it.

“It’s not, ‘why did she stay?’ but ‘why did he abuse?’ And ‘why did we let him get away with it?’” Sharma said.

Leave a reply