Reclaiming a voice for South Asian domestic violence victims and their families

10/24/2016 11:15 am ET Updated Oct 25, 2017

Aminta Kilawan thought she had lost her voice.

Kilawan, the co-founder of Sadhana: Coalition of Progressive Hindus, is a leader in the Indo-Caribbean community, but for years had never been able to articulate the abuse she suffered at the hands of a former boyfriend. She said her own family was unaware of the extent to which she suffered the abuse, which she said was complicated by their tacit disapproval of teenage dating.

For most of my teenage years, I dated someone who convinced me I was worthless. He backed those words up with violence and mentally trapped me into thinking I couldn't ever be with anyone else. I never admit this to my family, initially because I wasn't allowed to have a boyfriend at all, but later because I knew they'd tell me to leave him. Out of fear for my life, leaving him wasn't something I was ready to do. Eventually I had suicidal thoughts that escalated into action. My family saw the extent of my pain. Something was terribly wrong. My family took me to counseling sessions, but it was not until very recently that we've collectively been able to talk about what happened without shame. I think that in large part, that's because as the survivor, I wasn't ready to talk.

Today, she uses her experience to break the silence and empower those who have been impacted. She says combating domestic violence often means deconstructing values that many immigrant families have internalized and passed down to their children.

"Getting out of a domestic violence situation often means breaking with family values that have been inculcated within us through our loved ones and our community," she said. "Those who choose to leave their situation are stigmatized because putting an end to the cycle of violence often comes at the cost of a separation or divorce. By and large, victims of domestic violence are women, and tradition teaches us that wives must be subservient to their husbands--that they must be devoted to their husbands no matter what. These leaves no room for a victim of abuse to escape."

Domestic violence is an issue where the collective silence in the South Asian community -- regardless of their faith identity -- highlights one of the challenges in combating it: acknowledging it exists. Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Christian, and Jain domestic violence victim advocates have long argued that their faith communities haven't always been the most open to creating spaces of dialogue and action when it comes to addressing partner abuse. This, despite the fact that such abuse runs contrary to scriptural values of nonviolence enshrined in each of the faiths.

Many don't know that domestic violence exists in their families or among family friends because it's kept silent, and the victims' families often perpetuate that silence out of shame or a feeling that the abuse is somehow their fault. When it does, they are sometimes paralyzed by a confluence of emotions.

For Kilawan, her own desire to break from an abusive relationship meant challenging the unsaid norms her family and community members sought to uphold.

"As a child of immigrant parents who hail from Guyana, I have heard so many times that married couples must always find a way to work it out because our culture does not condone divorce," she said. "The statistics have been repeated time and time again: on average, it takes a victim seven attempts before s/he finally commits to leaving an abuser. Shame is a huge reason why victims of domestic violence choose to stay."

But acknowledging domestic violence also forces the victim to acknowledge her/his own vulnerability. As Kilawan points out:


Admitting that you live in a home plagued with domestic violence or abuse forces an individual to put himself or herself in a very vulnerable state. It means admitting that things are far from perfect, even if they outwardly appear fine. Having grown up in the Indo-Caribbean enclave of Richmond Hill/South Ozone Park/Ozone Park, I know one too many parents who stick together in the interest of their children when doing so actually results in more long-term harm that good. Shame is also a natural factor in the way that some families respond. Breaking the silence in a domestic violence situation also means accepting the reputation of being "that family," and giving up a once-honorable reputation. It often means being the subject of gossip or the recipient of pity. It's hard for South Asians and Indo-Caribbeans to willingly put themselves in that category. It's easier to keep things hush hush... except... eventually things inevitably reach a boiling point.

For families of domestic violence victims, inaction is often due to a feeling of helplessness, especially if there aren't institutional resources readily available to help. Kilawan empathizes with the families of victims who feel powerless to help, in part because they don't know what actions can help to get their loved ones out of potentially fatal relationships. She said that victims also need to recover on their own terms, something that has taken years for her to do. Her powerfully written essay three years ago was a moment for her to finally reclaim her voice and share the extent to which she suffered.

"There were other loved ones who said I made a mistake by "revealing my weakness" in the blog post," she said. "I have respectfully disagreed. Writing that post was perhaps the strongest and bravest thing I've ever done."

Moreover, it allowed her to have an open discussion with her family.

"Just a few months ago, my family and I were having breakfast and I decided to tell them everything that happened, the physical, emotional, and even spiritual violence that I went through," she said. "We all cried together. It was freeing."

Kilawan realizes that the institutional resources for families of domestic violence victims are still lacking, but she notes that families can be the most powerful support networks for their loved ones who have suffered abuse if they are able to put aside stigmas and judgment.

I would advise families who feel like no one understands to realize that there are more people who have experienced domestic violence and abuse than they know, they just haven't developed the courage to come out. Leave the judgment at the door. Don't force the victim to leave his/her partner. S/he will only do that of his/her own accord. Instead, be an understanding voice of reason and temper that reason with a whole lot of love and compassion.

More domestic violence support organizations specifically for South Asian victims have been established in the past few decades. But many still have not developed programs to empower the families of abuse victims. Kilawan hopes this will change, particularly as more victims break their silence and attempt to reclaim their voice.

"When there is domestic violence in a home, every single person in that home hurts, even if s/he isn't the direct recipient of the abuse," she says.

Fortunately, for those still in the shadows and their families, survivors like Kilawan have created and nurtured a space for the reclamation of their voice.