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Domestic Violence In Immigrant Communities

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Each minute, 24 people are victims of rape, physical violence, or stalking by an intimate partner in the United States. That’s according to the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control.

October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, and William Holston of the Human Rights Initiative of North Texas explains in this commentary why immigrants face additional challenges.

William Holston, Commentator

Imagine you are a woman from North Africa. You leave your entire support system behind in order to migrate to America and marry someone your family has picked especially for you. You are filled with joy - until this person begins to control your every movement, and ultimately begins to physically abuse you.  Now imagine the pressure to stay in the marriage, despite that abuse. 

The abuser may use the spouse’s lack of legal status as leverage to keep their mate in an abusive relationship.

Congress recognized the pressure perpetrators of domestic violence can put on someone in an abusive relationship in enacting provisions in the Violence Against Women Act. This law permits immigrant survivors of domestic violence to petition on their own for immigration status With this legal right, many find the courage to leave abuse and to obtain legal status in the United States.

There are cultural reasons why abuse is a particular problem in immigrant communities. In Latino communities, for instance, abuse is likely to be under reported. Women from Latin American countries come from places where the police are not likely to take spousal abuse seriously. In a recent court case, a woman from Guatemala was granted asylum because she was able to prove that Guatemalan police fail to even respond when called with an allegation of assaults. One immigrant woman escaping an abusive marriage once told me her husband beat her in front of her family, because he knew in their home country he could get away with it.

In some cultures, seeking help for domestic violence can be seen as shameful.

A study at Michigan State University found Korean women rarely seek help for domestic violence. Dr.  Hyunkag Cho writes one answer is to make culturally sensitive help available to immigrant groups. Domestic abuse hot lines, for instance, need to have Korean and Chinese languages available.

Because families are a huge priority, Muslim women can face pressure from their families not to leave an abusive marriage. The local Muslim community has made tremendous efforts to raise awareness of and condemn domestic violence. One group, The Texas Muslim Women’s Foundation opened a shelter to meet specific religious and dietary needs.  The founder, Hind Jirrah, says the staff will understand the need of a woman to seek counsel from her imam, and appreciate the challenges of a patriarchal culture where divorce is taboo.

While immigrant communities have unique challenges with domestic violence, there are some things that all of us can and should agree on: No man or woman should ever face physical or emotional abuse. As a community we can agree police, courts, and religious institutions should provide support for anyone seeking to escape abuse. And abuse survivors are not alone.

 William Holston is Executive Director of the Human Rights Initiative of North Texas.