Sita* is a survivor of domestic violence and has a restraining order against her husband in New York. As the coronavirus pandemic ravages the United States, she is facing immense pressure from both her family and his to take him back.
In the same state, a mother of two young children has put off her plan to walk out of an abusive relationship in which she faces regular and severe sexual violence. She had found a safe place to go to in New Jersey and had an escape plan in place before New York governor Andrew Cuomo issued a stay-at-home order on March 22. Now, she is afraid to leave her home and expose her children and herself to Covid-19.
Women in America are finding themselves increasingly vulnerable to domestic violence as the Covid-19 lockdown forces them into close proximity with their abusers. The US has reported over a million infections and more than 60,000 deaths from the disease since February 27, according to the Center for Disease Control.
This pattern of abuse is not limited to America. As governments across the world take steps to limit mobility to reduce the spread of the virus, cases of intimate partner violence have risen exponentially, from the United Kingdom and Italy to China, India and beyond. This prompted United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Gutteres in April to urge all governments to “make the prevention and redress of violence against women a key part of their national response plan to Covid-19”.
“We have swapped out one public health epidemic for another,” said Kavita Mehra, executive director of Sakhi, a non-profit organisation that works with survivors of domestic violence in the South Asian community in New York.
This is a community that has traditionally battled high levels of domestic abuse. Community-based surveys by University of Wyoming professor Neely Mahapatra in 2012 and University of California, San Diego, professors Anita Raj and Jay G Silverman in 2002 found that nearly 40% of South Asian women in the US experienced intimate partner violence. Based on the 2018 American Community Survey, Indians make up over 80% of South Asians in the US, alongside people who trace their heritage to Bangladesh, Bhutan, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.
Organisations working with battered women from the South Asian diaspora estimate their number to be much higher. They say there is large-scale underreporting because of a culture of shame, guilt and duty. Social and language barriers, and legal and financial dependency on husbands, families and male partners also contribute to underreporting, they point out.
Domestic violence affects millions of women in America each year and accounts for over 21% of all violent crimes, according to the US Department of Justice.
Pause in helpline calls
One indicator of the underreporting of domestic abuse cases is a drop in helpline calls.
Sakhi reported a 53% decline in calls to their helpline between February and March—a time when New Yorkers were dealing with a galloping pandemic and orders to stay home. New York remains at the epicentre of the Covid-19 crisis in the US, accounting for 27% of cases and 36% of deaths in the country. “We are seeing survivors forced to live with their perpetrators, orders of protection violated, a significant rise of sexual violence and more and more men answering the phone,” said Mehra.
Similar organisations across the US have also seen a troubling decline in helpline calls. “Survivors don’t have a safe place to call us [from],” said Divya Chaturvedi and Rita Shah, co-executive directors of Saheli, an organisation working with South Asian survivors of domestic violence in Massachusetts. “Our advocates have received calls where they [survivors] are feeling very unsafe, so they are calling from inside their closets or going out to call on the pretense of taking a walk.”
They added, “Domestic violence is all about power and control. We are seeing cases where abusers are using Covid-19 as a power and control tool where they may restrict access to phones, internet and even time on their own.”
While helpline calls have declined, Saheli has seen a rise in referrals from police departments and government bodies on the basis of 911 emergency calls made by neighbours. According to Saheli, their advocates are often called in by the police to help them overcome language and cultural barriers while filing inquiry reports.
“Conditioning around shame and honour in South Asian culture permeates every caste, class and religion, even in the US”
As restrictions on mobility foster more tensions in South Asian households, cultural barriers are holding women back from reporting their abusers. “Conditioning around shame and honour in South Asian culture permeates every caste, class and religion, even in the US,” said Chaturvedi and Shah.
Survivors who muster up the courage to walk out on their abusers often end up in dire financial trouble. Nearly 75% of Sakhi’s network of survivors live below the poverty threshold, which was about $1,085 a month for one adult with no children in 2019. Many struggle to put food on the table. Sakhi introduced a Food Justice Programme last year that has expanded to provide perishable and non-perishable meals to 35-50 survivor families a week in New York. But it is already struggling to meet the rapidly escalating demand. Mehra says worries over lack of food, healthcare and housing have added additional layers to the trauma of survivors.
Meanwhile, their economic precarity is exacerbated by their abusers holding on to their unemployment benefits. This has been seen even in cases where the survivor has left her abuser.
Such financial insecurity comes at a time when women in general, and women of colour in particular, are being disproportionately laid off across the US. Over 30 million Americans have lost their jobs in the economic slowdown brought on by Covid-19. According to research, women accounted for 60% of the 700,000 jobs lost in March.
Fear of deportation is another reason stopping immigrant women from reporting and/or leaving their abusers.
In the South Asian community, a large number of women depend on their spouse’s visa or citizenship status to live in the US. The power differentials in such marriages often leave women vulnerable to abuse. For women who have children born in the US, it can often come down to a choice between living with your abuser or abandoning your children. Divorce makes an immigrant wife out-of-status and hence deportable.
“Undocumented domestic violence survivors are the most vulnerable of the most vulnerable"
Several social workers who spoke with this writer said there are instances when a husband, for greater power and control over his wife, intentionally does not file for the extension of her visa or green card, thus rendering her undocumented. According to research by the Center for Migration Studies in 2018, there are 630,000 undocumented Indians in the US, marking a 72% increase in their numbers since 2010.
“Undocumented domestic violence survivors are the most vulnerable of the most vulnerable,” said Mehra.
According to Sakhi, 10% to 15% of the South Asian survivors they work with are undocumented. This means these women cannot find employment legally and end up working under exploitative conditions. They are ineligible for most state benefits, such as unemployment aid. They also have no access to healthcare. Only 30% of the survivors under Sakhi’s care have health insurance and many of them live in low-income neighbourhoods. A report by FAIR Health – a non-profit that manages the country’s largest database of privately billed health insurance claims – estimates that a Covid-19 patient without health insurance would pay $73,300 on average for a six-day hospital stay, almost double the amount someone with insurance would pay. Both are amounts most of these women cannot afford.
The fear of deportation becomes even more stark for those women for whom returning to the country of their birth is not an option. Walking out of a marriage and coming back home could mean that their lives are threatened by their families in India and in other South Asian countries.
More safe havens needed
At the same time, finding a safe haven in the US is easier said than done.
Resources for shelters and transitional housing for abuse victims are strained at the best of times. In the current atmosphere, organisations working with battered women are reporting an urgent need for more safe spaces. In response, states like Massachusetts have declared shelters an “essential service” that can remain open for business.
Smaller organisations such as Saheli are banding together with regional non-profit groups like Jane Doe Inc. and the Massachusetts government to address the need for safe spaces. “We are helping each other out and looking for creative solutions – from hotels and apartments offering discounted stays to picking up the phone and asking other organisations if they have space in their shelter,” said Chaturvedi and Shah. “We are still not in a good situation for this, and to be honest we never were, but coronavirus has made things so much worse.”
*Name changed to protect identity.