This story is part of a themed op-ed on domestic violence by the Desi Dost-Pathway to Parity project. It features a personal account ‘An Electricity Bill Set Fire To My Marriage‘ by a survivor, alongside Lessons from the Field-Haunted By A Conversation With A Domestic Violence Survivor, a personal essay from the reporters .
A Worrying Facebook Post
In mid-June, an unsettling post slipped into our Facebook newsfeed. It was a GoFundMe memorial fundraiser sent by a stranger directly from the FB account of someone we knew. Someone, in fact, we’d spoken to only two days earlier, about her devastating experience surviving domestic violence (DV). We knew our survivor, Leena, was in hospital recuperating from surgery on a broken arm. Even from her hospital bed, she kept texting us about her recovery.
At first we thought the fundraiser was a prank. FB accounts get hacked all the time. Then messages in our survivor networks confirmed that Leena was gone.
Domestic Violence Is Devastating
It’s not easy to articulate our reaction to Leena’s death. For over a year and a half we had gotten to know her intimately. We knew that domestic abuse had destroyed her faith in marriage. Her own family had disowned her. We knew she struggled for money. Despite our disbelief, we understood why she invited her abusive ex-partner to be her roommate, so she could make rent during Covid.
Leena had two young children by him. She was fighting to get special needs help for one. Twenty years earlier, her first husband had kidnapped her firstborn daughter and fled to Qatar. Leena was broken when that daughter refused all contact.
As women and mothers we couldn’t understand how life could target vulnerable women like Leena so unfairly. As journalists, we wanted to find out why.
Domestic Violence Spiked In The Pandemic
While the rapid spike in DV cases during the pandemic drove our reporting, its impact on survivors like Leena gave us impetus.
We began at Narika, a Bay Area DV agency serving desis (South Asians). They received 2 to 3 calls a week from women abandoned in India. We discovered that in 2019 alone, the Indian Ministry of External Affairs logged nearly 4000 official complaints about marital abuse and abandonment, which may be an under-count. Various reports suggest that as many as 30,000 Indian American women may have been abandoned in this manner.
Many women arrived in the U.S. on dependent H4 visas after arranged marriages. If a marriage collapses, H1B visa-holder husbands could discard wives by simply withdrawing her H4 status to make her residency illegal. This still holds true. Unless a wife files a police complaint about domestic violence – few do – a husband can divorce her and withhold resources. Abusers exploit this legal loophole with impunity. No one says anything because domestic violence is a taboo subject in the desi community.
Domestic Violence Can Trap Women In Legal Limbo
We wanted to expose how immigrant survivors got trapped in legal limbo by immigration policy and transnational jurisdictions following abandonment. In the U.S. the practice is under-reported, leading to a glaring lack of disaggregated data, its victims unseen by policy-making audiences.
So we followed up on our reporting project by taking to the airways and social media to amplify this crime, and get survivors the justice they deserve.
The Power Of Community Engagement
For both of us, the most revelatory part of this experience was the power of community engagement. Hosts on desi radio shows gave us a platform to reach immigrant audiences. Friends and colleagues retweeted our Twitter streams and Twitter space conversations with survivors and caseworkers.
India Currents hosted a Round Table on this topic with a survivor, a lawyer, and a DV community leader, with us leading the discussion. And our publisher was invited to showcase our project on KQED.
In August, an invitation to speak about our project and community journalism at NAHJ’s annual conference, led to another invitation to write an op-ed for the San Diego Herald Tribune.
Indiaspora, a nonprofit organization for a network of global Indian origin leaders, published our op ed. Then they invited us to speak at their 10th Anniversary Forum on October 15 in San Jose, on a panel about taboo subjects.
Very few men showed up to our session, choosing instead, to attend panels on Indian American success stories. While disappointing, that did not surprise us. But we had an unexpectedly positive outcome. Indiaspora conference leaders who came for a taster, stayed through the entirety of our panel discussion. They want to move this conversation to the mainstage in future events.
Domestic Violence Happens In Every Community
Without a doubt, transnational abandonment is one of the most sinister and damaging forms of abuse perpetrated on immigrant women.
We’ve learned that domestic abuse occurs across economic strata in every community, but perpetrators of transnational abandonment in the desi community exploit not just patriarchal cultural norms, but also immigration laws of the U.S. Yet, it’s barely acknowledged in the Indian diaspora or by policy makers.
Our community needs straightforward conversations about our prejudices and fears. Men should have the courage to call out injustice among their peers. Women could be better allies to survivors. Our community has to step up and support DV agencies who need funds to serve survivors better.
Mainstream news can learn from community media like India Currents about the nuances of our culture, beyond the model minority myth. And lawmakers need to pay attention to this phenomenon to close loopholes in immigration law.
Making Each Survivor’s Story Count
As journalists reporting on domestic violence and abandonment, we wanted to make every survivor’s story count. We told Leena’s story in print, on audio, on Twitter, in conferences, and other platforms. And yet there’s a niggling feeling that we failed her, even though we did everything to support her cause.
It’s been a year and a half since we set out to investigate how domestic violence and transnational abandonment upended the lives of immigrant women like Leena. Even though we learned to listen to survivors without showing emotion, and reported their stories objectively, we’ve realized that these women view us as more than journalists. They’ve trusted us with deeply personal stories. Did they see us as friends? Maybe they do.
Survivors reached out to us after our first stories came out. Each one had a disheartening tale of neglect and callous treatment by those closest to them.
But they texted us about good news. A new boyfriend. A new job.
They texted us when they were down. Leena sent us closeup pictures of her wounds.
Then she texted heart emojis because we asked, “How’s the healing going?”
Her last texts said, “Fell down. Started depression meds. Wanted to be dead so bad. Will talk more this week.”
We never got the chance to.
The GoFundMe raised more than $4000 for Leena’s funeral.
It’s money she could have used when she was alive.
Also Read: An Electricity Bill Set Fire To My Marriage
Leena’s name has been changed to protect her identity.
In June 2021, the Desi Dost Project began investigating Transnational Abandonment of Indian American women in the Bay Area, supported by USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism and India Currents magazine. Names have been changed to protect the survivors’ identity.
In May, Kymal and Nagarajan-Butaney received a first-place award on Open In-Depth Reporting and In-Depth Reporting from the California News Publishers Association for their investigative reporting on the issue of transnational abandonment.
Artwork: Tanya Momi
If you or anyone you know needs help, please contact:
SD Nari: 24-Hour Hotline
Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-SAFE (7233)
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