Durham conference addresses South Asian family violence

DURHAM — This is the second in a two-part series about family violence in Durham’s South Asian community. Part one profiled a Pickering woman who was faced with the threat of forced marriage to a man she had never met.

As Durham’s diversity increases rapidly — especially in the west-end communities of Ajax and Pickering — experts say local agencies must become well-versed on forced marriage, and other complex issues facing the South Asian community.

“People are in denial — these things are happening in Durham Region. If it can happen in Toronto and other communities, it can happen here,” said Esther Enyolu, executive director at the Women’s Multicultural Resource and Counselling Centre of Durham.

Ms. Enyolu says service providers need to understand the issues such as class, caste, religion, family values and family structure if they hope to provide meaningful help.

“One of the biggest differences is the extended family system; most South Asian families have in-laws, sisters, brothers all living together. Most of the time when women have problems, it’s not because of the husband, it’s because of his family,” she says. “Even if (a woman) doesn’t live with extended family, the family still plays a big role in her relationship.”

According to Statistics Canada’s 2011 National Household Survey, 5.7 per cent of Durham’s population is South Asian.

The term “South Asian” is generally understood to encompass Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka with some groups also including Afghanistan and Iran in the definition.

“Family violence is not unique to South Asian community,” stressed Dr. Naila Butt, executive director at Social Services Network, a non-profit organization for South Asians in the GTA.

However, she says, “There are certain challenges and systemic barriers that need to be addressed.”

Social Services Network recently hosted the fourth annual Impact of Family Violence Conference: A South Asian Perspective conference at UOIT in Oshawa.

Hundreds of stakeholders — including police officers, politicians and social service providers — gathered for two days to discuss everything from forced marriage and femicide, to elder abuse and the experience of LGBTQ South Asians.

“This all started when we realized there were calls to police from these communities, but when they went to the calls, the people were silent,” Dr. Butt explains. “Service providers do not have the understanding of the family dynamics.”

For example, she says South Asian women may be less open to the idea of divorce or separation from an abusive partner, while different parenting styles often see South Asian youth live in the family home until marriage with significant parental involvement in their lives.

Durham Regional Police officers received training at the conference to help “develop cultural competency.”

Detective Debb Anderton says domestic violence and elder abuse are major priorities for the police, and ensuring investigations unfold smoothly is crucial.

“For example, in some cultures a male police officer shouldn’t be alone in a room with a female. These are the kinds of things that can impact a whole investigation,” she notes. “How police speak to people, how they interact is very important.”

Rameen, a Pickering woman who faced the threat of forced marriage, says this is exactly why she didn’t go to the police — or any local community agency — when she was facing a crisis at home.

“I felt like they wouldn’t understand how things are in my culture,” she says. “They might say, ‘if you don’t want to marry this person, you don’t have to.’ But it’s not that easy.”

The conferences are part of a five-year initiative aimed at creating policy recommendations to reduce family violence in the South Asian community.

Recommendations from the 2013 conference include working with the federal government to address changes to immigration legislation that keep sponsored immigrants — particularly women and older adults — in abusive situations, and implementing training for service providers so they can better support sponsored residents in abusive situations.

A link to the article can be found here.