Sikh Survivors of Domestic Violence Walk Social Tightrope to Cope or Flee

by Bhaag Kaur Elisabeth, Daya Client Advocate


Although Sikh Faith was founded to celebrate the presence of divinity in every human, regardless of gender, violence is alarmingly prevalent in the Sikh community. According to a survey of 500 people conducted by Sikh Family Services, one in two people knows someone who deals with domestic abuse or violence on a daily basis.


Between one in three and one in four Sikh women are affected directly by domestic abuse. Men also suffer the abuse of others, and this is likely significantly underreported due to gendered expectations of masculinity to bear and adversity in stoic silence. To its targets, abuse seems incidental. They may be constantly on the lookout for ways to avoid or lessen their abusers’ harsh treatment, believing in some part as abusers teach them, that it is somehow their fault. In fact abusive behaviors establish and maintain power and result in gains of money, labor and emotional attention for abusers, as Lundy Bancroft writes. Even if escape seems unimaginable, victims and survivors need to know they can discuss their challenges with people who have their best interest at heart.


Cultural taboos in the Punjabi community silence people suffering every day from what the WHO calls “a major public health problem and a violation of women’s rights.” Though nationally 85% of reported survivors identify as women, 15% identify as men, so domestic violence is truly a violation of human rights at large. The silence is upheld by cultural directives such as “don’t talk about home outside of home,” and “what will people say?” according to Wendy Aulja and keeps people from even imagining life without abuse.


What’s more, many Sikh and other South Asian survivors experience aggressions in the form of cultural bias and narrow worldview from the counselors that are available to them through mainstream American social services. Aulja writes that rather than bring relief, this alienation only oppresses further survivors who are looking for relief.


To bridge this gap and support emotional, mental and physical well being in the South Asian community, numerous organizations throughout the U.S. center specific needs of South Asian families and individuals. Although based in California, Sikh Family Services provides support for survivors of gendered or family violence that is tailored to the needs of the Sikh community. ASHA in Washington D.C. and Daya Houston also support people dealing with domestic abuse and sexual violence; their services are geared toward the South Asian community at large.The international organization United Sikhs provides legal aid to families involved with legal issues pertaining to violence and assault and which may affect individuals’ immigration or child custody stati.


It can be scary to think about escaping from an abusive situation and the legal processes that might unfold as a result. But the trained social services providers at United Sikhs, Daya, ASHA and Sikh Family Services know that leaving even a troublingly abusive situation is not easy and may not always be the safest option in the short term. Leaving abusive situations can escalate tensions provoking further, sometimes fatal, violence. In addition, many people stay in abusive family networks because leaving would mean letting go of their entire socio-cultural network.


Culturally aware case managers and social workers understand this and do not put pressure on victims to take actions that might put them in even greater physical or emotional danger. Following their clients’ wishes, they will either support her to find support and emotional outlets to cope with the ongoing adversity, or they will guide them gradually toward escape in a way that is as safe and smooth as possible.

Daya Houston compiled this useful adaptation of the Power and Control Wheel, for the South Asian community. Originally developed by the Domestic Abuse Intervention Project in Duluth, MN, the Power and Control Wheel sets a standard for explainers of abusive behavior. It is used in mental health and social services settings to show survivors that such behavior is not their fault, but results from choices made by the people who abuse them.


Use the wheel above to help you spot abusive behaviors in your community, and call or share these phone numbers as needed (always share unlabeled phone numbers so they don’t call attention to a survivor’s attempt to get help in case they are being monitored).


If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic abuse share or call the Daya Confidential Hotline: (713) 981-7645. We're here to help.

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