There was a scene in the recently popular Netflix show Never Have I Ever where the protagonist and her family are visiting a temple for Diwali and there is a woman sitting all by herself at a table. In whispers, the protagonist is told to stay away from 'that one' because she is divorced.
It is no secret that divorce is still stigmatized in the South Asian community. In a culture where marriage is seen as an accomplishment and a rite of passage, divorce reeks of failure and shame. Often couples are told by well-meaning family members to keep working on their relationship no matter the problem, especially if the couple has children. Keeping the family together for the sake of the children seems to be the order of the day, never mind what kind of example an abusive father or an emotionally unstable mother is setting for the kids. South Asian survivors of domestic violence face multiple barriers when considering a legal separation, let's explore a few:
Lack of family support
It is a common adage that in South Asia marriage is not the union of a man and a woman but a union of two families. So the dissolution of marriage is also the dissolution of two families and everyone has a say. Divorce is often seen as bringing shame upon the family. Couples (especially women) considering divorce are subjected to a spectrum of reactions, from kind advice to threats on the basis of honor. Lack of family support can make an already difficult choice feel insurmountable to a person stuck in an abusive or unhealthy relationship.
Shrinking community connections
From having to deal with judgmental looks from community members to not being invited to family functions, the stigma of divorce is real. Divorce is never cut and dry. But in addition to the emotional and financial strain of separation, South Asians face the cultural stigma surrounding divorce. In the aftermath of a divorce, women, in particular, are often shunned by community members and sometimes even find their professional connections shrinking.
The road to financial independence is a long and winding one
Power and control in abusive relationships, often shows up as financial control, making the victim financially dependent on the abuser. Victims are not allowed to work or have very little to no access to finances of their own and have to start from scratch after a divorce. Going back to work after a long hiatus can feel extremely daunting. Survivors may face questions in interviews about their lack of work experience. They also may face a steep learning curve and lack of confidence when they have been out of the workplace and experiencing belittling abuse for so long.
What about the kids?
One of the biggest reasons women in unhealthy relationships stay is ' for the sake of the kids'. South Asian culture upholds the unit of the family more than anything else. The idea that every kid needs to have a mom and a dad in their life to be successful is highly prevalent. However, this doesn't take into account what kind of example a troubled relationship is setting for children. A child who grows up in an abusive household is 10 times more likely to become an abuser or end up in an abusive relationship. This is no coincidence. When children witness abuse as part of their childhood they learn that it is normal. There is no bigger argument to get out of an abusive relationship than ' for the sake of your kids'. When you stand up for yourself, you teach your child to do the same in the future and end the cycle of violence for your future generation.
A divorce is never an easy option, getting out of an abusive relationship takes a tremendous amount of courage. But this courage is rewarded with a life full of possibilities and a future free of abuse. We as a community owe it to survivors to support them when they are brave enough to take this step. South Asians often think that divorce ' breaks a family', but an abusive family is already a broken family. Divorce gives it a chance to heal.