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Domestic Abuse Prevalent

Krista Karch interviewed me for this article series. With permission of the paper I was encouraged to post this journalist piece.

Danica Anderson

Categorized in these topics: Women in Collaboration


As Utica’s public service organizations work to provide adequate services for the region’s refugees, domestic violence advocates face complex barriers in reaching refugee women.

Women’s advocates agree that there is no way to tell whether domestic violence rates are higher within American or refugee communities.

“Domestic violence is a large problem in the refugee population as it is in any population,” said Denise Cavanaugh, executive director of the YWCA of the Mohawk Valley. “It’s still so quietly kept that we don’t really have accurate numbers as far as what percentage of any population is domestically abused.”

But some advocates say refugee women face barriers not experienced by other women in domestic abuse cases.

“It’s more difficult for a refugee woman than an American woman,” said Ioana Balint, director of the Healthy Family Department at the Mohawk Valley Resource Center for Refugees. “It’s very difficult to break with the community cultural ties.”

Balint said one Russian woman told her, “A woman’s worth in some cultures is based on her endurance — her ability to endure everything, including abuse.”

Abuse prevalent

When Mai, a refugee from southeast Asia, left her husband because he continually abused her, her relatives told her to return to him. It was their culture to remain in a marriage, Mai (not her real name) said through an interpreter.

It wasn’t until after she left a year later that she discovered the programs available to help victims of domestic violence.

Cloistered in an Asian enclave and not speaking English, Mai had no way of knowing.

“I have told other women that they can get help, but they do not believe me,” she said.

The United States is among 44 countries with laws against domestic abuse, but the violence continues to be endemic here, said Maud Easter, director for Voices for Change: Immigrant Women in State Policy, a program at SUNY Albany’s Center for Government.

“This is a problematic society in transformation that immigrant women come to,” Easter said. “She not only has to deal with all the ambivalence in our own culture that results in a very high incidence against women, but she also has to relate to her own culture.”

A study released by Voices for Change in April found immigrant and refugee women in Upstate New York face barriers in existing programs to prevent violence against women, Easter said.

“In domestic violence, an emphasis on the most valuable route to safety was to leave their family,” Easter said. “But in the cultural origin of many, the role of the extended family and the emphasis on your place in your community contributing to your value as a human being is so strong that for immigrant women ... that strategy is just impossible.”

Providing services

In the waiting room at the Legal Aid Society of Mid-New York Inc., there is a picture of a woman whose face is covered in bruises. Beneath, there is information in Russian on where to get help. Farther along the wall is a similar poster, in Vietnamese.

When refugees and immigrants come to the United States, many aren’t aware of their rights in the case of domestic violence, said Cindy Domingue-Hendrickson, a staff attorney at Legal Aid.

“It took years in our own society for people to come forward,” said Robert Salzman, executive director of Legal Aid. “Women suffered for decades.”

Numbers of women served by advocacy agencies aren’t an accurate indicator of domestic violence, Cavanaugh said.

“All you can base it on is the people that come forward,” she said. “Now you’re looking at, are refugees more likely to come forward than other populations? We haven’t even scratched the surface of providing service to those that are abused.”

And refugees are less likely to come forward, Easter said.

A woman may not contact the police based on fear that her status as an immigrant or refugee would be in jeopardy, she said.

“If there’s any civil immigrant status question in your family you are going to be extremely hesitant to speak to police,” Easter said.

Many women refuse to leave a violent relationship until their immigration concerns are addressed, according to the National Violence Against Women Survey by the U.S. Department of Justice.

A 2000 reauthorization of the 1994 Violence Against Women Act allowed special visas for immigrant women who are victims of domestic violence. U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., authored the 1994 legislation and co-authored the 2000 act.

A statement released by Schumer’s office then said that the Immigrant and Naturalization Service received nearly 12,000 petitions between 1997 and 2000 from women trying to escape domestic violence but rejected more than 5,000 of them as a result of changes in immigration law in 1996.

The bill created a new visa category allowing immigrant spouses and their children who are victims of abuse to remain in the United States regardless of immigration status.

But many women are not aware of the legislation, Easter said.

Fear of law enforcement

Some refugees also do not trust law enforcement officials, said Patti Jo Newell of the New York State Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

“The idea of calling the police is absurd,” she said.

Easter said refugee advocates have emphasized the need for law enforcement agencies to employ people from the cultures they serve. The Utica Police Department hired its first Bosnian officer this year. Last year, the department asked refugee center representatives to educate their officers, Capt. Al Candido said.

“Like a lot of people, we were completely ignorant of what transpired that brought about this move or migration,” Candido said in a 2003 interview.

The department developed a domestic violence team in February 2003 after logging a high number of domestic violence-related calls. Out of about 50,000 calls in one year, about 3,500 — nearly 300 each month — were for domestic violence incidences, Candido said.

Through a state grant, Officer Trisha Nicholson works with the YWCA to make follow-up calls after each domestic violence incident.

Domestic abuse calls are up, but Nicholson said that may be a positive indication of their efforts.

“Originally the goal was to reduce the number of domestic incidences, but we’ve come to realize that through public awareness you may increase reports of incidences, but in the long-run, reduce domestic violence,” Nicholson said.

Statistics unknown

There are no domestic violence statistics, Newell said, because so many people never come forward.

“The numbers are hard enough to come by for people who are more inclined to show up in the system, and when you add in the refugee factor there’s a greater chance they won’t show up on the radar,” Newell said.

One barrier for refugee women identified by Voices for Change is that the definition of domestic violence varies, Easter said.

Danica Anderson, an Olympia, Wash.-based forensic psychotherapist specializing in post-traumatic stress and domestic abuse among Bosnians, said that in Bosnia, domestic violence isn’t classified as such.

“The problem is perpetuated by the continuing belief that domestic violence is a part of life,” Anderson said.

Sanela Daudbasic, a Bosnian interpreter with the Multicultural Association of Medical Interpreters (MAMI) in Utica, said refugee women are reluctant to press charges despite role changes in the United States.

“One client, a man, told me, wait until we get to Bosnia, then we’ll see who the man really is,” Daudbasic said. “In Bosnia, if there’s a fight, they think it’s traditional. The men are in charge. But the women change when they get here. They learn about the American style of life.”

Julia Duany is a native of Sudan and professor of sociology at Indiana University.

“Domestic violence is very common among African refugees’ homes,” she said. “At home, if there is a dispute, the way to resolve it is that the family will intervene. Here, it escalates to violence.”

The community structure that supported the family in times of trouble is gone for many refugees, Duany said.

Domestic violence can be triggered when refugee women leave the home to work for the first time, she said.

For some refugees, the role changes and the stress they face once they arrive in the United States may be a factor in domestic violence, experts say.

“There are massive role work and gender changes, especially for Bosnians,” said the refugee center’s Balint. “They come mainly from rural areas where women were mostly involved in work around the home.”

Reluctance to speak out

A woman who does identify herself as a victim of domestic violence may not be able to find help due to language barriers, MAMI Executive Director Cornelia Brown said.

MAMI trains interpreters specifically for domestic violence and sexual abuse (DV/SA) situations. Brown said adequate interpreting is the first step in getting help. She and her interpreters have witnessed cases where victims of domestic violence were not provided with objective interpreters, she said.

Brown said some cases have family members or friends of a perpetrator have interpreted for a victim, and husbands have even interpreted for wives.

“I see a lot,” said Penh Vallieres, a native of Cambodia and a MAMI interpreter trained in the abuse program. “They’re afraid to come forward because they can’t help themselves. They can’t speak English.”

They are isolated, she said.

And isolation is one of the laws of domestic violence, Anderson said.

“If she tried to better herself or speak better English than he does, there would be domestic violence,” Anderson said.

“The isolation increases the violence,” Vallieres said.

“Sometimes they feel, they are women, it has to be like that.”

Some cultures perpetuate isolation, Vallieres said.

“Asian women are ashamed ... and often in the culture the woman is quiet,” she said. “Most Asian women (in the United States) know that’s not the culture anymore, but they’re afraid to talk about it.

Despite barriers faced by any community with a refugee population, Easter said the local refugee center helps put Utica’s programs ahead of the curve.

Deb Galotti, director of the YWCA’s Hope House shelter, said her organization has translated information into Spanish, but further work is needed.

“I think it needs to come out in the community more,” Galotti said.

Mai agrees.

“A lot of (Asian) women out there don’t know the culture; they don’t know what’s available,” she said. “(Asian) women would be grateful to know the services.”

But for now, cultural barriers, a lack of English skills and few resources equipped to help Asian women have Mai fearful for her daughter.

“I’m afraid that my daughter will go through the same thing, but I will try to teach her,” she said.

Mai looked up from the table her eyes had been fixed on as she told her story. She nodded firmly.

“I know the services,” she said. “Her future will be different.”

Contact Krista J. Karch at

Women struggle with circumcision ritual




There was a ceremony, Halima Mudey said.

“There was no rice, so we just cooked corn. Beans. Flour,” she said through an interpreter. “A big feast.”

Then all the young girls from the villages were gathered together, and the ritual of female circumcision began.

“They gave you a tablet and an injection to stop the pain for a few seconds until they are done, then you just go on with your pain,” Mudey said.

Mudey, a Somali Bantu refugee who now lives in Utica, was just 7 years old when she was circumcised in an African tradition that some African refugees cling to when they come to the United States.

According to statistics from the Inter-African Committee on Traditional Practices Affecting the Health of Women and Children, more than 130 million women endure what is known as female genital mutilation (or FGM) each year, and more than 2 million girls are threatened by the practice.

The procedure consists of cutting or removing parts of the female genitalia to hinder a woman’s sex drive. It is usually viewed as a form of birth control.

“It is considered an extremely hazardous practice in terms of its impact on later reproductive health,” said Maud Easter, director of Voices for Change: Immigrant Women and State Policy, a program through SUNY-Albany’s Center for Government.

Nearly 30 African countries practice female circumcision in some form, the U.S. Department of State reports. In Somalia, more than 90 percent of women endure FGM.

In 1996, the United States criminalized female circumcision on minors living in the United States. The practice has also been recognized as “persecution” by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees.

But the tradition holds fast for some refugees, who believe it to be at the core of womanhood.

Julia Duany, a native of Sudan and a sociologist at Indiana University, said the main reason circumcision is practiced in some cultures is to control sexual activity.

“They don’t believe in this idea of young people just going out and having sex,” she said. “So in order to prevent widespread sexual behavior, there is female circumcision that provides that social system.”

Duany said some researchers say the procedure is designed so that men experience more pleasure during sex, but that’s not the story of the women’s she’s spoken with.

“They will tell you they do have pleasure even though they are circumcised,” she said.

But Easter said that in addition to severe pain, there are great risks of infection in the reproductive and urinary systems.

USAID reports that female circumcision is usually performed with unsterilized, crude instruments, without anesthesia.

“There was so much pain,” Mudey said. “For all the girls, they used one knife. Some girls went unconscious.”

Afterward, their legs were bound together for seven days.

Mudey believes in the practice. It ensures that girls remain virgins until they are married, she said.

She won’t force her own daughters to endure it. They are in America, she said, where they can do what they want. But she has concerns.

“I think it will be hard for men in America when the women aren’t circumcised,” she said.

Contact Krista J. Karch at


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