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Hotlines in the US for women in distress

Aug 26, 2009

Many young Indian girls these days are getting married to NRIs in the hope of brighter future and comfortable life. To their dismay, more often than not they find their dreams shattered when they become the victims of deceit, harassment and domestic violence, writes Sakuntala Narasimhan.

Boston: Meera married an NRI (Non-Resident Indian) last year. He came to India on a three-week vacation, saw four prospective brides shortlisted by his parents (including Meera from Andhra Pradesh), got married, and left two days later promising to arrange for the documents for her move to the US.

After waiting for six months, her parents contacted a friend's friend living in the US, who found out that the groom already had a live-in girlfriend and had married only to appease his aged, terminally-ill father.

Meera went over nonetheless, on a visitor's visa, hoping to sort things out. She ended up being trapped as an unpaid housekeeper to the couple and getting beaten to boot.

Archana's case was a little different. Married at 19 to a doctor earning big money in New York, this small town girl from Karnataka went to the US only to find herself slapped by her mother-in-law because she did not know how to handle the vacuum cleaner, shouted at by her husband when she complained about his mother and locked up and starved as 'punishment' if she hesitated to go to the supermarket alone. When her parents called, her mother-in-law listened in on an extension, so Archana couldn't tell them the truth.

Her worried parents asked a nephew in California to call and check if she was all right. When he telephoned, Archana's husband accused her of having an affair with this cousin. Her passport was taken away and she was forbidden to speak to neighbours. It was a living hell for her and she had nowhere to turn to – or so she thought.

Archana did not know about the helplines and volunteer groups all over the US, which cater to the needs of victims of domestic violence (DV) and abuse. Saheli and the Asian Task Force Against Domestic Violence (ATASK) are two of these organisations in the Boston area that cater especially to Asian victims.

The Indian community in the US has grown to over 24,00,000, and many young Indian brides go there with stars in their eyes, but life quickly turns into a nightmare. Entirely dependent on their husbands and with few friends, they find themselves abused by their spouses in an alien land.

A few cases where the woman is found murdered make it to the media, but in hundreds of others, the daily physical, verbal and emotional abuse do not get reported because the victims do not know where to go for help. Additionally, according to Asian cultural traditions, it is considered shameful to confess to being beaten.

Helping the women in distress

The US national hotline for domestic violence gets 19,000 calls every month from victims, but Asian women either hesitate to call or are ignorant about the existence of the service. Often, language is a problem.

But as Amy, a long-time volunteer with Apna Ghar, a domestic violence shelter in Chicago, puts it, there has been an "exponential rise in the number of helplines for Asians in the US", which is a sad commentary on the rising need for such services among expatriates.

ATASK has volunteers speaking 12 Asian languages (including Hindi, Nepalese, Korean and Chinese) to cater to callers from different Asian communities. With a staff of 30 and 135 volunteers, ATASK helps with legal aid, short stay shelters, training for jobs, and counselling services. Saheli, likewise, reaches out to Indian women who are in distress.

As Usha Vakil, who has been working for a long time with Saheli, says, the first thing their office asks a caller is whether she is in immediate danger, and whether she can receive calls. Sometimes, women hesitate to call from their own homes for fear of reprisals from their abusive spouses. The police emergency line 911 also responds within seconds if a woman or an NGO like Saheli calls.

Saheli runs free literacy classes, assists with custody, alimony, career and employment issues, provides physical and emotional support and demystifies immigration rules. Many brides hesitate to seek help, fearing that they may be deported as they came in as dependents. They do not know that the law now offers legal status for immigrant victims of DV, and under a new Violence Against Women Act, a national hotline is also in place.

Community and academic organisations (including the mayor's office, Harvard, University of Massachusetts, and Northeastern University) support Saheli's and ATASK's work. Indian women who are not abused can also help bridge the cultural gap and enrich another woman's life by volunteering with Saheli (students can intern and even get credits towards their course) or donate cell phones (which are very useful for victims) by dropping them off at various store centres.

Last fall a Malayali woman in New Jersey (NJ) was shot dead by her estranged husband, who had driven all the way from California to confront her. Had she known about the helpline, Manavi, in NJ, she may have been alive today.

Guidelines to fight domestic violence

  • Parents, please do a background check before arranging a marriage. Ask relatives/ friends. Don't be carried away by dollar incomes or green cards.

  • Keep documents like passports, marriage and birth certificates, safe and accessible in an emergency. Scan them into a computer so that they can be accessed when needed from anywhere.

  • Keep a list of helplines.

  • Join local Asian-Indian groups, make friends. Do not hesitate to seek help when in distress. There is plenty available, via websites, confidential hotlines and police lines.

  • Gain self-confidence through skills and courses, many of which are available free, at the local public library for instance.

  • More than anything else, do not think that it is your fate to be abused/ beaten. Every human being has a right to a life of dignity, peace and happiness. As a volunteer, reach out, you could save someone's life.

[Names of victims have been changed on request]

Some useful websites and email contacts:

  •, 1-866-472-4354, 1.866.4SAHELI, P.O. Box

  • 52063, Boston MA 02205 and P.O. Box 1345, Burlington MA 01803

  • Asian Task Force Against Domestic Violence, 24 hour hotline, 617-338-2355. P.O.Box 120108, Boston MA 02112. Tel 617 338 2350.

  • Apna Ghar, Chicago, IL 60640,

  • Manavi, New Brunswick, NJ 08903-3103,


  • (National Domestic Violence Hotline), 800-799- SAFE

  • Narika, Berkeley, CA 94712, Helpline 1-800-215-7308

  • South Asian Women's Center, C/O Battered Women's Support Services,

  • P.O. Box 1098, Vancouver, Canada,

  • South Asian Women's Group, Toronto, Ontario, Canada

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