How the idea of honour among families can cover up abuse

The concept of family honour in the Asian community is making it hard to speak out about cases of abuse. Nina Jacobs reports

It was the chance sighting of the young Asian girl’s bruised leg that led her schoolteacher to suspect she was a victim of domestic violence.

However, it wasn’t until she was in her twenties that she confessed the physical abuse she suffered at the hands of her father. Even more disturbing was her admission that her two sisters and mother were victims of his sexual abuse too.

Yet none of these women felt able to speak about the abuse for fear of bringing shame on the honour of their family – known as “izzat”.

“They couldn’t see the way out of the abuse,” says Harsha Rai, a senior counsellor for Pukaar, a specialist counselling service for Asian women and girls experiencing violence and abuse. “The mother had never reported it and still won’t talk about it.”

Rai says the daughter took a huge risk in breaking the family’s wall of silence. She was ostracised from her family and now receives counselling for an alcohol problem.

There is no evidence of a greater prevalence of child abuse among Asian communities, but preserving family honour means the experiences of thousands of victims rarely come to light.

A recent NSPCC survey found more than two-thirds of British Asians, from the Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities, think reporting child abuse would have a negative affect on their family’s izzat.

The need to help these silent victims in Asian communities is the reason why Pukaar was set up. Pukaar means to “call out” in Hindi. Part of EACH, a specialist drug and alcohol counselling service, Pukaar is funded by London Councils to work in the boroughs of Barnet, Brent, Ealing, Harrow, Hillingdon and Hounslow.

Clients are Asian women and females aged between 11 and 21, who are victims of domestic abuse. This covers physical, sexual, mental, verbal and financial abuse, as well as women forced to marry without consent.

One-to-one sessions with qualified Asian female counsellors are offered in Gujerati, Hindi, Punjabi and English. The service also does outreach work in schools, home visits, advocacy work and referrals to other agencies.

In cases where the mother is the sole victim, children still suffer enormous emotional abuse, says Rameet Thandi, the service’s domestic violence counsellor who works with young Asian women.

However, Thandi says it is also common for a mother and her children to bevictimised at the same time. This makes it doubly difficult for cases of abuse to be reported. “There’s a lot of guilt because they have been led to believe it’s their fault,” she says. “They often feel as if they are letting down their mum.”

Thandi says many of the girls she sees are unable to articulate their feelings about the abuse they have suffered. Her 50-minute counselling sessions always involve art and writing to provide other outlets for self-expression.

“They might draw, paint or write stories. It’s a way of telling me what has happened to them,” she says.

Overcoming the shame of reporting domestic violence is more complex than betraying the family’s honour, says Foziha Raja, who works as a domestic violence counsellor and trainer for Pukaar in Barnet.

She has heard countless stories of women who have suffered horrific abuse. “Talking about it is like reliving it for them”, she says. Many live in real fear if they report abuse that they will be killed or have their children taken away from them, she adds.

“It’s more complex than honour because it’s about how you are made up. It’s a huge commitment to ask of somebody. The women who recover the best tend to have a good social support network.”

EACH director Sandra Machado would like to see a service such as Pukaar set up in every London borough. She says there is still a huge under-reporting of domestic violence and a lack of specialist counsellors.

She believes young women can be helped effectively when advocacy is offered in conjunction with therapeutic support. “You just can’t offer one without the other,” she says.

Since 2003, Pukaar has helped over 300 females and provided more than 2,000 counselling sessions. Its success can be measured by a significant increase in the number of women and girls who have reported an improvement in their emotional and mental health.

As one service user puts it: “If I am laughing and alive today, it is because of my counsellor and Pukaar.”

What works

● Understand your clients’ cultural needs. Provide sessions with counsellors who can communicate with them in their own language.
● Ensure the service is community-based through outreach work in schools and colleges and links with health, religious and social projects.
● Provide a home-visiting service for victims unable to leave their homes because of mental health problems or family commitments.
● Provide domestic violence training to other service organisations to encourage early referrals.

Related articles
Safeguarding children in Asian communities

One Asian girl’s fight against abuse in her family

Further information

This article appeared in the 17 May issue under the headline “Abuse hidden by honour”


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