It was the fear of shame that prevented Samina Khan* from coming forward about the abuse she had endured for years. But it never left her mind. “The thought of what he did to me haunted me all my life. I was too scared to tell anyone because if I did, they would silence me. In the community it’s brushed under the carpet”.
Shamina’s abuse took place in her family home, at the hands of a male relative when she was a child. “He would undress me, touch me everywhere, force himself on me and then casually walk away while my parents sat in another room,” she tells The Independent.
Mother of two, Jasminder Kaur*, entered a forced marriage when she was 17. During the course of her relationship, she suffered financial and emotional abuse from her husband whom she had to beg for money, and was mocked by her in-laws, who considered her to be “too western”.
“When he drank, he beat me up and raped me. I confided in my mother, and she told me that this is what women need to endure and if I left this would split the family and the shame would be too much. I had no one to speak to. I suffered in silence for years.”
Now 29, Jasminder has moved from a women’s refuge into a small local authority flat. Her family has disowned her. She says that she and many other Punjabi women like her would never go to the police due to the shame it would bring upon their families.
Shamina and Jasminder are not alone. A report released at the end of last year by Sikh Women’s Aid that surveyed 674 women, found that as many as seven in 10 experienced abuse by a partner or relative. Only a third of victims had disclosed incidents to family and friends.
Freedom Charity is an organisation that works to bring awareness, help and support with regards to forced marriage, dishonour-based violence and female genital mutilation. Kuldeep*, who lives in the Midlands and works as a carer, reached out to them after being forced to marry when she was 17. Kuldeep says she suffered emotional, financial and physical abuse at the hands of her mother-in-law, while her husband watched on and did nothing.
“I couldn’t get out,” she says. “I wanted my life to end.” Eventually, with the help of Freedom Charity, Kuldeep escaped, changed her identity and now lives in hiding. But she says there is a bounty on her head. “I told my parents I needed to get out, but they said this was my life. They didn’t want to accept I was suffering, it was too shameful,” she says.
Many Sikh women report being unable to seek support from their families because of the shame divorce or abuse is perceived to bring upon them. This puts victims in incredibly precarious position – unable to escape and risking being cut-off from their friends and parents if they do, but knowing that staying could mean being killed. For many victims, the rejection experienced when they reach out to the community can be experienced as a repeat of the initial abuse.
Since publishing their findings, Sikh Women’s Aid says they are receiving calls on a daily basis. Sahdaish Pall, Co-founder and service lead tells The Independent, “these calls range from people wanting to talk about and share their experiences of child sexual abuse or domestic abuse, those that have arrived here on a spousal visa who have no understanding of the law in this country and those reaching out as the support they’ve had from non-specialist services has not been sufficient. Because of the demand, we realised this is a serious issue in the South Asian community,” says Pall.
Surwat Sohail Chief Executive of Roshni, an organisation that provides specialist community-aware counselling for domestic abuse victims, explains how the shame and silence around abuse is such a problem. “The issue of ‘shame and honour’ is a profound, systematic problem that stops women from seeking help and many continue to suffer in silence. This is the biggest barrier we face when encouraging victims to seek help. They often face ostracism from their community as well as family members. Many are left with no choice but to break away from their community, networks and their own families.
Mindeep Singh Sohal, director of Gurdwara Aid, a Sikh organisation raising awareness on familial abuse, explains how cultural bias and the idea of maintaining ‘honour’ compounds such abuse: “Misinformation plays on the community’s emotions and there is a lack of education and a lack of skills to deal with this that results in an unwillingness of victims to come forward and a lack of awareness of who to go to for help.”
A National Police Chiefs’ Council Spokesperson, told The Independent that “domestic abuse is a terrible crime that affects too many people in the UK. We’re working with a number of academics and charities to help us understand how the periods of lockdown have affected both victims and the behaviour of perpetrators and this research will be used to improve the police response and better support those affected.
“Throughout the periods of lockdown police responded to reports of domestic abuse and worked hard to reassure victims and arrest the perpetrators where necessary. All reports of domestic abuse are taken incredibly seriously, for anyone experiencing abuse, we are here to support you. Please call us and we will help you. In an emergency, always call 999.”
The more this is spoken about the more the taboo is lifted, and the more likely women are to feel able to come forward and seek help. “For far too long Punjabi women have suffered in silence. Gender based violence and abuse has been allowed to happen without challenge.,” says Pall.
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