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Toronto's South Asian community confronts violence against women at home

As recent headlines from India have put the issue of violence against women back in the spotlight, members of Toronto’s South Asian community say the same problems exist in our own backyard.

In the past five years there has been an increase in cases of abuse being reported at Toronto’s South Asian Women’s Centre, says Executive Director Kripa Sekhar.

“We are extremely concerned because the number of cases we are seeing is about 1 in every 2 women who come to the centre,” Sekhar said.

And of the 624 women who reported some sort of abuse to the centre in the last year, only a small percentage moves forward with any action.

Sekhar says the reluctance to report abuse stems from generations of systemic patriarchy.

“It’s a very, very sensitive issue,” Sekhar said.

Women fear they and their families will be stigmatized by allegations of rape or abuse.

“They’re afraid for their reputations. They’re afraid what the community will think. They’re afraid what their husband will say about this. They’re afraid they will be isolated,” Sekhar said.

Vijay Agnew, a professor of women’s studies at York University, adds that immigrant communities tend to have mistrust of police.

In a recent case of gang rape in rural India two police officers were among those arrested.

“They’re not comfortable with the police, or the role the police might play to protect them,” Agnew said.

Sekhar says the inequality is particularly prominent in rural India, where girls are taught to do housework and look after the family, while boys are told they must be the head of the household.

“The male child is made to feel they are the power, they are the heads of families. So they continue to use that power in abusive ways,” Sekhar said.

“All of us have to take responsibility in the way that a male child is raised to respect a woman from the time they are born,” Sekhar said.

“This includes mothers who raise sons as if they are some precious beings and the girl child as if she is just meant to take care of the home.”

But she stresses that violence against women is a worldwide issue and many victims, not just those of South Asian background, feel the sense of shame and helplessness when it comes to reporting such crimes.

“It’s a global issue and this has to be dealt with globally. In rural India the consciousness raising has not happened, and it needs to happen very quickly and very radically,” Sekhar said.

Two teenage girls were found murdered and hung from trees Wednesday after being gang raped in the Indian village of Katra, in Uttar Pradesh. Two police officers were charged with criminal conspiracy and fired for allegedly refusing to help locate the girls.

In the same province the mother of a teenage rape victim was beaten after refusing to withdraw the complaint against her daughter’s alleged attacker.

The allegations are the latest in a disturbing trend of violent crimes against women in India. The issue first grabbed international headlines in 2012, when a 23 year-old woman was beaten and gang raped aboard a bus. She later died of her injuries.