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By Caryn Nesmith
Friday, August 3, 2001
In the first conference of its kind, multicultural experts say abuse is colorblind, but culture and complications are not--nor are anti-violence strategies and solutions.
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (WOMENSENEWS)--Violence against women runs through almost all cultures and domestic abuse is colorblind. But recently, multicultural experts got together to share their sometimes-diverging experiences, strategies and one common conviction: One size doesn't fit all.
Anti-domestic violence advocates from across the United States, the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico came together late last month at the first U.S.-sponsored multi-cultural forum on violence against women.
All agreed on one thing: To better provide for abused women, whether African American, Native American, Latinas, Asian, or lesbian, services must consider each woman's own reality and that of her culture.
"One size fits all doesn't work effectively on culturally diverse communities. Therefore we have to develop better ways to address the concerns of these communities," said Adelita Medina, executive director of the National Latino Alliance for the Elimination of Domestic Violence, known as Alianza. The conference was sponsored by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
As this was the first conference to focus on cultural issues, participants commiserated in their struggles and rejoiced in their progress.
"We finally have come together to talk about our work," said Beth E. Richie from the Institute on Domestic Violence in the African American Community. "We can learn about what the different institutes are doing around the country and make some sense of being able to collaborate, to try to make sure that what we're doing isn't just riding on the crest of a current wave, but that we can stick around and continue to do this work."
Each race or ethnic group has different traditions, norms and environments to consider, the 400 participants were told. In African American communities, for example, the relationship with the criminal justice system is especially tense.
"While in other communities, it's an appropriate response to call the police, that's not always effective in our communities, because law enforcement isn't seen as a helpful service provider," adds Richie, also a professor of criminal justice and women's studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago and on the steering committee of the institute.
Another problem is what Richie calls the trap of loyalty.
"There's a sense of not wanting to give people over to a system that is apparently discriminatory against people of color, especially men of color. So women feel ambivalent in participating in the demise of a whole community of men, and in turn they may be less likely to reach out for help, thereby making them more vulnerable."
In Asian families, violence is wrapped in an entirely different package.
"Most victims of family violence report men begging them to stay after a violent incident. Within Asian relationships, it's often the opposite," said Firoza Chic Dabby, director of the recently formed Asian Pacific Islander Institute. "Men are saying, 'I can get another wife,' and the family members are all against a woman who tries to leave," said Dabby.
"Often women report fear of losing custody of children because all the family members support the man, saying that if she is leaving, if she speaks up, she is not fit to be a mother," explained Dabby. Not only do Asian women have little support from other family members when violence is involved, but often they are confronted with multiple batterers in an Asian family.
In Native American communities, there's a misconception that violence is traditional, experts say.
"Violence was treated very harshly in the Indian country before colonization. The punishment was banishment. Most of the tribes were matriarchal," said Beverly Wilkins of Peaceful Nations, a consulting firm that trains and educates on violence in tribal communities.
Historically peaceful people, American Indians were forced to migrate, put into isolation on reservations and exploited. The internal oppression was a result of the external, until violence became ingrained in their society, Wilkins said.
Violent crime is 2.5 times higher among Native Americans than in the population as a whole, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, and the rate of sexual assault and rape is 3.5 times higher. Many tribal governments have no laws recognizing domestic violence as a crime; therefore, little data is available on prevalence of domestic violence.
"Lack of funding and lack of interest on the part of the tribal government is a major problem," said Wilkins, also a representative of the Sacred Circle National Resource Center to End Violence Against Native Women.
In Latino communities, the legacy of patriarchy is a long one, said Ricardo Carrillo, director of training and technical assistance for Alianza. Latinos have historically been oppressed in their native countries since the colonization of the Americas by the Spanish, and in the United States by poverty and immigration issues, he said. He cited a study of undocumented immigrants that found that 64 percent of Latinas do not report abuse or seek help for fear of deportation.
The initiatives of the diverse institutes include fostering research, effecting policy change and training service providers to be culturally sensitive.
"Services are often predicated on women leaving, but many women don't leave," said Dabby of the Asian Pacific Islander Institute. "There are many barriers. One may not speak the language or maybe can't drive or doesn't know the system, but there are also barriers that the culture imposes: You shouldn't be leaving; you should stay and try harder.
"So how does a woman negotiate?"
Among Latino families, Alianza has been working with men who batter, a change from the traditional approach that emphasized separating women seeking help.
"The picture we began to see was that men were in jail, women were in shelters, and children were in foster care," said Sandra Camacho, co-chair of Alianza. "That is not an acceptable reality for us."
The Alianza model holds men accountable by showing them that, as a result of historical, colonial oppression, they have, in turn, learned to oppress women. And by helping them see this reality, the belief is that they will change how they behave.
Many cultural institutes began getting federal recognition and funding as a result of the U.S. Violence Against Women Act in 1994, which was reauthorized last year. The Clinton administration dramatically increased support for services and research. Activists are waiting to see how the Bush administration approaches the problem.
Only about 30 participants were men, though advocates acknowledge that men play an important part in changing the dynamics of domestic violence.
"Not only do we believe in working with men who batter, but we believe in working with men who do not batter and who can serve as role models for young people as well as for other men," said Medina, executive director of Alianza.
As the host of the forum, Puerto Rican officials addressed the struggle and progress in women's issues on the island, a U.S. commonwealth.
The island of 4 million inhabitants has been progressive among Latin American nations in legal strategies against domestic violence. As early as the 1970s, the government established a Women's Affairs Commission and amended civil and penal codes to offer more protection for abused women. In 1989, a Domestic Violence Law was established. However, Puerto Rican women are still frequently abused.
"Though we are proud of all that we've done and that we have been a model for legislation in South and Central America, still, every 15 days a woman is murdered by her partner in our country, and 20,000 restraining orders are sought in the courts every year," said MarÃa Dolores Fernos, the first Women's Advocate on the island.
"The violence continues and is accepted, which means that all that we've done hasn't been enough."
Caryn Nesmith is a journalist in San Juan, Puerto Rico