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Money Matters: Addressing the Trauma of Financial Abuse of Women in the Indian American Community

Money Matters: Addressing the Trauma of Financial Abuse of Women in the Indian American Community

  • Three women’s organizations host a webinar to discuss how financial dependence and immigration status are linked to domestic violence in the South Asian immigrant community in the U.S.

Behind the glossy veneer of cushy American life, lies a very grim reality for some — financial and domestic abuse. The various forms of abuse, their devastating toll, and the strategies and support that help survivors reclaim their financial freedom, particularly in the context of the South Asian community, were discussed at a webinar hosted by Daya, a nonprofit organization in collaboration with Sakhi (New York) and Narika (California) on September 23rd, 2021.

Titled “Money Matters: The Trauma of Financial Abuse,” the webinar is premised on the fact that “financial abuse occurs in 99% of domestic violence cases.” The discussion centered on how “financial abuse can take many forms including forbidding a partner to work, withholding money, identity theft, running debt, or forced free labor in family businesses.” It also addressed the issue of how for many women “financial hardship is one of the top reasons for staying in or returning to an abusive partner,” and how the victims’ immigration status is tied to their abuser.

Driving the discussion was Rachna Khare, Executive Director of Daya and Founding Member of the new collective SOAR (South Asian Survivors and Organization in Alliance and Rising), the primary aim of which is to “support South Asian survivors of domestic and sexual violence who are trying to reclaim their safety and independence.”

The panel included Shweta Saji from Sakhi for South Asian Women, Himadri Gupta from Narika and Sahar Naqvi from Daya.

While Sakhi is a survivor-led organization for gender justice and to honor “the inherent and collective power of all survivors of violence” in the South Asian diaspora, Narika’s mission is to promote women’s independence, economic empowerment and well-being by helping domestic violence survivors with advocacy, support and education.

An alarming majority of survivors say financial hardship is the main reason for staying in an abusive relationship. Explaining what it entails, Himadri Gupta spoke of financial abuse as “the systemic control of money and power by one intimate partner against another.”

The panel talked of power and control being at the center of any domestic and economic abuse. “It could be stopping survivor’s access to resources and money, stopping them from seeking employment and education. The motive is to make the survivor dependent and vulnerable,” explained Shweta Saji.

“South Asian immigrant abusers may be high earning working professionals and so people on the outside don’t see the financial abuse. They drain off savings and there may be human trafficking involved too.”

Sahar Naqvi called financial abuse “the keystone to the cycle of abuse.” Since it is invisible, with no physical injuries to prove abuse it is all the more dangerous since it cannot be easily detected unless it is properly investigated. “98% of people who have gone through domestic abuse have gone through financial abuse. It cannot be ignored,” she said.

Talking about how immigrant South Asians are most vulnerable to financial and economic control, the webinar highlighted how immigration systems are abused by the abusers. “South Asians are educated and have work experience in their home countries. They come on dependent H4 visas and their abusers refuse to get them a work visa,” explained Himadri Gupta.

“South Asian immigrant abusers may be high earning working professionals and so people on the outside don’t see the financial abuse. They drain off savings and there may be human trafficking involved too,” she continued.

The discussion steered towards ways to deal with financial abuse. “At Narika we encourage people to build financial independence whenever possible- take care of their financial situations, keep their money in a separate fund, prioritize their own careers and employment through the Self-Empowerment and Economic Development program,” said Himadri Gupta.

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The pandemic has disproportionally affected women and such preventative methods help them with career guidance, computer literacy, etc. Shweta Saji further enunciated how Sakhi assists their clients: “The first step is to connect them with a social service organization and consulting with a trained domestic violence advocate. We tell them about safety planning, like shifting their financial information, house and car keys, cash to a safe place. Sakhi’s empowerment program is 2-fold- 1. Our financial literacy classes and 2. Our zero-barrier entry program where we provide one-on-one case modeling situations and emotional support.”

It is also imperative that we get the dialogue going about the prevalence of financial abuse in our society. The taboo and discomfort around discussing money matters within the household need to give way to a more equitable discourse. The presence of fear should be an immediate red flag. “The abuse is symptomatic of a more insidious pattern of coercion and control”, says Himadri.

Abuse often leads to a feeling of low self-esteem and self-worth with high risks of suicidal ideation and depression. There is an urgent need to educate the people on the cycle of abuse and make our own selves accountable by listening and encouraging survivors to reach out to advocacy organizations.

(Top illustration: artist Amrita Marino’s mural “Within Bounds” celebrates “an appreciation of freedom — both of our outside & inside worlds — that many have found after spending over a year inside. Courtesy, Sakhi for South Asian Women.)

Nupur Bhatnagar is a lawyer by training, an entrepreneur and a storyteller. She is a rationalist and an art enthusiast who is fascinated by history. She loves to read and watch historical dramas — sometimes even sees herself in them. Nupur lives in New Jersey with her husband and two children.

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The viewpoints expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and editorial policies of American Kahani.
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