- Children who experience childhood trauma, including witnessing incidents of domestic violence, are at a greater risk of having serious health problems as adults.
In 2019, more than a million women were victims of some form of domestic violence, an umbrella term for abuse at the hands of intimate partners and family members. About one in three women in the U.S. have experienced physical violence, sexual violence, or has been a victim of stalking by an intimate partner in her lifetime, according to a Center for Disease Control (CDC) report published in 2017 based on data from 2010 to 2012.
The dark history of domestic violence and its impact on children follow generations, according to my conversations with Indian Americans who have experienced domestic abuse, focusing on the adult children in these families. Here are some narratives from some of my case studies.
Repercussions of Childhood Trauma
I begin with a second-generation college student who vividly describes how domestic abuse has affected her own life and choices. Rachna* is a junior at a reputed University in the Bay Area, where she has spent all her life. She belongs to a traditional Punjabi family, originally from New Delhi.
Her mother was forced into an arranged marriage at age 22, giving birth to her elder sister three years later. In 1993, her father came to the U.S. on a work visa, bringing the rest of the family to eventually become U.S citizens. Rachna was born in 1996; she has a brother about seven years younger. Her family has slowly adapted to the new culture. Her earliest memory is of her parents frequently taking the children to a local gurdwara to maintain their Punjabi culture and tradition.
From a very young age, Rachna was intrigued by how differently women and men were treated in the family and the community. She was not allowed to wear shorts, skirts, or dresses. The boys would wear shorts and gym clothes to the gurdwara, whereas girls had to cover their entire bodies. Rachna, her sister, and her mother did the housework as the primary caregivers, and her father was the financial provider. She had to internalize this gender norm.
What affected Rachna most was her father inflicting emotional, mental, and physical abuse on her mother. “I always saw my mom go through these abusive power and control cycles, and it felt wrong, but everyone in my household told me this was a normal thing to do to women,” she says. “My mother was always blamed for everything,” she adds. “I protested and wanted her to get out of this toxic relationship.”
Her mother said that any action on her part would put her in jeopardy, and the family would blame her. Rachna never understood the reasons until later in life. She realized the power dynamics and asymmetrical relationship between her parents as part of the toxic situation of her patriarchal family.
At the age of 11, Rachna became rebellious and questioned her father about why things happened the way they did. Her older sister would always tell her to “keep quiet,” but she would not keep her mouth shut. “I started to become a protector for my mom when my dad would abuse her, and I would threaten to call the cops if he continued doing what he was doing.” Her mother was scared and would get mad at her for standing up and protecting her.
Rachna’s situation is not abnormal. Data covering 24 countries found that 7 percent of women report violence to public institutions on average. Women may be reluctant to report domestic violence if they are surrounded by attitudes that see violence as a standard or a private family matter. Women who are financially dependent or emotionally tied to their abusers may also be less likely to report abuse. Indian American mothers tend to cover up domestic abuse for the secure future of their children.
“I was so angry and upset to see so much injustice in my own home and place of worship,” says Rachna. “I started pushing back against my family, standing up for what I believed in, and became a rebellious teen. I would listen to heavy metal, dress up very goth, and portray to my family that I would not listen and abide by their cultural expectations. I received so much pushback from my family when I was going through this, and it affected my mental health.”
She felt rejected by her family, which truly made her feel inadequate. She was expected to fill these gender norms and expectations imposed by her family, which she felt were utterly wrong. “I learned that even if I tried my hardest, someone at home may still not be happy.” Rachna says she is undergoing therapy to deal with the mistreatment, trauma, and abuse throughout her childhood. Domestic abuse has left a deep scar and has taken a toll on her. Recently, she discovered that she is four months pregnant.
Shamed and Abandoned
When Rachna told her mother that she was pregnant, she made her feel alone and horrible. She told her daughter that she had two choices: “to get an abortion, or, to get married to my boyfriend,” Rachna says, adding that she was “not prepared for either.” She says her family disowned her for the shame she put on them. “This hurts me so much! All I needed was support, care, and guidance. Instead, my family chose to care about reputation and cultural norms instead of their kid.”
This development in Rachnna’s life may not be surprising, as many studies confirm this behavior. In a 2003 study “Adverse Childhood Experiences,” Robert Anda and colleagues say, “children who experience childhood trauma, including witnessing incidents of domestic violence, are at a greater risk of having serious adult health problems, especially depression and a higher risk for unintended pregnancy.”
As a second-generation immigrant, Rachna says her journey as a product of domestic abuse has ruined her life and has left her broken. “I would never put my kid through what my family did to me.”
Tapasi Misra, director of Outreach and one of the founders of AWAAZ, a San Antonio, Texas-based nonprofit focusing on empowering South Asian victims of domestic violence, says, “Domestic violence impacts children in terrible ways — both short term and long term.” She talks about one of her clients who just got a divorce. Her teenage children see therapists undergoing numerous mental and physical stress and strain. Misra says the children’s behavior varies: “ They grow up insecure, ridden with guilt and shame being hard-wired to be victims or perpetrators themselves.”
Rachna is ambitious. She says she will continue to pursue her academic dreams. Her immediate goal is to graduate from the university with a double major in sociology and psychology and pursue law. Unlike her own, she is determined to raise her child through “gentle parenting.” However, she has a huge task to accomplish. She has not even finished her undergraduate studies. She is soon going to be a mother and has lost her most precious support system — her family.
Choosing Between Divorce and Children
The second narrative is about an Indo-Canadian mother who got out of a toxic, abusive marriage. Yet she feels it is unfortunate that her grown-up daughters would not believe what was happening to her and instead support their successful father. Khusbu* realizes that even though she has been legally divorced from her abusive husband, she is still subjected to social stigma and not accepted by her daughters.
Coming from a remote part of India, Khushbu got married when she was 15, barely out of high school. She graduated with high honors and had the ambition to be academically successful. Her parents were supportive, but fate had other plans. A distant family friend brought a proposal for a U.S.-returned Ph.D. scholar, who is considerably older. Despite herself, Khusbu got married and landed in this country. She suffered much abuse at the hands of her scholar husband. She was expected to cook, be a good housewife and entertain friends in the Indian community. In the meanwhile, they had two daughters. When she wanted to pursue higher education, her husband told her that as long as she can take care of the girls and keep a perfect home, he has “no objection.”
She remembers the slaps, bruises, and constant humiliation behind closed doors. One day her husband decided to bring his mother to live with them, who was always very cruel. Finally, Khushbu decided enough was enough and asked for a divorce.
Both her daughters are now married and well-settled in North America. Khushbu lives alone. Her ex-husband got remarried and lives in a big house with an impeccable reputation in his community. Khushbu is sad, lonely, and feels betrayed. “I can’t talk about my marriage because I am worried about my daughters. I have a very tenuous relationship with them,” she says. “Over the years, they have made it very clear that I am to be blamed for the failure of our marriage, and their father has done nothing wrong because they admire him and will not listen to any negative things about him. If I openly bring out all the sordid facts about my married life, they will hate me more and cut off whatever little connection I have with them. At this stage of my life, I do not feel like
She says that she was hopeful that the daughters would understand her predicament when they were grown up. Sadly, that never happened. But she is relieved that her daughters are happily married. She feels that they will never understand her sordid married life and do not acknowledge what happened to her.
Khushbu’s case comes as no surprise because studies suggest that children are torn between loyalty to their parents. Many other women narrate similar experiences with their grown children. Misra from AWAAZ attests to this. “Many children let their abusive parents bully or manipulate them into believing that it is the other parent’s fault.”
Khusbu has developed severe physical and mental ailments and says her abusive life experience has taken a toll on her body. Several studies support Khusbu’s predicament, confirming that psychological abuse and different forms of stigma take their toll on the victim’s body.
Last year marked the 30th anniversary of the Global Sixteen Days Campaign specifically focused on the issue of “femicide or the gender-related killing of women.” While there are immense efforts to end gender-based violence (GBV), violence against women is still rampant. The Violence Against Women Act of 2013 does not even address a large amount of intimate partner violence in America’s immigrant population.
The mere passing of laws does not solve the problems the victims of domestic and other forms of discrimination suffer in society. It requires a change in the consciousness and the thought patterns of community members. The survivors of these abusive relationships are indeed children who take a long time to realize the toxic relationship between the victim and the victimizer and its impact on their lives.
* The names remain anonymous for their privacy.
Annapurna Devi Pandey teaches Cultural Anthropology at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She holds a Ph.D. in sociology from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, and was a postdoctoral fellow in social anthropology at Cambridge University, the U.K. Her current research interests include diaspora studies, South Asian religions, and immigrant women’s identity making in the diaspora in California. In 2017-18 she received a Fulbright scholarship for fieldwork in India. Dr. Pandey is also an accomplished documentary filmmaker. Her 2018 award-winning documentary “Road to Zuni,” dealt with the importance of oral traditions among Native Americans.