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Domestic Violence in Asian Families: Breaking Barriers


From Dateline (August 19, 2004)

Domestic Violence in Asian Families

Imagine being beaten by your husband or threatened with deportation and having your children removed from you. Perhaps police show up in response to a call or complaint but you can’t speak their language. How would you deal with family members angry with you for bringing shame to your family ... to your community?

For many Asian women, particularly newer immigrants, these are all too common scenarios.

Mikyong Kim-Goh, associate professor of human services, saw the devastation of domestic violence on Asian women while serving as a psychiatric social worker and completing her doctoral dissertation.

“For many of these women, options were minimal because of language and cultural barriers,” said Kim-Goh, who recently interviewed Korean and Vietnamese community members in Orange County to gauge perceptions and attitudes toward domestic violence, as well as to discover the size of the problem. “Ironically, there would sometimes be more support groups for men to discuss ways to end or even brag about their behavior, but it’s the victims who end up living in shame with fewer options.

“I remember several years ago, an educational video was presented on domestic abuse and it featured a Korean family,” she added. “The Korean community was outraged because they felt the video reflected badly on them.”

And that, she said, is part of the problem.

“I think domestic violence is vastly underreported in Asian communities for a number of reasons. One, the language barrier is a huge obstacle. Second, there is a great sense of bringing shame to the family. And third, for many Asian women, their entire sense of identity is wrapped up in relationship to their families. I am someone’s wife. I am someone’s mother. They often don’t introduce themselves or other women by name. So how can they just drop everything and leave?”

Another problem is the link between violence and love in some Asian families.

“Many Asian immigrants grew up in a society where corporal punishment was acceptable. As a result, children grow up equating beating with love,” Kim-Goh explained. “If children are hit because of misbehavior, they think, ‘Well, Daddy’s hitting me because he loves me and wants to correct me.’ As time goes by, that notion can become more ingrained. So when a woman’s husband beats her for some perceived infraction, the woman blames herself. The beating seems almost justified.”

Almost. And many programs and resources, such as those offered by local churches, haven’t been as helpful as they could be, said Kim-Goh.
“Especially in Korean communities, the church often plays a central role,” she said. “But when women seek help there, they are told to pray or forgive the batterer or to try to be a better wife.

“Police agencies also have been remiss in dealing with these problems, because officers often couldn’t speak the language or understand what was happening.”

Fortunately, churches and police departments have taken steps to better understand and address these problems. Yet there is much work to be done within the Asian communities as well.

“Addictions play a role in battering,” Kim-Goh explained. “For Asians, this means not just alcoholism, but gambling. When the ‘breadwinner’ has lost hundreds of dollars of his salary, he often takes out his frustrations on his wife.”

If a husband isn’t working or is “underemployed,” performing a job that he feels is beneath him, he may take out his frustrations on his partner, she noted.

“Asian women, for centuries, have often played a traditional, subservient role. There is resistance from men to accept accountability for their own actions because for many, beating is considered acceptable behavior.”

In fact, if a woman reports her husband, her family, especially her in-laws, often react angrily because she has brought shame on the family.

“They won’t be angry with the husband,” said Kim-Goh, ruefully, “but with the wife who was being beaten.”

There is progress. Kim-Goh’s research indicates that the longer Asian women spend in the United States, and the more acculturated and well-educated they become, the less likely they are to put up with abusive behav-ior. Younger people (who may be more influenced by Western laws and culture) are less likely to be in abusive relationships.

“What makes this topic appealing to me is the sense that I can help these women and their children,” said Kim-Goh. “By not only exposing these problems, but working to develop solutions, we provide a service to those who often can’t speak for themselves.”

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