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Ending domestic violence “a long way off” for Surrey South Asians

“There is certainly a lack of consistent funding, a lack of awareness, and a lot of stigma,” says Ronnie Takhar

By Rumneek Johal and Hina Imam , in City , on May 24, 2019

For social workers who have been working to stop domestic violence in Surrey for decades, they say it is tough to keep up to the demands within the city’s growing South Asian community.

“There is certainly a lack of consistent funding, a lack of awareness, and a lot of stigma,” said Ronnie Takhar, a victim- services support worker at the Surrey Women’s Centre.

“One in two women will experience domestic violence in her lifetime. There is no doubt that it is hard to keep up,” said Takhar.

There have been some improvements because of workers and advocates, but the problems persist.

“There is now a dedicated domestic-violence Crown prosecutor in Surrey, and, at the centre, we are able to work with RCMP and hospitals to provide support along every step of the way,” she said.

To combat stigma, Surrey Women’s Centre has a “third-party report” option whereby other people can report on the victim’s behalf.

These programs do help but, for Takhar and others in the field, there are many impediments in the way of ending domestic violence.

According to the 2016 census, the immigrant population in Surrey has grown more than 17 per cent from 2011 to 2016. That means more people need help, but service providers cannot keep up.

Listen: Workers in the South Asian community discuss concerns, and taboos, as well as  offering potential solutions

Workers are frustrated

For some social workers, the situation has gotten out of hand and they’ve decided to carve out a new path as they feel enough progress is not being made in the community.

Gary Thandi is a former probation officer and social worker. He worked in Surrey for a decade before he got fed up with the lack of progress. He started his own counselling agency, Moving Forward Family Services in Surrey, in an effort to deal directly with families, individuals and couples in crisis.

“I used to wake up every day, and it used to kill me that these people are being shortchanged. You can’t bite the hand that feeds you, [and] I knew I couldn’t say anything yet as soon as I left I felt so free,” said Thandi.

He is also author of a book called This Is a Man’s Problem: Strategies for Working with South Asian Male Perpetrators of Intimate Partner Violence. His sessions follow a pay-what-you-can a model because he was unhappy with the state of the system he was previously operating within. 

For  Kamal Dhillon, the problem cuts deeper than what services are or are not offered. Her focus is on ending stigma.

Dhillon herself survived domestic violence. She believes cultural stigma and shame contribute to a system that, according to her, is broken.

“I speak on South Asian issues a lot more, but it happens across cultures. However, in our South Asian homes and communities, it is a bit more prevalent and simply because there is no one on the victim’s side,” said Dhillon.

Dhillon not only made it, but she turned her experience in to support other women. Now, she is a domestic-violence counsellor, speaker and author of Black and Blue Sari where she narrates the horrifying tales of her marriage.

She has also been working with the Justice Institute, the B.C. institution focused on training professionals in the justice fields, for the last eight years to train new police officers on how to better deal with survivors.

“Today I live with an artificial jaw. I don’t feel my face, I’ve had 10 surgeries, I’ve a growth in my face that is cancerous. I live with excruciating pain. But what I do now I have never done before. I have never spoken this much before when I had my own jaw. I do this so not another woman will ever go through what I went through. I survived to give women some kind of hope – that you’ll make it.”

Lack of funding

In Surrey, there are a number of services and supports that cater to the South Asian population including Surrey Women’s Centre, DiverseCITY, PICS, NEVR, Domestic Abuse Services House and a number of transition homes.

However, employees say they are understaffed and under-resourced, meaning those coming for help will often find career counselling, language classes, and family counselling happening all under one roof — but with waitlists.

“This is a serious, complex problem especially in immigrant communities and the funding is not enough,” said Vern Haubrich, manager of counselling services at DiverseCity.

“The funding reality translates into a waitlist, which is something that we have [which is] terrible for women in crisis. Like any kind of services, unfortunately, it’s not going to get the attention it needs until some sort of critical [point] where all kinds of horrible things happen,” said Haubrich.

For Surrey Women’s Centre, “there is no funding from the City of Surrey,” said Takhar. The centre relies on funds from provincial government and private donors.

Stigma prevails

According to social worker Nimi Chauhan, there is a lack of awareness about the different kinds of domestic violence and the psyche of the abuser both in and outside the South Asian community.

“Abusers have self-esteem issues, power and control, narcissism, multitude of things — how are you to touch on those things when there isn’t an agency, a stand-alone agency for the South Asian community that actually does the work?” said Chauhan.

Chauhan says dealing with support workers with similar experiences can be comforting for survivors.

“Some [survivors] want to talk to a South Asian. They’ll say, ‘I’d rather talk to you because you know how I have been raised. You’re not going to ask me to do something I can’t.’”

Potential solutions

According to Chauhan, Thandi, and Dhillon, a potential way to address these issues is to create conversation, but also call into question the cultural stigma and the inadequacy in addressing the needs of the South Asian community.

A proposed solution from counsellors and survivors includes holistic, integrated supports that are culturally specific.

“The implication sometimes is What’s wrong with this community?’ Well, what is wrong with our systems that fail to adequately address the needs of these populations?”said Thandi.

Those in need of domestic violence support or services can contact Surrey Women’s Centre on their 24-hour number at 604-583-1295.