Domestic violence: The Enemy within?

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Award winning SBS journalist Manpreet Singh’s documentary is a timely and important work of journalism.

 

Fear and shame have made it hard to acknowledge the existence of domestic violence within the Indian community in Australia.But the scale of the problem has made it hard to turn a blind eye to it. Is there something about Indian culture thatapproves, through its failure to disapprove, violence within the family? Or do the stressful conditions of migration and settlement trigger abuse in a marriage? Is the heavy silence rising from the fear and the shame about domestic violence a symptom of the helplessness of immigrants lacking effective cultural and institutional support?

Years of thinking and observing the plight of victims of domestic violence and the response of the local Indian community, and Australian perceptions of the problem, led to the production ofManpreet Singh’s award-winning The Enemy Within.As an SBS journalist, Manpreet has been covering the Punjabi community in Australia for over two decades. For many in the Indian community, her name is synonymous with the SBS.

When Manpreet joined the SBS in 1993 the Punjabi program was a 30-minute slot once a fortnight. In 1994 the program was on once a week, and now, with the growth of the Punjabi community, the program is on every night at 9pm. Officially, there are 70,000 Punjabis in Australia today and Punjabi is one of the fastest growing languages in Australia. For Manpreet, the local Punjabi community is a contemporary Australian community, and her work tries to promote dialogue, understanding and cohesion.

Manpreet herself is no stranger to immigration and its challenges. When she first arrived in Australia, as a journalist working for English dailies in New Delhi, she made the switch from English to Punjabi journalism. However, her journalistic interests in “real issues” found a perfect platform in SBS. Manpreet, however, has continued to write and publish in English magazines and dailies in India.

 Is Indian culture to blame?

Speaking of The Enemy Within, Manpreet says that the questions her story set out to answer were: Do cultural practices such as arranged marriage, the joint family and the dowry system have an impact on family violence in the Australian Indian community?And do new migrants to Australia have different perceptions of what constitutes family violence?

Manpreet says that her story was informed by the understanding that domestic violence is not unique to the Indian community. However, the way it manifests in the Indian community is unique. According to her, migration and settling in a new environment often make up the context of domestic violence, through exposing individuals to the problems that come with relocating to Australia. While arranged marriages sometimes abet domestic violence, she says, it is not the case that those who choose other systems of marriage are immune to the problems of abuse in a relationship. The lack of family support for many girls in Australia, says Manpreet, makes the situation difficult for victims.

Manpreet says that domestic violence is not a problem that affects individuals or just a handful of couples. The police are called out to domestic violence cases more than any other incidents of violence.“Our senior police officials here in Australia are telling us that women are safer on the streets than they are at home. Is that acceptable to us?” she asks. “By their own admission, domestic violence is the ‘highest volume crime’ that police deal with on a daily basis. Is it really the prime function of the police force to be dealing with domestic disputes?”

Seeking help

According to Manpreet, many new immigrants are not aware of what constitutes domestic violence. In the Punjabi version of her story, the program had to define family violence with the help of experts like the police. The Enemy Withinis about a social problem that has been under-reported, misunderstood and misrepresented in Australian society. Much of this misunderstanding and misrepresentation is the outcome of stereotypes that shape ineffective responses to the problem.

Manpreet insists that the problem of domestic violence should not be seen as an Indian cultural problem. Rather, it is an Australian societal problem, impossible to disentangle from the fabric of contemporary Australian social life.

For instance, the lack of a culturally sensitive counselling program for recent arrivals in Australia makes it hard for individuals to seek help. This keeps the problem within the Indian community till it gets to a stage where police intervention is required. In her documentary, a police official says that often victims are afraid to come out in the open due to their precarious residency status in Australia. The police, however, say that reporting domestic violence will have no adverse impact on a victim’s visa application or residency status.

Manpreet says that state funding and support for community-based counselling and related aid programs can go a long way towards reducing the severity of some cases. She says that seeking help at the right time can make a big difference to the problem. But this is precisely what makes domestic violence a complex and silent epidemic.

Through interviews with victims, relatives, social workers, the police, and court proceedings The Enemy Within traces the many aspects of a tangled problem. But it’s hard not to ask questions about the story. If domestic violence in the Indian Australian community arises from a combination of migration and settlement in Australia, as well as Indian cultural practices, then does the title The Enemy Within refer to the enemy within contemporary Australia or an enemy within the Punjabi community? If it refers to an enemy within Indian/Punjabi culture,is the program really questioning the misrepresentations and cultural stereotypes about Indian culture? If it falls short of challenging the misrepresentations of Indian culture can we see it as a break from previous efforts to talk about domestic violence within Indian culture as an Indian problem?

The way domestic violence manifests in the Indian community, as Manpreet says, is unique to the Indian community. In the program a police officer acknowledges the need to have specific domestic violence programs tailored to the needs of individual communities in Australia rather than rely on any general approach.

Manpreet says that her work seeks to raise questions and highlight problems rather than advocate any answers or solutions. It is up to individuals, groups and the state to come up with responses that are adequate to each situation, she says.

To listen to The Enemy Within Visit http://www.sbs.com.au/yourlanguage/punjabi

Published in The Indian Sun (Indian Newspaper in Melbourne)

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