Social Work students take on the issue of sexual violence culture in South Asian communities

How do community leaders, family members, and stakeholders address the sexual violence culture in South Asian communities? Master of Social Work (MSW) Students, have taken on the initiative to become agents of cultural change in the community.

The Nepalese-American MSW students organized a local seminar called “Knowledge for South Asian Cultural Change: Sexual Violence Awareness Seminar” in Branford, Connecticut USA on June 23rd, 2019.

The attendees heard from professionals in the field of physical health, mental health, cultural awareness, and advocacy. The turnout of over 60+ attendees showed that there is a growing need in addressing sexual violence and the cultural norm behind it.

Dr. Yerina Ranjit, Postdoctoral Professor at Yale University addressed the patriarchal culture in South Asian communities: "Old symbolic customs in South Asian culture re-confirm to women where their place should be, that is at the feet of their husbands.

Although these customs are symbolic, they are not being questioned by society and create a culture that women should be subordinate to men." She and the other professional speakers emphasized the significance of outdated cultural norms that create this atmosphere of inequality in South Asian Society.

This inequality creates negative gender norms, women grow up to believe they need to be proper, emotional, and always accommodating towards men. Men then believe they are supposed to be hypermasculine by being aggressive, insensitive, demanding and sexually experienced.

It is important to raise young boys and girls in an egalitarian environment with positive male and female role models. They should be educated at a young age to respect, honor and value themselves and the opposite sex.

Nisha Rana, Physician Assistant-Certified, addressed the audience by conducting an exercise prompting them to say "sex education is important" out loud. Ms Rana explained, "It is important to discuss sex education at early age, around two or three years old. Parents can do this by going over body parts and letting them know in simple terms that their private area is private and only their parents when helping them go to the bathroom is allowed to see. Anyone else, without explicit permission, is not allowed to see."

Educating children at a young age gives them the knowledge to identify normal and abnormal behavior and will enable them to inform their parents right away if they feel they're being violated.

The importance of a continued sex education throughout adolescence will allow young people to feel comfortable coming to their parents about anything they are going through emotionally, physically and/or sexually.

Dr. Priya Tandon, President of SNEHA, a local advocacy network for men and women of South Asian origin highlighted that, "There are linguistic, legal, cultural, and financial barriers that women and sometimes men experience in South Asian martial relationships.

SNEHA provides a helpline to these clients and provides them with referrals to legal, linguistic and medical support." SNEHA exists for South Asian immigrants who do not have a traditional family support, are limited in the English language and are unfamiliar with the laws and services of their adopted land. They also help survivors find temporary shelter if they feel unsafe in their home.

Organizations such as SNEHA are an important resource for South Asian communities to utilize as an educational support to learn more about domestic violence and the multiple aspects of South Asian and American culture.

Kitty Bhide, Licensed Clinical Social Worker and student speakers during the program emphasized the need for understanding consent in South Asian culture and that consent is clear, coherent, willing and ongoing.

This was detailed through real-life stories where victims consent was stripped away using power and control. Marital rape, sexual freedom for women, incest, and domestic violence were addressed as other major issues facing both women and sometimes men in South Asian communities.

During the Q+A session, questions on old rituals and sexual assault were brought up by the audience. The speakers addressed the power imbalance often shown in old rituals that are done in South Asian culture and the importance of calling it out to people in the community when it occurs.

The speakers also highlighted repeatedly that sexual assault is never a mistake from the perpetrator but a clear violation against the victim. If someone you know has been through sexual trauma, ask them what they need. Their choice was stripped away because of this trauma so they need to know they’re still in control of their own lives.

They need to hear phrases like “It’s not your fault.” “You can report this when you’re ready” “You didn’t do anything to deserve this.” “You are never alone.” “I care about you and I am here to support you.” Most importantly, never question them, judge them, or disrespect their story, always believe them.

The high rates of sexual violence are prominent in South Asian Communities. South Asians need to be leaders in changing the horrific outcomes that occur in sexual violence cases.

We start this by becoming agents of cultural change. We fight against misogyny, discrimination, sexual and physical abuse, and mental abuse. We learned from the seminar that it is important to talk about sexual violence and making sure it does not become the norm in South Asian communities.

Community organizations, local schools, local government, families and friends need to join together as stakeholders to help create real positive change.

MSW students, Aaisma Regmi and I helped start a conversation by organizing a #Knowledge4Change movement. The organizers highlighted that #Knowledge4Change means giving vulnerable communities the tools to change outdated cultural norms.

The goal is to continue this movement by conducting more seminars that have professionals in healthcare, local activists, students, survivors, community leaders speak on other sensitive issues that are whispered about and hidden away in South Asian communities.

Join the organizers in the continued conversation towards cultural change at facebook.com/K4SACC.

Here is a shared drive of all the resource materials we gave our attendees to take home: #Knowledge4Change Resource Materials

For more information regarding the Knowledge for South Asian Cultural Change: Sexual Violence Awareness Seminar please contact: Naina Rana at nrana2@fordham.edu.

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Naina Rana is a MSW candidate at Fordham University.

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