23 Nov 2020

Breaking Silence | Episode 5: Shakti

From Breaking Silence, 12:00 am on 23 November 2020

Series ClassificationPG (Parental Guidance)

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Farida Sultana immigrated to New Zealand from Bangladesh in the early '90s. Several years earlier, she experienced domestic abuse while living in the U.K. She left this relationship and received help from Shakti, a women's aid service for immigrant and refugee women. After arriving in New Zealand, and realising immigrant women from Asia, the Middle East, and Africa were not getting the support they needed, she founded Shakti New Zealand in 1995.

They can only do so much, however. 25 years later, domestic violence is still a big problem in immigrant communities. After two Chinese women were killed in the past ear, Shakti plans a campaign to target the Chinese community, which has traditionally underreported domestic abuse.

We follow Farida and her colleagues to the site where one of the women was killed. She was one of Shakti's clients, and they are still grieving. Despite being divorced for many years, and having a protection order against her ex-husband, she was not safe, stabbed multiple times one Monday morning while waiting for a bus.

Simonne interviews Farida on the issues migrant women face. Farida explains that on top of the same issues New Zealand women are burdened with, there are issues such as forced marriage, the impact of shaming and silence, the pressures to stay in unhealthy marriages, and the extreme isolation many migrant women suffer due to not being able to speak English and gain access to organisational help.

Simonne also discovers how Farida and other abuse survivors are building new communities after the ones they used to belong to no longer protected them.

Farida: "Create the community you feel safe in."

AuthorLisa Metivier

Few know as much about domestic abuse within New Zealand’s immigrant and refugee community as Farida Sultana.  Few have done as much to help address the issue.  Twenty-five years ago she saw a need in New Zealand and set up a community organisation to support and protect immigrant women from Asian, African and Middle Eastern origins suffering domestic abuse.  "The pain is the same for all women.  If you’re born here it’s easier.  If you’re not born here it’s harder."

Originally from Bangladesh, Farida lived abroad with her husband in a number of countries.  Finally in England, being so far from her land of birth, she seized the opportunity to leave her abusive marriage and sought shelter at the Shakti Refuge in Scotland.  However her family conspired to see her reunited with her husband and it wasn’t until they came to New Zealand with their daughter that Farida made the final, irreversible decision to leave the marriage.  This decision and those that followed flew in the face of norms and acceptability in her culture.  To be able to rebuild a new life in a new land, Farida largely had to walk away from her Bangladeshi community with what she sees as entrenched attitudes towards women.

It was her own lived experience of the struggle for freedom and independence as a woman that highlighted to her the plight of immigrant women suffering abuse.  In 1995 she established the not-for-profit organisation, Shakti, borrowing the name from the refuge in Scotland.  These days Shakti offers a wide range of culturally appropriate support and services to immigrant and refugee women, youth and children.  It has a 24 hour crisis phoneline service, with a multilingual team of volunteers including English, Chinese, Korean and Hindi speakers.  It provides culturally competent social work support and counselling services as well as legal advice and advocacy.  Shakti also offers culturally specialist safehouse accommodation with refuges in Auckland, Tauranga, Wellington and Christchurch.  For children and youth Shakti provides awareness programmes in school.  For abuse survivors it offers life skills programmes which are NZQA accredited.  Two up-cycling Op Shops provide retail training and create employment opportunities through sustainable development work.

A women’s rights activist, Farida is a woman of conviction who has bravely defended her beliefs.  "First I was a victim, then I was a survivor.  Now I'm fighting institutional racism, unequal distribution of resources.  For me the battle was with my husband, then with my community."  A strong woman with strong opinions, she refuses to use the latest terminology ‘family harm’ in relation to the field she works in, "We are burying only women.  How is that family harm?  It is gender-based violence against women."

Cultural considerations and expectations of women within immigrant communities add whole other layers of complication to the already fraught area of domestic abuse.  Farida knows all too well the cultural shame and stigma for immigrant women around leaving a marriage and says women are made to carry the blame for anything that goes wrong.  All this in a foreign land where much is unknown and women may already be feeling isolated. 

Yet while this isolation may add to the burden, Farida suggests that it may also be turned to immigrant women’s advantage.  "In our communities the battles are still very internal, within family and community.  Marriage is so sacred.  Without being married you have no status as a woman.  As long as marriage is so institutionalised it is very difficult to change.  But being in NZ offers the doorway to exit if they want, to look at things differently."  She turns the spotlight on that word community and challenges women to redefine it.

"What is community? A group of people around you who care.  Create the community you feel safe in.  Don't waste time in the community where you don't feel safe.  It's a waste of time, energy, potential, sometimes your whole life."

Her own marriage was characterised by psychological abuse.  Thinking back to it Farida says, "He took the soul out of my body".  She warns how serious and pervasive this form of abuse is.  "Psychological abuse is the biggest abuse in the Asian community where people always ask, 'Does he hit you? No.  Does he give you money? Yes.  Well then,  what are you complaining about?'"  Yet, she knows that psychological abuse can cause women to lose their sense of identity, their capacity to reason.  This is why much of the work done at Shakti is empowerment based.  They support survivors to regain their strength.  "When a woman has lost her ability to think our work is around restoring her empowerment so that she can see options in front of her, make choices."

A quarter of a century since starting the organisation Farida can now look back and see what a difference Shakti has made.  In that time, she says, "it has serviced several thousands of women and their children from over 40 different ethnicities, who have gone on to lead very different but safe lives.  We are making a huge difference."  Another sign of that difference is that Farida notes the women turning to the Shakti helpline are notably younger than before and will often call when abuse first arises in their relationships before it really escalates.

That said, there is no room for complacency.  Several recent murders of Chinese women alone prove this all too well.  For this reason Shakti’s next campaign will focus specifically on awareness-raising within the Chinese community.  Shih-Ling, a social worker with Shakti, is well-placed to understand the complexities around domestic abuse within this community.  She says there is exceptional shame around speaking out about abuse because of the great value Chinese culture places on keeping face.  She believes this needs to change and concerns for the safety and well-being of Chinese women need to be prioritized.  She urges Chinese women suffering abuse to reach out to Shakti.

For it is the women reaching out that has kept Shakti going.  Farida says, "When women stop coming to see us we can close the doors."  Should the day come that immigrant women in New Zealand are no longer subjected to domestic abuse, no longer victims of gender-based violence, no longer need the support that the team at Shakti provide, well that would be a thing of dreams for Farida.

24 Hour Crisis Phoneline Service: 0800 742 284 / 0800 SHAKTI

If you or someone else is in immediate danger, call 111.

Other places to seek help:

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Magnetic Pictures

Magnetic Pictures Photo: Magnetic Pictures

Juanita Edwards & Brian Holland formed Magnetic Pictures in 2019, with a view to create original, high-quality programmes people love to watch. Their passion is factual content with a social focus.

Their recent projects include the ANZAC Day documentary Paradise Soldiers, acknowledging the contribution and sacrifice of Cook Island soldiers for the NZ Armed Forces from World War I to present day, and the web series K Road Chronicles II, exploring homelessness in Aotearoa. 

Made with the support of NZ On Air

Made with the support of NZ On Air Photo: NZ On Air