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With Re-branding, Womankind Seeks to Help More Abuse Survivors

Womankind board chair Karen Elizaga, executive director Larry Lee, and musician Queen V at a press conference about the organization's rebranding. Kari Lindberg

Brittany was a dedicated 16-year-old high school student when one of her teachers started making sexual advances toward her, she told NBC News. The teen (who declined to give her last name) didn’t understand why it happened, she said, and continually wondered if it was her fault.

She reported the teacher, she said, but after going public with her abuse, she suffered from high anxiety and mental trauma.

Now, at 17, the Indian-American teen said she realizes that she was not responsible for the trauma forced upon her through the help of the newly re-branded Womankind, formerly known as the New York Asian Women’s Center (NYAWC), a New York City-based nonprofit geared toward helping Asian Americans suffering from domestic violence, sexual abuse, and human trafficking.

Brittany’s therapy, which emphasized healing and recovery, is an example of the directional change the organization has undergone. The group announced its re-branding in January and now hopes to help even more survivors of abuse recover.

“When [Womankind’s founders] started they were focus on how do you get a woman to safety and over the years the strategy has evolved to more healing and recovery,” Karen Elizaga, chair of the organization’s board of directors, told NBC News. "We re-branded because we believe the agency has transformed itself and has done a lot of work helping survivors go beyond trauma."

Womankind’s healing and recovery approach to treatment has been pivotal in addressing several Asian cultural norms that can prevent healing, such as respect for elders, family loyalty, and shame, Elizaga said. To overcome these barriers, Womankind utilizes a method of therapy that emphasizes building trust in the client-advocate relationship, according to Asuna Osako, a youth counselor at the organization.

Another motivating factor to re-brand was to build a platform for greater advocacy to a wider audience.

“This allows us to position our work as equally relevant to a broader audience, strengthening our advocacy for women and other survivors of violence,” Elizaga said at a press conference announcing the change.

One of Womankind’s newest initiatives on "later in life" abuse, which was launched in 2014, is targeted at the broader audience the organization wants to serve. According to the National Council on Aging, one in 10 Americans suffer from elder abuse, with only one in 14 cases reported.

Womankind executive director Larry Lee at a press conference announcing the organization's re-branding. Kari Lindberg

Apart from the cultural stigma, one of the major reasons why Asian American and Pacific Islander elder abuse is underreported comes from a lack of vocabulary to talk about the trauma experience, according to Osako. “The differences in beliefs and vocabulary around abuse or trauma, which illustrates the cultural philosophies, can often pose a challenge especially with outreach efforts to reach survivors or with awareness-raising,” she said.

Womankind has also undergone a physical expansion in recent years. In 2015, Womankind moved its Elmhurst, Queens, office to a larger location and moved their Lower Manhattan office from the Financial District to Chinatown. An expanded office in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, is also in the works.

The re-branding and expansion of Womankind is also reflected in a larger trend among Asian-American and Pacific Islander organizations dealing with abuse, according to advocates who work in the field.

“Many of [the organizations] have expanded to either working with larger groups of Asian communities then they started out with, the types of abuse they address, also expand[ing] to serve non-Asian groups,” Chic Dabby, executive director of the Asian Pacific Institute on Gender Based Violence, an organization that studies gender-based violence, told NBC News. “People gravitate towards programs that are providing culturally and linguistically relevant services.”

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Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the expansion of some of Womankind's offices.