A South Asian woman in Houston planned to leave her abusive husband several years ago. He regularly sexually assaulted her, refusing to wear a condom or let her use birth control. Just days before she planned to make her escape, she found out she was pregnant. “It was bound to happen,” she said, according to Daya, a Houston survivors organization that supported her as she was leaving.
An immigrant with few resources, the woman carried the pregnancy to term. Her husband continued to abuse her throughout the nine months. She had her baby, and it took her three additional years to get out.
Immigrant women, a group that already faces high rates of domestic violence, will be in even greater danger as reproductive rights are stripped from them, advocates fear. Even when Roe v. Wade was in place, factors like cultural norms and low English proficiency kept many Asian survivors from seeking help, they said. Now, with less access to reproductive care, their options are steadily decreasing.
“We are so incredibly worried for survivors,” said Jihye Kim, executive director of the Chicago-based survivor organization Kan-Win. “They just won’t have any say in what kind of a life they want to lead.”
Nearly a quarter of Asian Pacific Islander women have reported experiencing sexual violence at home, according to the Asian Pacific Institute of Gender Based Violence. Some ethnic groups within the Asian umbrella see a rate much higher — up to 64% for Indian and Pakistani survivors. From their work on the ground, advocates know immigrant women who don’t have many lifelines in the U.S. tend to bear the brunt.
These experts say immigrant survivors report a slew of harrowing experiences with sexual assault: Coercion into getting pregnant, partners’ refusal to wear a condom, and forced sex are all regular parts of many of their lives.
“That leads to unwanted pregnancies and the need for abortion,” said Amrita Doshi, executive director of the South Asian survivor network SOAR.
With safe abortions becoming inaccessible in many states, bodily control is slipping out of their hands, she said. The physical and financial strain of pregnancy and childbirth could make it harder for survivors to leave, and abuse may worsen.
“We hear from so many of our survivors that when they got pregnant, the abuse just escalated because the harm-doer feels like they’re losing control,” Kim said.
And in the event that the pregnancy is unwanted by the abuser, the situation could become deadly.
“Homicide is the leading cause of death during pregnancy,” Doshi said. “One in 6 people are first abused during pregnancy. That combination of statistics is chilling to hear. It’s what was already happening during lockdown when people couldn’t get access to contraception, and it’s only going to be exacerbated with the fall of Roe.”
Existing barriers to reporting violence
Even before Roe v. Wade was overturned by the Supreme Court, Asian women seeking to report violence were often swimming against the current, Doshi and Kim said.
While national data shows 19.6% of Asian Pacific Islander women have experienced domestic violence (compared to 34% of white women), experts said these aggregated numbers are artificially low. Beyond clumping all Asians together, the statistics fail to take into account those who don’t have the capacity to speak up.
Cultural norms might keep survivors from recognizing abuse as it happens or force them to dismiss their experiences, they said. A lack of English proficiency could stop them from reaching out for help. And the fear of revealing their immigration status or losing their visas has a chilling effect on leaving altogether.
“In any culture, income level, or educational level, there exists interpersonal violence and domestic violence,” Kim said. “But for Asian immigrants in the United States, the power dynamics work against many females and female identified individuals. There’s a patriarchy that breeds domestic violence. But also, there are so many barriers.”
The overturning of Roe is the newest barrier, said Kavita Mehra, executive director of women’s organization Sakhi. And it will take a major toll.
“What the ruling of Dobbs v. Jackson is, is another form of systemic gender based violence,” she said of the decision that overturned Roe. Even in states that have exceptions for sexual assault in anti-abortion legislation, those avenues will not always be accessible.
“Will a survivor need to provide legal documentation that they have experienced sexual violence?” said Mehra, who is also on the board of SOAR. “What’s really complicated about that is, especially for someone who is undocumented, they’re going to be very fearful about coming forward about their experiences. There’s already an inherent distrust with going to the police.”
Threats to contraception access loom
With the looming threat of contraception being the next right to go, community-based survivor organizations say they are bracing for impact.
In early-pandemic New York City, Mehra took calls from worried immigrant women who didn’t know where to turn for birth control as their abusive circumstances were worsening. Activists fear this sense of panic replicating on a national scale.
“We have survivors calling from surrounding states who might get into those situations,” Kim said. “In situations of domestic violence, that could be a huge threat. The harm-doer could out them and have them criminalized. We hear from so many survivors that sexual violence is part of their life.”
When the barriers to accessing health care are already high, any extra steps to finding reproductive support might leave immigrant survivors out of the equation.
“Survivors are already struggling with not being able to make decisions about their reproductive health, or whether to have children or to not have children,” Kim said. “When you compound that with not being able to access care at all, being under surveillance, or the possibility of criminalization, it just adds so many hurdles.”