Women with hidden bruises now have hope for justice in California


By Viji Sundaram

We’ll call her Maya, an immigrant who came to California from her native India soon after she had an arranged marriage with a well-paid techie in the Silicon Valley. That was three years ago.

Right from day one, Maya’s husband began exercising total control over what she ate, wore and whom she socialized with. She had cousins in the Bay Area, but she wasn’t allowed to invite them over. He told her that he was doing all that only because he cared deeply about her, that he needed to protect her. The smitten woman believed him. After all, most of what he told her were things she wanted to hear.

But when the 28-year-old woman found out that he was monitoring her every move via a location tracker he had installed on her cell phone, she realized that that was not how a loving husband should behave. She confronted him. From that point on things between them got worse, but it would be a whole year before she left him. 

In the case of Mexican immigrant Blanca Gomez, the emotional struggles she endured in her marriage were of a different nature. The 56-year-old woman was forced to spend all the money she made from cleaning houses to take care of the household expenses for herself, her husband and their two sons — from groceries to utilities to the rent for their four–bedroom house in Pinole, Calif. Gomez never got up the nerve to ask her husband, who was a manager of an auto repair garage in the East Bay, why he didn’t share the expenses, especially since his mother and brother were sharing the home with them. 

But what rankled her even more was that her husband had banned her from speaking English with their two U.S.-born sons or with friends who visited them. Since she migrated to the U.S. as a young woman, she had longed to learn to speak English so she could better her job prospects.  “Stick to Spanish,” he would tell her sternly. “Your accent and grammar are embarrassing.”

Behavioral experts would describe the conduct Maya and Gomez experienced at the hands of their intimate partners as domestic abuse. It includes behaviors that are “often wrapped in a package of caring,” as Lisa Aronson Fontes, a psychologist, author and activist, puts it. Because there are no broken bones or black eyes, frequently the victim is even unaware that she — it is usually women who experience this — is being abused. Often, she is gaslighted by the perpetrator, leaving her confused and isolated. 

But now California has a law on the books that gives some protection to people who experience this form of domestic abuse. Until now, domestic violence laws in California failed to capture “the full range of behavior that constitutes domestic violence,” Fontes said.  The new law broadens the range of abusive behaviors contained in the laws. It could substantially change the way domestic abuse is handled by the courts and by the police.

Isolating someone from her network, like Maya was, is an example of this form of domestic abuse. Such abuse often leads to physical violence. Research has shown that men who kill their female partners dominate them first, Fontes said.

In 2004, Tasmania in Australia criminalized this form of behavior, and in England and Wales abusers found guilty of this form of behavior could face up to five years in prison. The U.S. still has a lot of catching up to do.

With this grant from the Center for Health Journalism’s Domestic Violence Impact Reporting Fund, I plan to write three, possibly four, stories centered around the new law. These stories will include interviews with law officials and those in and outside the criminal justice system. It will have data that evaluates how effective the law has been thus far. Most importantly, it will have the voices of those who have survived the abuse.

I would also like to explore how immigration laws intersect this law.

I would like to find out what steps California is taking to educate the police, advocates, judges and the general public to ensure the law can be effectively enforced.

Through these stories, my hope is for women to know that they no longer have to stay in an abusive situation simply because their partner didn’t break their bones or cause them other physical harm. 

These stories will not only appear in ethnic media outlets, but the San Francisco Public Press has agreed to team up with me to give my stories greater exposure.

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