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The fatal gang rape of a female college student on a bus in New Delhi last December sparked outrage worldwide, and 7,000 miles away in the Seattle area, inspired a small group of South Asian women to confront a cultural taboo.

They are building on momentum that followed a local candlelight vigil for the victim with a series of communitywide dialogues about violence against women.

API Chaya
sponsored the vigil not just in response to the horrific rape but to draw attention to the kinds of incidents that often are hushed up within these communities in the United States. The Seattle nonprofit group works to address domestic violence, sexual abuse and human trafficking in the Asian, Pacific Islander and South Asian communities,

The organization will benefit from proceeds of a live concert Sunday at Comcast Arena in Everett featuring top performers Sunidhi Chauhan from India and Pakistan’s Ali Zafar. Part of the Krazy 2 tour, the preshow is at 5:30 p.m., with the concert at 6:30 p.m.

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“We are excited for the opportunity to reach the mainstream community, which very likely doesn’t know about us,” said Sarah Rizvi, program manager for API Chaya. “We are a small agency, a grass-roots organization, and the money raised from this concert will go a long way to serving victims and bringing awareness to the community.”

The event comes as India is again at the center of protest after the kidnapping, rape and torture last week of a 5-year old girl in New Delhi. In March, a Swiss tourist was also raped as she camped overnight with her husband in a forest in central India.

The Delhi rape victim from December died of her injuries in a Singapore hospital 13 days after the attack. The young men responsible are on trial.

After a vigil near a statue of Gandhi at the Bellevue Library, a group of mostly South Asian women began exploring how to continue communitywide discussions around gender violence. As a result, API Chaya launched the rape response project.

It plans to rename the group Jaago, meaning “wake up.”

“We felt it was a tragedy that needed to be addressed,” Manpreet Kaur Sandhu, one of the volunteers, said of the rape. “These are things as a community that we don’t talk about.”

Joining together

API Chaya was formed two years ago when the South Asian advocacy group called Chaya merged with the Asian Pacific Islander Women and Family Safety Center.

It works with and advocates on behalf of women from these regions who are often silent victims of abuse — too ashamed to talk about the suffering they endure because of stigma that can be imposed by their culture.

The group does outreach work at temples and mosques and other places where families gather so that women in trouble know there’s a place for them to go.

While the rate of sexual abuse and domestic violence within those communities may not differ from that of other groups, cultural factors such as patriarchal attitudes or the fear of bringing shame on one’s family or community may prevent some women from reporting incidents.

What’s more, language barriers and unfamiliarity with new customs might increase the likelihood a woman would stay in an unsafe situation rather than seek help.

Within many parts of South Asian culture, the concept of “the village” is still active, and what happens in a marriage or relationship can reflect on not just them and their family but often on the community as a whole.

The village phenomenon also brings comfort, Rizvi said, pointing out that in some cases people with only a distant connection to a victim — a friend of a friend of someone who knew somebody back home — might willingly take the woman into their homes.

Affluent among victims

Some of the women the organization helps, Rizvi said, are affluent and educated, in this country as dependents on their husbands’ employment-based immigration visas but themselves unable to work legally in the U.S.

She said her organization sees more women of means than other agencies doing similar work.

But while other affluent women may be able to get the help they need using their own resources, “we have huge numbers of clients who are high income and highly educated but are sometimes trapped and dependent on their husbands,” she said.

Sometimes an abuser may use this to his advantage, Rizvi said.

“He’d tell the woman that if she calls the police, his career will be ruined,” or that Child Protective Services will take their children away or she’ll be deported and separated from her children — an unacceptable option sure to bring shame not just on her but on her entire family, she said.

Meaningful action

It was clear after the December vigil, “that people wanted to do something, respond in some way that would be meaningful and lasting,” said Sandhu, the volunteer.

The group’s first event in February was the screening of the film “After the Rape,” about a rural Pakistani woman, Mukhtar Mai, who in 2002 was the victim of a gang rape ordered by her tribal council as punishment for her brother’s alleged transgression.

Rather than living in shame, Mai made headlines when she spoke out, fought for justice in Pakistani courts and later started two schools for girls in her village as well as a crisis center for abused women.

After watching the film, organizers held a discussion to talk about gender roles in some South Asian cultures and how differently boys and girls are treated.

Now the group is working on a forum planned for early June on the influence of media on gender violence.

Sandhu said what was most appalling after the Delhi rape were comments from some Indian immigrants and Indian government officials blaming these rapes on Western influences — including the way women dress — rather than on the men who commit these crimes.

One minister “was asking how short was her dress, was she wearing jeans or traditional sari,” she recalls. “She could have been covered from head to toe, but if it’s in Western wear, that’s a problem.”

Lornet Turnbull: 206-464-2420 or

On Twitter @turnbullL.

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