ASHA for Women Brings Hope to South Asian Survivors of Domestic Violence in the Washington, D.C. Metro Area

Priya Kulkarni, president of ASHA for Women

Priya Kulkarni, president of ASHA for Women

Domestic violence cases are always messy; sadly they’re hardly uncommon.

The Maryland-based organization ASHA for Women knows all about it.

“ASHA” means “hope” in many South Asian languages, and for nearly three decades, the similarly-titled nonprofit has helped women of South Asian descent throughout the Washington area who’ve been victims of domestic abuse.

Last year alone, ASHA for Women received over 450 calls and email inquiries for help. Of that number, the nonprofit was able to assist 110 women.

These include a D.C.-area woman of South Asian origin who, for obvious reasons, declines to give her name. She recalls a domestic ordeal that left her “heartbroken.”

“I first contacted ASHA for Women when my ex-husband got me arrested on the false charges of threatening him—I was pregnant, had no place to live, had no job, and no family or friends in the U.S. that I could turn to for help,” she recalled.

“I contacted a lot of organizations that provide pro bono help, but no one had the capacity to take my case—ASHA quickly stepped in. They guided me through many community resources, and helped me with the first month’s rent and utilities for my new apartment.”

Today this same woman has secured a job through ASHA’s career counseling help. She has also since given birth to a baby boy, whom she raises by herself. Help is never far away, she said.

“ASHA still hasn’t stopped checking up on me,” she said.

If this woman sounds educated, you’d be right. Like many who call ASHA’s confidential toll-free hotline, she has a higher education.

“Ninety-five percent of our clients have at least a bachelor’s degree,” said Priya Kulkarni, president of ASHA for Women. “A lot of them have visa issues—they are here on an H-4 visa, which is a spouse-of-a-worker visa. That can be debilitating because the husband holds the key to her being here.”

Many women who contact ASHA live in constant uncertainty.

“They may have a husband who applies for a green card but doesn’t [apply]for her, and keeps her in the H-4 limbo because he can retain control over her future,” Kulkarni explained. “Oftentimes, there are children involved, which makes the situation worse.”

In the early years of ASHA’s founding, such cases were hardly spoken about. That’s slowly changing.

Just two months ago, Silicon Valley was shaken by a high-profile case of domestic abuse: A former CEO of a customer behavior analytics company had been secretly filmed by his wife, herself a professional who’d previously worked at Apple, as he beat her in front of their 2-year-old daughter. The couple had had an arranged marriage, in India, in 2009.

Still Kulkarni, herself a native of India and a married mother of two, is quick to stress domestic abuse is not confined to one culture.

“We were created to help South Asian victims of domestic violence—[but]it affects all cultures, backgrounds, religious affiliations and socioeconomic levels of society,” said Kulkarni, noting one in three women will become a victim of physical or sexual abuse at some point in her life. “Our expertise is to bring culturally specific support to victims of domestic violence who live in the Washington, D.C., area.”

ASHA’s culturally specific support, overseen by a 10-person board of advisers, includes understanding the intricacies of the communities from which victims of domestic abuse come. Those communities span various faiths—beyond Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, Jainism and Sikhism.

“We’ve had cases where the husband will take the wife abroad and give her a ‘talaaq,’ an Islamic divorce, back in the home country—they have been married 20 years and have two kids and they come back here and he essentially tells her to get out,” Kulkarni explained.

Incidents like that motivate Kulkarni, an industrial engineer by trade who became involved with ASHA for Women over a decade ago, and transitioned to president a few years later. The reason, she said, is simple.

“We help local women feel empowered,” Kulkarni said, “and find a way out of domestic violence.”

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