Statement of Dr. Mukta Sharangpani on the need for developing cultural responsiveness

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I speak on this topic as a gender anthropologist and volunteer at Maitri, a Domestic Violence Service provider agency in San Jose. I approach this from the perspective of how knowledge shapes power, and how we can develop the skills and the attitude to work with those who appear and might be different from us.

All cultures contain a spectrum of contradictions. On one hand, there may be perceived acceptance of sexual violence. On the other, a long-standing tradition of resistance. Culture can not, and should not be used as an excuse for sexual violence. But that said, understanding what guides people’s ideas of acceptable behavior, criminal behavior, what can and cannot be discussed in public spaces, be they support groups, or police stations, or courthouses, is critical, and can make or break the system. Culture is not just about norms and values about a particular community, it is about how these norms and values are expressed. Women often do not hold the final say on their reproductive rights, or questions of consent. Moreover, ideas of consent are deeply tied with duties and responsibilities, as we see quite often in the case of marital rape. It is hard then to understand and articulate sexual violence as such. Many languages do not even have a word for marital rape. Rape within marriage is seen as an impossibility.

A few cases: Radhika (name changed) had to have her court date postponed three times because the interpreter was unavailable. Meena found herself in a bind when she had to convey her experience of marital violence in court, through a male interpreter. Unable to speak, she emotionally imploded, through and post that episode. Savitha was sexually assaulted by her brother-in-law, who lived with them, but could not diverge this to her husband since he, himself, was controlling and often violent. Laney had been repeatedly told by her rapist that he would have her deported. As she walked into the courthouse the day of her hearing, she saw a few ICE officials, and fled. Survivors are unique individuals. Their responses to violence and intervention are shaped by their intersecting identities. Their traumas are culturally coded.

Competency must be developed at both the individual and the institutional level. Continuous self-assessment, critical thinking, working with communities in their own comfort zones, such as grocery stores, ethnic print media, and community fairs, is critical. We can own our culture. Mindfulness and power-sharing is the first step.

Thank you.

Sonali Zaveri