A teen in the Greater Toronto Area who has experienced domestic abuse is shining a light on an issue encountered by many new immigrant women, community counsellors say.
The teen, whose identity is not being disclosed by CBC in order to protect her, emigrated from India a few years ago with her family.
The family keeps to themselves, and the teen is literally kept under lock and key.
The girl said that when her parents leave their home, they lock the door and take the keys with them. She has no social life, no privacy and doesn’t get to choose which clothes she can wear to school.
She has been beaten by her father, and is fearful when he drinks.
"When he is drunk and I say something that he doesn't want to hear or I am saying something and the entire family is there, he'll give me that look – 'You're going to get slapped if you don't shut up.' Which will happen," she said.
The situation makes her feel powerless. "I was told last year that I could actually go to police and call 911 if anything gets out of hand. But what will that really get you?," she said. "It's going to bring attention to your family issues and you don't talk about your family issues outside your house."
'It's not isolated'
Poonam Patel, a community counsellor, has been talking to the teen about her situation. Patel said there are many others like her.
"It's not isolated, it's not just one person. A lot of it is very reflective of many other people around her age, around her gender who experience the situation she's going through, the issues that she feels, in the different ways that she feels it."
She said there is something young women in these situations can do. It starts with finding someone to talk to – a guidance counsellor, a teacher, a friend.
But it becomes more complicated when the abuse happens in immigrant families, says Zahra Dhanani, a lawyer and activist who has counselled South Asian women who have encountered abuse.
She said there are some immigrant women who are in "painful and oppressive situations" who are resigned to the fact that this is their lot in life.
"There's a lot of conditioning that happens in some, you know, recently arrived homes that also say, 'We are a unit against the whole world,'" she said.
It's a situation similar to the one the unidentified teen describes. Her family had a lot of social connections in India when they left. But they knew no one in Canada.
"My dad is not the person that would trust people easily. My brother and I are the only people he sees. He wants to make us perfect," she said.
Schools struggling to keep up
Nearly 55,000 children and youth were victims of a sexual offence or physical assault in 2009, according to Statistics Canada. A family member perpetrated about a third of these incidents.
But there's no way of knowing the extent of family violence in immigrant homes, because so much of it goes unreported.
It's often at school where the first red flags are raised.
"The complexity of our region, the geography region is huge. And frankly community resources, not through any fault of their own, have been lagging in their development through funding sources and we haven't had the growth in those areas that we need," said Jim Van Buskirk, chief social worker at the Peel District School Board.
"Schools are often doing a lot of frontline work that wouldn’t be done elsewhere because the resources don't exist in some cases."
The support 'gap'
There are resources and support for students under the age of 16, said Dhanani.
And there are women's shelters that often cater to women aged 20 and over but those aren't necessarily attuned to the cultural and religious nuances required to connect with young immigrants. So there's a resource "gap" for the girls between the ages of 16 and 20 in difficult situations who need support, said Dhanani.
And it's important to engage with young women encountering abuse, because the consequences can go beyond continued physical or mental abuse, she said.
The death of Brampton teen Aqsa Parvez, for example, "was one of the most devastating stories I've ever heard," said Dhanani.
Parvez was strangled to death in the family home in Mississauga, Ont., in December 2007. Her father and brother pleaded guilty to second-degree murder.
She objected to wearing traditional clothing, had little privacy at home, and wanted to enjoy the same freedoms as other girls she knew.
"Her death didn't have to happen," said Dhanani, particularly because she reached out to friends about her situation.
A woman who is being abused, she said, "needs to know also that she is a part of that prevention, that she has to fight for her own life, that she has to see herself as important to protect as she would protect culture, community, or anyone else."