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Language Barriers When Reporting Sexual Violence

There are numerous challenges in reporting the prevalence of sexual assault amongst South Asian women. One of the most important ones being language barriers.

Speaking English comes easy for many of us. Reading books in English, watching Hollywood movies or listening to pop music provide us great pleasure in our daily lives. Many of these activities are incorporated seamlessly into our lives as a routine. However, there are many women in Canada who are unable to enjoy these simple pleasures. Often times, these women are immigrants who come from various regions across the world, particularly from South Asian countries and are unable to speak English. When they come, they bring their culture, traditions and amazing food with them. However, many immigrants are unable to effectively share them or communicate these treasures with us, simply because they do not have the resources to learn or speak English. It is predominantly for this reason many people tend to be unaware of their legal rights and voices.

Research has demonstrated that there are numerous challenges in reporting the prevalence of sexual assault amongst South Asian women for several reasons. One of the most important ones being language barriers. These women are unable to communicate their experiences with authorities clearly, which results in unresolved issues and misinterpreted experiences. Lack of culturally appropriate services are also missing, preventing them from reaching out to authorities to report abuse. Moreover, certain translations of words may not resemble the true experiences of what these women go through. For example, a woman who speaks English can refer to the word “abuse” or “assault” to communicate her experiences. However, some South Asian women may not be able to translate those words or understand how they explain the situation to the officer clearly. Sometimes, the idea of assault may not even be in their dictionary. This back and forth between them might result in someone not wanting to speak at all and the police officer dropping the case as a whole. As a result, a huge gap is created between what is being told and how the police officers perceive it. 

Culture also plays a pivotal role for many South Asian Women. For generations now, there has been a culture of silencing women who want to report instances of sexual abuse or violence. Often times, they are told they will be shamed, disowned, or far worse – killed. While this does act as a contributing factor in reporting amongst this community, it is also important to understand the role law enforcement plays in addressing these issues. Many of the women who muster up the courage to report cases of violence are afraid they might not be trusted or understood. The way these women are questioned leaves them with the impression that they are not being taken seriously and their stories seem to be discredited. Trust between police and victim tends to be lost quite quickly once officers communicate any level of disrespect in regard to their experiences. These reactions feed into the narrative of shame and dishonour that has for so long been perpetuated in their culture. In the future, it is important to have interpreters or those of similar ethnicities who would be able to effectively translate the experiences and feelings of the women. Making brochures and pamphlets that indicate where to find appropriate resources in local communities would be a great first step. 

Canada is known to be incredibly diverse and accepting. As an Indo-Canadian, I am proud to embrace my Hindu values, alongside the ones I have grown into living in Canada. I am able to share my culture and traditions with those around me and learn from them as well. However, I have realized so many barriers still exist between myself and family members who are of older generations and may not understand some of the things I say. It is so important for those of us who have the ability to be heard to provide a voice for those who may not. And while Canada has done much to shed light on how culture defines the country, there is always room for improvement to address taboo topics that exist in South Asian countries and how they intersect with the law. 

Written by: Shreeya Devnani


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