When Anjali Kour’s husband abandoned her in India in 2017 after a 15-year abusive marriage, she lost everything – her home, her finances, and her child.
“In the middle of the night he abducted my son. I had no clue if I would ever be able to see him again,” Anjali told us.
It was 2021, and we spoke with Anjali while investigating the pandemic’s impact on domestic violence (DV) in South Asian communities supported by a grant from the Center for Health Journalism’s Impact Fund.
When her husband filed for divorce, Anjali lost her H4 dependent visa and legal immigration status. In 2022 she continues to live in legal limbo battling for her rights in the US courts.
What is Transnational Abandonment?
Anjali is a victim of Transnational Abandonment, a new form of violence against women that began to manifest among South Asian immigrants as domestic abuse spiked during the pandemic.
Abusive husbands abandoned dependent wives in India and took advantage of US immigration laws to deliberately strip them of status and safety nets.
Narika, a Bay Area advocacy group, reported an 86% surge in domestic violence calls to their Helpline when the pandemic began and 2 to 3 calls a week from survivors abandoned in India. One caseworker put it bluntly.
“Transnational abandonment is one of the most sinister and damaging forms of abuse I’ve ever witnessed.”
Most South Asian survivors of DV are H4 dependents of H-1B visa holders employed by Silicon Valley’s tech sector. Victims face violence, emotional abuse, cultural alienation, and financial exploitation from their husbands and in-laws. Once they are deliberately removed from the US, they lose legal protections and rights to their assets. Some, like Anjali Kour, lose children to abusive spouses.
“An H4 visa holder is nothing without their sponsor,” said Anjali. “Your social security number, your medical insurance, driver’s license, your bank account, your lifeline – everything is in the hands of your H1B visa holder.”
The stories we heard raised big questions: What makes Indian immigrants from our successful model minority perpetrate this unjustifiable practice? And why are women like Anjali so at risk?
More than 20 survivors, lawyers, therapists and advocates gave us answers. Transnational abandonment hides in the shadows but inflicts lifelong harm on thousands of disenfranchised immigrant survivors.
In the US, these disposable women remain invisible to community leaders, technocrats, and policy-making audiences.
In India, after recording more than 4000 complaints from abused, stranded wives since 2017, the Indian government sent a Bill to the Rajya Sabha to address transnational abandonment.
India’s Ministry of External Affairs announced Helplines at its Consulates for Indian women facing marital harassment abroad.
The Immigrant Dilemma in America
But, legal experts warned, a pathway to resolution in US immigration or family courts does not exist today for survivors unless they are eligible for VAWA or a U-Visa.
A survivor must file a police complaint about domestic violence to be covered under protections of VAWA, the Violence Against Women Act or to request a U-Visa, which would change their status. Few women do. And US courts cannot change the law for foreign nationals stuck in the country without legal status.
A survivor’s husband can divorce her and withhold resources. Abusers exploit this loophole in the law with impunity.
Survivors like Anjali Kour, who did not file a police report, stay trapped in legal limbo in the US justice system.
Caseworkers and lawyers see patterns of behavior that almost seemed like abusers were colluding to use transnational abandonment as the perfect way to exit a marriage without any financial responsibilities.
“The ultimate goal,” said researcher Dr. Shreya Bhandari “is to get rid of her legally, and not be liable to pay her a dime.”
The American Dream & Indian Family Values
Anjali Kour’s story is a cautionary tale for Indian families blinded by the American dream packaged in the prospect of marriage to a US resident. When domestic violence and transnational abandonment dissolve that dream, it puts a target on their backs and leaves them vulnerable to further abuse and shame.
Survivors say they’re often asked, “Why don’t you leave?”
They don’t, simply because traditional Indian family values regard marriage as sacrosanct, a union preserved at any cost. Women trapped in these relationships won’t leave because “Log Kya Kahenge?”
Victims risk losing status, respect, or bringing shame on the family by going to the police. Fear of societal scorn unleashes a vicious cycle of DV on vulnerable women.
The Auntie Brigade
One unedifying truth that emerged from survivor stories was the glaring lack of solidarity among the female family members and friends that survivors turned to for help.
The ‘Auntie Brigade’ tend to re-victimize survivors with insensitive advice that’s more harmful than helpful.
Friends told one survivor, “Why are you leaving him? Sab aadmi aise karthe hain. You have nice kids, a nice house, nice cars. Live with this.”
The fact that over 24 DV agencies operate in the U.S. solely to support South Asian survivors, is a telling reminder that DV taints our community.
And yet, there is no word for DV in over 300 Indian languages.
Doesn’t everyone deserve healthy relationships?
Our Indian community has a lot to be proud of in our immigrant story. And there is a public health crisis in our community.
Indian Americans continue to tolerate DV in their midst, even though it is fueling a silent crisis of wife abandonment without holding its men accountable.
At its essence, transnational abandonment is a gender-driven pattern of trauma inflicted on women. Immigrant spouses, beleaguered by abuse and the loss of EAD-4 work permits, are helpless. Their dependency and inaction, steeped in inflexible tradition, propels a vicious cycle of abuse and abandonment.
DV exists in affluent families, and across every income and ethnic group, but our community doesn’t acknowledge the patriarchal control that husbands and their families have over women.
Have we normalized it?
There are fundamental concepts about family and marriage that have to change. We need straightforward conversations about our prejudices and fears. Men should have the courage to call out injustice among their peers. Women could be better allies to survivors.
Immigrant women facing abuse or abandonment need proof they can take control of their lives and know their rights.
What would you do if your sister or daughter was a victim like Anjali? It’s about time we get to Nahin, it’s not ok.
Meera Kymal is an award-winning journalist who is Contributing Editor at India Currents, and Founder/Producer at DesiCollective. She covers issues that impact minority communities in the South Asian diaspora through the lens of social justice, politics, and the arts.
Anjana Nagarajan-Butaney is a Founder/Producer at DesiCollective and a writer at India Currents. Her award winning journalism explores the social and cultural impact of issues like immigration, health, politics and the arts impacting the multiethnic, multicultural communities of the South Asian diaspora.