Assemblywoman Jenifer Rajkumar provided the keynote speech at the roundtable on domestic violence in the South Asian diaspora Tuesday, Oct. 18, at the Queens Family Justice Center in Kew Gardens. She was joined at the roundtable by members of the Mayor’s Office to End Domestic and Gender-Based Violence, as well as advocates for South Asian and Indo-Caribbean women.
Rajkumar had previously worked at a domestic violence organization. Her experience helping women there led her to becoming a lawyer. During her career in law, she secured housing and employment rights for domestic violence survivors so they can become economically empowered, and litigated one of the top 10 cases in the world advancing women’s equality. Upon taking office in 2021, Rajkumar became the first South Asian women to ever be elected to office in the state of New York.
“I witnessed inspiring survivors who emerged from abusive situations to become powerful and joyous,” Rajkumar said. “Witnessing my clients who broke free from violence standing gloriously in their new power is something that has stayed with me and that will always animate me. These women broke free from violence and discrimination because they reached out for help, and because someone offered them a helping hand.”
Rajkumar noted at the roundtable that she successfully advocated for $34.4 million in financial assistance to domestic violence survivors for this year’s state budget. She also took the time at the roundtable to shout out the work of several organizations that have been fighting for gender equality and women empowerment, including Manavi, Family Justice Center, Womankind, Women for Afghan Women, Jahajee Sisters, Safe Horizon and South Queens Women’s March.
According to Rajkumar, domestic violence statistics for the South Asian diaspora are very high. She said up to 40% of South Asian women experience domestic violence. She also said that there is a chronic underreporting of domestic violence among that community.
“Domestic violence has no place in South Asian culture,” Assemblywoman Rajkumar said. “Our culture celebrates the divine feminine and the strength of women. We have goddesses like Laxmi and Durga embedded in our culture. This week, girls dressed as Laxmi graced Richmond Hill’s Liberty Avenue for Diwali. New Yorkers hailing from India, Bangladesh and Pakistan are accustomed to woman prime ministers and heads of state.”
Rajkumar emphasized the importance of protecting against domestic violence at the roundtable by talking about what one of her constituents in Richmond Hill went through. A member of the area’s Sikh Punjabi community took her own life last August after being the victim of physical and psychological abuse from her husband for eight years. Since then, Rajkumar declared her office as a sanctuary for women in need of assistance. She also noted that New York City has an office dedicated to stopping domestic violence. She advised people suffering from domestic violence to reach out to the office via phone or email or to stop at the office.
“Violence against women has no place in our culture,” Rajkumar said. “We get to define what our culture is, and the powerful women assembled here today have a say in the matter. Malala Yousaf was shot in the head by the Taliban in Pakistan simply because she went to school. But Malala said, ‘I will get my education, and I am afraid of no one.’ Goddess Kali fights fearlessly on the battlefield.”
Rajkumar announced that she and her senior staffer Amrit Kaur established a task force to investigate and report on domestic violence within the South Asian American community. Assistance needed to coordinate the parallel investigations by the NYPD and the police in South Asian countries will also be provided by this task force.
“It’s been my great privilege to work alongside [Rajkumar] to help survivors of domestic and gender-based violence,” Office to End Domestic and Gender-Based Violence Commissioner Cecile Noel said. “As a Queens resident myself, I am so happy that her voice is in our state Assembly, that we have an advocate who truly understands survivors and the challenges that they face.”
“Starting here in New York City, let’s commit to showering our daughters with love, by giving them equality and opportunity,” Rajkumar said. “I imagine a world where women and girls are free from violence; where women have complete autonomy over their bodies and where women make the decisions over their own health care; where women are at least half of all leadership positions in government and are heads of state; where education for girls worldwide is completely accessible; where the human trafficking industry is bankrupt and stalkers and the would-be perpetrators of intimate partner violence are too afraid of the consequences to strike.”