Things to Know About Domestic Violence in the APA Community

It seems like everyone knows someone who’s been affected by domestic violence, although people may not talk about it openly in the Asian American community. I was surprised, in a good way, to find out that the LA chapter of North American Taiwanese Women’s Association (NATWA) held an event recently featuring speakers who addressed the issue of relationship abuse. I couldn’t attend, but I did ask some questions to Jong-Ling Wu, Senior Advocate/Hotline Coordinator with Center for Pacific American Families (CPAF).

The following is kind of long, but it contains some helpful information, so I’m including our Q&A in its entirety below. Please read and share with your friends and family. You never know when there is someone who needs help.


domestic violence asian american community

Image Credit: ghetto_guera29 via Flickr


Domestic Violence in the Asian American Community

Q&A with Jong-Ling Wu, CPAF


HapaMama: How prevalent is domestic violence in the Taiwanese or Asian American community?

CPAF: There is little research on the prevalence of DV in specific Asian ethnicities.  Nationally representative surveys tend to show a lower-than-average rate of reported physical or sexual assault by an intimate partner for Asian and Pacific Islander women, compared to other ethnicities.  The low rate for Asian and Pacific Islander women may be due to under-reporting.

The API Institute on Domestic Violence compiled multiple community-based studies among different Asian ethnicities, and found a high prevalence of domestic violence rates in Asian homes: 41–61% of respondents reported experiencing intimate, physical and/or sexual, violence during their lifetime.

These and the below statistics were pulled from Facts & Stats: Domestic Violence in Asian, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander Homes (Sept 2009) by Mieko Yoshihama, Ph.D. and Chic Dabby, of the Asian & Pacific Islander Institute on Domestic Violence (APIIDV),

In my experience, having surveys or interviewers in Chinese or other API language can make a significant difference in the reported results, as well as how the questions are worded.  If asked have you ever experienced domestic violence, many Chinese respondents may respond “no”; however, if you ask specifically if their partner has ever threatened physical harm, confiscated car keys, phones or legal documents, threatened to have them deported, used harsh language to scold or belittle them, and so forth, more respondents are likely to say “yes.”  I’ve taken calls on our hotline from women and men who explain that “I’m not sure if my situation actually counts as domestic violence because my spouse never hit me, but…” as they go on to describe the various forms of abuse they are experiencing.  Definitions matter, and what does or does not “count” as domestic violence can really skew survey results and self-reports.

Some additional sampling of various studies, collected by APIIDV:

The National Asian Women‘s Health Organization (NAWHO) conducted telephone interviews with a random sample of 336 Asian American women aged 18–34 residing in the San Francisco and Los Angeles areas:

  • 19% of the respondents reported having experienced “pressure to have sex without their consent by an intimate partner” since age 18, and of these 44% (or 8% of the total sample) reported experiencing completed rape; 16% of the completed rape cases were perpetrated by the woman‘s intimate partner.
  • 12% reported that an intimate partner “had hurt or had attempted to hurt them by means of hitting, kicking, slapping, shoving, object throwing, or threatening their lives with weapons.”
  • 14% reported that “[someone] had ever repeatedly followed or spied on them, had appeared at unexpected locations, had stood outside their home, school, or place of work.”

Project AWARE (Asian Women Advocating Respect and Empowerment, 2001) surveyed a convenience sample of 178 Asian women via anonymous survey:

Of the 23 women who reported not having experienced intimate partner violence themselves, more than half (64%) said they knew of an Asian friend who had experienced intimate partner violence; 9% reported

The Asian Task Force Study (2000) found that older Chinese respondents were more tolerant of the use of force and more likely to justify a husband‘s use of violence against his wife. Immigration status and level of education were not associated with the likelihood of justifying a husband‘s use of violence against his wife.

  • 18% of Chinese respondents said a woman who is being abused should not tell anyone about the abuse
  • 37% of Chinese respondents indicated that a battered woman should turn to a friend for help
  • 52% of Chinese respondents supported a battered woman calling the police for help
  • 18% of Chinese respondents reported having witnessed their fathers regularly hit their mothers


HapaMama: What are some of the cultural barriers that prevent women from seeking help if they are in this situation?

CPAF: Seeking help is hugely difficult for many reasons: embarrassment, fear of judgment or being blamed for the abuse, fear of further abuse and retaliation, or not being sure where to go for help.  For API women, there may also be additional cultural pressures to “save face” and not tell anyone about problems at home.  Families with a more traditional, conservative view on marriage may regard divorce for any reason as shameful, and pressure the survivor to stay in the marriage to avoid bringing shame on the family, for the sake of the children, because it is her duty as a wife to “make it work”—and so on.  These may all be reasons that prevent API women from calling the police, reporting domestic violence, or attempting to leave an abusive relationship.

Many Asian counties have few or no laws against domestic violence or marital rape; sometimes, the laws which are on the books are not strictly enforced.  For women who are not familiar with US law, they may not know that abuse from their spouses is a reportable crime.  For recent immigrants, accessing services or even calling the police may be a challenge due to not speaking fluent English.  Even the emergency number 911 may not be known to immigrants, as the phone number to access emergency services will vary across countries.  Abusers have been known to use the victim’s immigration status as leverage: they might make threats to confiscate or destroy the victim’s legal documents, to not file the appropriate papers, or have them deported.


HapaMama: Maybe someone is reading this, and they are in an abusive relationship or have a friend or relative who is. What are some signs of a relationship abuse?

CPAF: Abuse can be very hidden and hard to spot; also, the stress of living with an abusive partner (or hiding the abuse from the outside world) can manifest in different ways.  Which is to say, there is no one definitive list of “symptoms,” but some things to look out for may include wearing long pants/sleeves or high collars to hide bruises.  Many survivors describe having to “walk on eggshells”: taking great precautions to avoid angering, inconveniencing, or even disagreeing with their abusive partners.

When I was in college, a friend unexpectedly did not show up for a class.  Another friend explained that this girl lived with her boyfriend, and when they had an argument, he would not let her leave their apartment.  Abusers may be very controlling of their partner’s movements, and may actively dictate where they may or may not go, and whom they can speak with; this can also happen via constant calling or texting to “check up” on where their partner is.  They can be jealous, and urge their partners to cut out friends or family so that no one can interfere with their relationship.

Remember that it is very common for abusive partners to minimize the abusive nature of their actions, or to blame it on their partners (“if you didn’t make me so mad, I wouldn’t have lost my temper like that.”)  The other side of the coin is that the person being abused may also be exaggerating their own role in the abuse that takes place (“that was my fault for shouting back, I shouldn’t have done that.”)  This is a common and insidious effect of the emotional abuse that takes place within an abusive relationship.


HapaMama: What resources are available for Asian American women?

CPAF: There are several domestic violence agencies that specialize in supporting API women and families.  Domestic violence impacts survivors on multiple levels, and it is crucial for help to be readily accessible so that families can find shelter, mental health services, legal services, and other support as needed.

The Center for the Pacific Asian Family (CPAF) provides emergency and transitional shelter services, and short-term counseling.  CPAF runs a 24-hour multi-lingual hotline to provide emotional support, information, and referrals.  CPAF is the only agency in Los Angeles that runs an emergency shelter that specializes in providing linguistically and culturally specific services to API survivors.  We have staff, interns, and volunteers who speak a variety of API languages, including Mandarin and Taiwanese.

Other Southern California agencies that offer culturally specific services to Asian women and families, including transitional shelters and low-income housing, are Asian Pacific Women’s Center  and Little Tokyo Service Center.  Mental health agencies include Asian Pacific Family Center , Asian Pacific Counseling & Treatment Centers, and Pacific Asian Counseling Services. In San Francisco, there is the Asian Women’s Shelter and the Asian Women’s Home. Both have 24-hour hotlines.

Many of the survivors we encounter also need legal services to assist in filing for a restraining order, divorce/custody, or immigration issues.  We are lucky to have partnerships with legal organizations which have great expertise with domestic violence, family, and immigration law: Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles  and Asian Pacific Legal Center.  Both of these agencies also have language lines where survivors can call directly in Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, and several other API languages.


HapaMama: Anything else people should know about domestic violence?

CPAF: Above all, remember that domestic violence is not the survivor’s fault: the abusive party made a choice to use violence.  If someone discloses to you that they are abused, listen to them without judgment.  Provide support and assurance that they are not to blame.

If they are minimizing or making excuses for the abusive partner, reflect and repeat back what you are hearing from them: even for a survivor who has constantly rationalized their partner’s behavior (and has been intimidated into doing so), hearing the incidents of abuse repeated back from someone else may help them realize the extent of the violence being inflicted.

Tell them that they do not deserve to be abused, and that help is available. Give them the number to a DV hotline. Call one yourself to find out more about services that are local to you. Reassure them that they are not alone.

Remember that domestic violence thrives in secrecy and isolation. Watching a friend returning to an abusive partner can be frustrating and confusing; some statistics say that a woman returns to her abuser 5-7 times on average, before leaving the relationship permanently. It is not uncommon for well-meaning friends to leave, declaring “I can’t watch you do this to yourself anymore.” The feelings are understandable, but remember that the fewer safe friends a survivor has, the more isolated they become—and the more dependent they are on their abuser.

Finally—domestic violence is not a women’s issue, but a community issue. It affects women, men, and children. We accomplish nothing in our pursuit to empower women by vilifying men. Instead, we need to find more ways to work together—male and female survivors, friends and family, allies—to make a stand against violence in all its forms.


  1. says

    This is great as it’s a topic that is not talked about much in the Asian community. A lot of it is cultural (saving face) and not “letting other people know your business.” I’ve known one Asian woman (when I was in college) who had a boyfriend who would do thinks like lock her in a room of his apartment after a fight for an extended time. He would leave her there, and she opened the window and yelled for someone to call the police. No one did. Eventually he let her out. Good thing she stopped seeing him. I also know another Asian woman who is being stalked by her ex-husband. I should send her this piece as it’s so informative.

  2. Amy H says

    Thanks for writing about this, Grace.

    Another thing is often an abuser will threaten a victim with fighting for custody of the children or calling CPS on her (for irrational reasons). As an abuse survivor myself, I would recommend any victim with children who plans on leaving her abuser to consult with a good family lawyer first. A domestic violence clinic can also offer legal help or refer a victim to someplace that can offer inexpensive or free legal aid. And every victim who leaves an abuser should file for a temporary protective order. The courts might not bring justice to your situation, but they usually will bring you some protection when you need it.

    I also think much of the stigma of being a victim comes with the stereotype that it only happens to lower-class and uneducated people, but domestic violence is a problem that occurs in all types of homes, and often abusive partners are in respectable professions from law enforcement (possibly the worst situation) to medicine to academia to business. And often, the more educated abusers are just smarter about hiding their abusive traits from everyone else..

    • says

      I’m so glad you are safe, and thanks for sharing your experiences here. Domestic abuse is so complex, it’s good for people to know that it affects people from all walks of life.

  3. LR says

    The reason why this happens is because Asian culture is very strict, especially Asian husbands and boyfriends. They are like strict Asian parents. But those at higher risk are mixed race Asian females and other mixed race females because they have the best of both or more worlds which can confuse the monoracial spouse or partner and cause the monoracial spouse or partner to be jealous, insecure, and paranoid in which they accuse them of being unfaithful, knowing there are numerous stories of mixed race people cheating in relationships and marriages, and not trust them, especially by calling them whores and sluts, and also mixed race females come from families with blended expectations as well and are perceived as unfeminine especially when they are also raised in liberated, individualistic Western cultures. Mixed race people are often perceived as untrustworthy and unreliable for long term partners and spouses overall because they are raised in more than one culture and that they are more attractive to others.

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