Reprinted from Dialogue.
Interview by Juanita Julliet Singh
On March 9, 2013, Aruna Papp established a record. She became the first Adventist Indo-Canadian woman to represent Canada as a delegate to the United Nations Conference on Global Violence Against Women.
For Papp, it was a long journey. Aruna (nee Irene Isaac) is the first of seven children of Pastor and Mrs. B.M. Isaac. Her father served the Seventh-day Adventist Church as a pastor and administrator in India before moving to Canada. While he labored hard to provide for the family, it was her mother who worked diligently to care for her children, have regular family worship, and shoulder the responsibilities for the extended family. Papp learned from her mother how to face life’s problems with dignity and hold her head up with self-respect, and from both her parents she learned the meaning of hard work.
Papp grew up in India in a cultural environment, where the caste system – though officially abolished – is still embedded in every aspect of life. Surrounded by a culture that treats women negatively, she knew from childhood what it means to deny the dignity of women; this included issues pertaining to education, welfare, family life, and personal dignity.
Throughout her school and college years, Papp was disturbed and concerned about society’s neglect of women. In her native land – a country that was thrust into global leadership by a female prime minister, Indira Gandhi, known as the Iron Lady of India – Papp saw girls and women brushed aside socially, economically, and politically, with little or no appeal. She saw abuse, honor killings, denial of basic rights, discrimination in the workplace, and many more darts constantly hurled at women because of their gender – not just in India, but other countries as well.
At 21, Papp migrated to Canada with her family. A few years later, circumstances thrust on her the challenge of helping female victims of abuse, a task that eventually led her to become the first Adventist South Asian to represent the Government of Canada as a delegate at the 57th session of the United Nations, and to address the issue of global violence against women.
What motivated you to take up the cause of female victims of culturally-driven honor-based violence and honor killings?
Born in India, early in life, I became aware that girls in India were not valued. By the time I was 8, I had seen two newborn girls dumped in the garbage. One day my aunt and I were out to deliver lunch to my uncle, who was harvesting wheat. On the way, we saw a group standing around a garbage pile. I pushed my way in to have a look, and I was shocked to see a newborn female child discarded sometime during the night before. My aunt explained that girls are seen as a curse in our culture.
A few years later, in Delhi, waiting for a bus that would take us to church, I broke away from my family to investigate what the crows at the edge of the street were pulling at while making a big ruckus. I was aghast to see the crows tugging at a newborn female child. What stunned me was that people kept walking by, and no one stopped for that baby. My father pulled me away, for our bus had arrived, but I was screaming my head off for the baby. At 14, I witnessed yet another horror against females: a beautiful neighbor, educated and employed, was set on fire by her brothers for refusing to marry the man they had selected for her.
These images were seared into my psyche, but I trusted that my father would not allow any harm to come to us girls, because my parents believed in God and that it was God’s will they had six daughters and a son. However, I also knew he would not tolerate any daughter who brought shame to his name.
I began attending school at age 10; at 13, I lost one year of school after having been sent home for an appendectomy. Back in school at 14, I failed to get into the swing of studies and exams. At 17, my marriage was arranged. Unfortunately, the marriage turned out to be abusive and loveless, and ended 18 years later. When I was 21, we migrated to Canada, along with my parents and siblings. In Canada, I was fortunate enough to find a job as a short-order cook at York University in Toronto. Seeing the opportunities Canada had to offer my two young daughters and me, I felt that if I were educated, my abuse would cease.
At York University, the community liaison officer told me that there was a large community of South Asians surrounding the university, and that domestic violence in this community was a serious problem. She also informed me that as a full-time worker, I would not have to pay tuition to attend classes. That was good news indeed; it thrilled me beyond words. Soon I met other South Asian women who were also living in abusive situations. Together, we decided we would not allow the abuse to be passed on to the next generation, even if it meant bringing dishonor to the men in the family. It was then that I began working with abused women. I believe I was led by a higher power, for doors once shut are now open, and fears have given way to courage and hope.
From my own journey, a mission was born: first, to get back into school, earn a degree, and free myself from the bondage of cultural entrapment; and second, to reach out to other women who had also been taught that sons are more important than daughters. I wanted them to learn to break the cycle of violence, by teaching their daughters that they are as important as sons. It has been a long and painful journey, but I have no regrets, and I am blessed.
Briefly tell us about your 30-year involvement in this mission.
In 1981, I started the Toronto Asian Community Centre, followed by South Asian Support Services in 1991, and Gordenridge Family Services in 1992. These agencies began to document the plight of women and children in the South Asian immigrant community. In 1990, my research on the issue of domestic violence in the South Asian immigrant community was published. While doing this research, I realized that mainstream agencies did not understand culturally- rooted violence, and that social service providers needed “cultural competency training.” So I established a company named Community Development and Training and began working as a consultant and trainer.
I am also a research associate with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, in Alberta, Canada; here I conduct research on the issues relating to immigrant communities, particularly the South Asian community. As a consultant and educator, I travel nationwide and abroad, training frontline service providers for victims of honor-based violence. The focus of my training is risk assessment and risk management. My clients are social work agencies, lawyers, universities, regional police, and the Canadian Police College.
Thirty years ago, the South Asian community felt that exposing their problems would bring dishonor to the community. But today, the situation is different. Women are encouraged to seek help, to believe there is life after divorce, and to trust they too can be successful. To abused women, this change in thinking is very crucial.
My parents, likewise, moved from viewing me as a cause for shame to being proud of the path I’ve chosen for myself as the right path. They lived long enough to recognize my work and witness the peer support and governmental recognition I have received. Of the 13 awards I’ve received from governmental and nonprofit organizations, I’m most proud of the Lifetime Achievement Award from the South Asian Community and the Grant’s Desi Achiever Award 2011 from the South Asian community.
On a personal level, I have been happily remarried for 28 years to David Papp, whose father was Hungarian and mother was Scottish, but who grew up in Toronto. David and our daughter are my source of strength. With love and respect, they support my work and advocacy.
What hurdles have you faced in your work?
The great hurdles were my own demons – my guilt and fears. I suffered guilt walking away from a marriage arranged by my parents, and worried about the impact this would have on my children. I felt deeply guilty for not sacrificing my life for the honor of my family. I feared my decision would dishonor the good name of my father and hurt his influence in his church. I also faced abandonment from my family and community.
After attending the funerals of women killed for honor, I would get very discouraged. Pioneering this work was frightening because I had no role model to follow. At times my life was threatened, and that was worrisome.
What put you in the spotlight that drew the attention of the Canadian government to enlist you in its effort to address this issue of honor-based violence?
The agencies I had established and my first research, published in 1990 – “Cultural Conflict in Counseling South Asian Women Who Are Victims of Abuse” – shattered the image of the South Asian community as “model immigrants” and caught the
attention of the media. No one could deny research based on the testimonies of 1,800 women. Once the media got involved, it became difficult for the government and the community to ignore the problem. Over the years, other agencies were established. Still, though mainstream agencies were also documenting abuse in the South Asian community, they were afraid to speak out, lest they be viewed as racist or be seen as perpetuating stereotyping. Hence, I became a natural spokesperson, as one from the community who had lived in abuse most of her life.
In the past two decades, there have been 18 honor killings in Canada, and many such killings in the U.S. Research suggests that honor killings and honor-based violence is epidemic in many other countries around the world. The victims of honor-based violence are mainly young girls growing up in two different cultures. In schools, through their peers, and through the media, they learn that they have the right to make decisions for their own lives, and that they can choose their own careers and their own life partners. But when they enter their homes, they walk into a very controlling cultural environment. In families in which honor culture is the norm, girls are punished for being too westernized – wearing pants, talking with boys, having friends from outside the community, and/or attending social events with girlfriends. Trivial gossip or rumor about their behavior can put their lives in danger.
What research is available in support of the cause of abused women in culturally- controlled environments? Or is your research a kind of groundbreaking effort in this area?
Today, extensive research is available on the issue of domestic violence, the impact of culture and harmful cultural practices, and the impact on children who witness abuse. However, there is a paucity of research on honor-based violence and cultural barriers to seeking counseling.
In Canada, my research was among the first of its kind: a client-centered research, grounded in frontline experiences. The little research available then was more theoretical. The work I was doing allowed me to obtain information from clients firsthand, identify the problem, and suggest solutions. This groundbreaking work impacted the Canadian government’s policy development.
How do you or the Canadian government assess the effectiveness of training in raising awareness, in warding off potential violence, and/or in damage control management?
Assessment is done in many ways. First, through data collection: the police, health-care providers, and social services agencies document every incoming call relating to domestic violence.
Second, through surveys. Participants attending my training seminars and workshops fill out surveys, one at the start of training and another following training. Many agencies that organize these seminars send out online surveys to assess the effectiveness of training and to invite suggestions to be addressed in follow-up trainings. Training is ongoing to cover the vast number of social workers, the police force, and other professionals working with culturally-volatile communities.
The best way to assess what we are doing is to take note of the huge increase in the volume of female clients. When I first started working in this area, women were afraid to ask for help; today, every social service agency will tell you that they are overextended. It means that women are calling for help. This does not mean that we have reached every potential victim; a lot more work remains to be done. However, violence against women in the immigrant communities is no longer a secret.
You represented the Government of Canada at the 57th session of the UN on March 9, 2013, on the issue of global violence against women. What responsibility and empowerment does this recognition place on you?
At the UN, I met women from around the world and had the opportunity to hear about the work they are doing to eliminate violence against women and children. That was empowering. Awareness campaigns abound globally, so being part of the global team is encouraging.
Representing Canada at the UN was a great privilege. I spoke on how honor-based violence differs from other forms of violence women are subjected to. Canada has put out a booklet, “Discover Canada Guide,” in which the government states clearly that barbaric cultural practices will not be tolerated.
What impact would you say your grade school Adventist teachers, especially women, had on the early formation of your view on the equality of women and men?
I recall my time in the Adventist boarding school in Hapur, India, as “happy time,” a new world in which I felt welcomed by my teachers. It was affirming to be asked to sing specials with my sisters for church, for the teachers took note of our singing talent. I looked up to Miss Roseline Rawat, the girls’ dean, as a role model of how girls must grow up: educated, dignified, and self-respecting. I admired the way she commanded respect and treated us girls with equality. I also admired Mrs. Birol Christo, the principal’s wife and teaching headmistress. As the “campus mother,” Mrs. Christo visited the dorm regularly to teach us how to dress neatly and walk straight and how to practice table manners and not to slump in our chair at meal times. Under the influence of such teachers, I felt I could blossom into womanhood and push back the notion of girls being secondclass citizens.
As an Adventist professional, what role does your faith play in your work?
My faith in God and the Scripture gave me my guiding principle in life: “Do unto others what you would like them to do unto you.” In my professional life, I am very visible to my peers and the media. Everything I do or say is scrutinized. I don’t worry about it, because I begin each day anew, making sure I live that day as an ethical and spiritual person, so Papp at a UN meeting with other delegates. when I put my head down at night, I know I have done the best I could. I try to live my faith one day at a time.
It is my prayer that one day my Adventist Church will truly recognize the presence of violence against women in the homes and become a part of the solution. We can begin with our church joining the UN in designating November as Violence Prevention Month, a month in which we can openly discuss the impact of violence in the home and empower members of the church to help victims of violence.
What counsel can you offer to college/ university women as watchwords to safeguard themselves against possible violence toward them?
If I had an opportunity to speak to young people today, I would address the young men first and tell them that being abusive, insulting, and demeaning is not a hallmark of manhood, neither is it a way to gain respect. To young women, I would say: “Do everything you can to become whole: be physically fit, emotionally sound, spiritually mature, and get the best education/career that is possible. In this way, you will be strong to stand up to your abusers, be they employer, parent, sibling, or spouse.”