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Sister honours memory of B.C. teacher killed by husband

Jasmine Bhambra at her home in Abbotsford February 18, 2011 is the sister of Manjit Panghali. Manjit was killed in 2006 when she was four months pregnant, by her husband, Mukhtiar who was convicted of second-degree murder.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)/John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

When Jasmine Bhambra looks down at her six-month-old baby boy and ponders who he'll grow up to be, she can't help but think of her murdered sister.

Elementary school teacher Manjit Panghali was four months pregnant when she was strangled by her husband, Mukhtiar Panghali, in October, 2006. He dumped her body by the seaside, setting her on fire to cover up his crime.

With Mr. Panghali now convicted and awaiting sentence, Ms. Bhambra has several plans to formally honour her sister's memory. Perhaps the most powerful is her vow that her son, and her other children, will never grow up thinking that women are hand-servants - an attitude of male entitlement she saw plenty of from her brother-in-law, who routinely treated his wife as though she were inferior.

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"Every day, in the way that I raise my kids, is completely different," she said in an interview. Comments about how it's a wife's job to do the dishes or laundry aren't welcome in her home. Neither is the sense that a man can go out on the town while his wife stays with the kids.

Ms. Bhambra said her relationship with her own husband has grown stronger as a result of her sister's killing. "I just started to trust him more, just thinking that my husband is not like this."

Ms. Panghali was the first victim in a high-profile spate of violence five years ago against South Asian women in B.C., a flurry that prompted the province's then-attorney-general to call domestic violence a "cancer" in the Indo-Canadian community.

The tragedies came in all-too-quick succession: Ms. Panghali was last seen alive Oct. 18, 2006. Two days after that, Gurjeet Ghuman was shot in the head by her estranged spouse. She survived; he committed suicide. Nine days later, Navreet Waraich was stabbed to death by her husband. Amanpreet Bahia was killed three months later; her husband and two other people have been charged in connection with her death.

The attacks led to forums and awareness campaigns, and though specific statistics aren't available on domestic violence against South Asian women, some community activists and members say the cancer appears to be in remission. But more work needs to be done to help women who are hard to reach, and to combat still-lingering sexist attitudes.

Last month, Mr. Panghali was convicted of second-degree murder and interfering with bodily remains; he will be sentenced later this month.

Although it was nearly five months before he was arrested, Ms. Bhambra felt the first pangs of suspicion within two days of her sister's disappearance, as soon as Ms. Bhambra returned from a trip to Alberta. "We went over to the house and he wouldn't answer any questions," she said, adding that Mr. Panghali seemed curiously uninterested in finding his missing wife. "We talked about hiring a private investigator, three times we mentioned it, and he didn't say a word."

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But she couldn't quite believe that her brother-in-law could have done such a thing.

"I think I was like no, there's no way. You just keep thinking she's alive somewhere. You don't want to go to that point, to think that he actually did something to her."

Ms. Bhambra thought the days after the guilty verdicts would allow her to finally come to grips with her family's loss, but they were much tougher than she anticipated. "I thought I was going to be happy getting a guilty verdict. But there's nothing happy about this whole situation."

Indira Prahst, a sociology instructor at Langara College who organized some of the domestic-violence forums, said the problem seems to be rooted in the entitled manner in which some South Asian men are raised. It can be something as simple as how mealtime is spent - men and boys in some households will sit at the head of a dinner table, while girls serve.

Ms. Prahst said South Asian culture itself isn't uniquely at fault. But she said she routinely hears from Indo-Canadian women about the strict rules placed on them, while the men in the family are free to do as they wish.

Ms. Prahst said she's heard first-hand how much the forums have helped. "Many women didn't even know organizations existed to help them. That is all knowledge that was transmitted to hundreds of people," she said, adding that the attitudes that lead to domestic abuse won't be stamped out overnight.

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Nonetheless, Ninu Kang - director of family programs for Mosaic, a non-profit organization that helps immigrants and refugees - said there appears to be less hostility in the community when she makes one of her frequent radio appearances. Five or six years ago, Ms. Kang would get nervous waiting for callers to chastise her for highlighting domestic violence and apparently speaking ill of the South Asian community.

She hasn't dealt with one of those calls in a while. "I think people have heard this issue enough. They're at least seeing that it's wrong."

Ms. Kang said some South Asian families are having conversations they rarely had before, on topics ranging from divorce to how blaming victims of domestic violence is unfair. While the situation has improved, Ms. Kang said, it's still far from perfect. She said the message is still not getting out to everyone who needs to hear it.

Ms. Kang said she'd also like to see the province enhance the amount of transition housing available for women and children fleeing abusive relationships. B.C. provides 727 beds in 57 communities with a maximum stay of 30 days. When women leave the transition homes, they can apply for subsidized social housing units.

But Shashi Assanand, executive director for Vancouver and Lower Mainland Multicultural Family Support Services, disagrees that the situation for abused South Asian women is improving.

Ms. Assanand said her non-profit group help at least 2,000 domestic-violence victims each year, though not all are in the South Asian community. The high-profile murders have faded from the headlines, but domestic abuse has hardly been vanquished. "Things appear as if they are quiet, but the abuse hasn't finished at all. Our case load hasn't diminished, it's always increasing."

Still, Ms. Kang said, the victims of the attacks four-plus years ago have left an important legacy. "I would say they brought this issue to the forefront. The cynical voices that would say that doesn't happen, you guys are just stirring up shit, so to speak, could no longer hide behind those words."

Ms. Bhambra has her own plans for her sister's legacy. A scholarship fund has already been established and she plans to meet with community groups to start a program that would help victims of domestic violence.

And Ms. Bhambra has cared for Ms. Panghali's daughter, Maya, ever since the killing. Her niece will be eight years old in May, and Ms. Bhambra hopes she'll some day play an important role in the project - and in helping other young South Asian women who face the same perils that led to the death of her mother. "I'm hoping that maybe Maya can take over that when she gets older and maybe help out victims of violent crime."

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