One in three women worldwide is a victim of physical or sexual violence. About 80 percent of the time, this violence occurs at the hands of a partner or spouse. Intimate partner violence refers to any “behavior within an intimate relationship that causes physical, sexual or psychological harm, including acts of physical aggression, sexual coercion, psychological abuse and controlling behaviors”. Intimate partner violence may result in a series of short or long term physical, sexual, reproductive, and mental health problems. According to WHO, women exposed to intimate partner violence are twice as likely to experience depression, and almost twice as likely to abuse alcohol . Compared to non-abused women, women experiencing intimate partner violence have higher rates of unwanted pregnancies and abortions, and when this violence occurs during pregnancy, it is associated with events such as miscarriage, pre-term births, still births or low birth weights. They are also 1.5 times more likely to acquire HIV and other STIs. Moreover, 42% of women who were physically or sexually abused by their partners have experienced injuries as a result, and 38% of all women murdered were killed by their intimate partners. Despite this evidence, intimate partner violence remains largely under-reported.
While intimate partner violence is a considerable problem for any society, its effects are particularly significant for migrant communities. Migration is a stressful process and often puts migrant women at higher risk of intimate partner violence. In some cases, migrant men mistreat their partners or spouses as a way to regain control and power in their lives, particularly when their migrant status has deprived them of this social standing.
What are the barriers to reporting for migrant women?
Leaving an abusive relationship is a highly complex and difficult proposition. Leaving is neither a simple nor a safe choice for many women, and it involves many emotional, financial, logistical, health, and security related issues. In addition to the barriers all survivors of intimate partner violence experience, migrant women face unique challenges in reporting and escaping an abusive relationship.
• Lack of social support
Migrant women leave their entire social support system behind in their country of origin, which often makes them emotionally, socially, psychologically, and financially more reliant on their partners. Abusive partners or spouses actively exploit this reliance by increasing migrant women’s insecurity about their ability to function in the host society without them. In many cases, migrant women are socially isolated, which increases their likelihood of remaining in an abusive relationship.
• Cultural differences
Survivors of intimate partner violence who belong to migrant or ethnic minority groups often underutilize the services available to them in part because their help-seeking behaviors may differ from those of the host country. Migrant women may have different views on the circumstances they believe it is acceptable for their spouses to physically, emotionally, or sexually mistreat them. According to a WHO study, less than one quarter of women in the provincial settings of Bangladesh, Ethiopia, and Peru thought that no reason justifies violence  . The study pointed out that in Ethiopia, for example, among women who did not seek help when mistreated by their partners, 37% said they considered the violence against them “normal” or “not serious”. Cultural expectations may also inhibit migrant women from seeking help, as it could be seen as bringing shame to their families.
• Language barriers
Poor knowledge of the host country language may affect the ability of migrant women to seek information about the health, social and legal services and support programs available for those experiencing intimate partner violence and how to access them. Limited knowledge of the host country language may also hinder effective communication and contribute to misunderstandings between migrant women and health and social workers, law enforcement agents, and court personnel. It can also make the process of getting the necessary help more difficult and lengthy.
• Limited knowledge of local laws
Migrant women may lack information about their rights and the laws governing domestic abuse in their host country, especially when few or no laws against intimate partner violence exist in their home country. In addition, migrant survivors of intimate partner violence may have had negative experiences with law enforcement authorities in their countries of origin, which can make them reluctant to seek help in their host countries. Migrant women may be familiar with a legal system in which money and influence, rather than due process, determine legal outcomes. As a result, they may have learned not to expect justice from the legal system, and often find it difficult to believe that the legal system of the host country works differently.
• Lack of knowledge of available services
Migrant women who are experiencing intimate partner violence are often unaware of the health and social services available for survivors in their communities. They may also not understand how to navigate social systems such as welfare or housing that are necessary in order to achieve independence.
• Fear of deportation
Legal status is one of the most significant factors in if and how intimate partner violence is addressed when it occurs in migrant families. In the case of migrant women who arrive in a new country as a result of family reunification, abusers may threaten to have their spouses or partners deported if they dare to report an abusive relationship. As a result, many migrant women remain silent and do not seek any type of help. Regardless of their migration status, migrant women experiencing intimate partner violence may believe that they will be deported or stripped of their residence permits because this is what their abusers have told them and not necessarily because this is true. In the case of undocumented migrant women, they have little recourse to legal protection and often risk being arrested due to lack of legal residence status.
Fear of deportation may also preclude survivors from obtaining medical records, police reports, and other evidence often necessary in pursuing charges against the abuser.
• Economic challenge
While many victims of domestic violence face economic obstacles when seeking to safely leave abusive partners, migrant women may have even more severe financial barriers to overcome. Many migrant women depend economically on their spouses/partners, especially where their legal status is linked to that of their abusers. Many migrant women are unemployed, work illegally, or have low paid jobs with no benefits or job security, which significantly decreases their ability to function independently from their abusers. The situation of undocumented migrant survivors of intimate partner violence is further aggravated by the fact that that they often do not have access to public funds.
Since the harm intimate partner violence causes can last a lifetime and span generations, it is essential that protection against violence be ensured to migrant women. Community programs should be developed or enhanced for victims of intimate partner violence from migrant and ethnic communities, paying special attention to additional needs and barriers migrant women might face when trying to escape an abusive relationship.