Women who come to the UK as migrants are at higher risk of abuse, but shame and isolation prevents them receiving the support they need
With no family support, no friends, no finance, no confidence, and often feeling isolated, many migrant women feel totally alone and do not know where to go for help. One woman who came without her husband’s permission to a workshop I ran on domestic abuse told me she was not allowed to go out on her own, even to buy food for her three-year-old son. She had to wait for her husband to come back from work and go with him.
This woman said her husband would punish her if he found out she had attended the workshop. She felt she had no choice but to accept the situation because he had sponsored her visa; if she didn’t do what he said, he could send her home.
It is shocking that almost 2 million people a year in England and Wales – 1.2 million women and 713,000 men – experience domestic abuse, and that two women in England are killed by a partner or ex-partner every week. But an even greater number of people experience abuse without reporting it – and many of them are migrant women.
In my PhD research study on the experiences of migrant women who had experienced of domestic violence in the UK, all the participants had migrated, when they were over 18, to the UK in the past 20 years and were separated or divorced because of domestic violence. I also run workshops for Solace Women’s Aid, a charity that last year supported more than 10,000 women and children affected by domestic and sexual abuse.
Domestic abuse is not limited by borders, culture, class, education or migration status. But there is now considerable evidence to show that migrant women, women of colour and women with low income are often at higher risk of domestic abuse. Of this group, migrant women, in particular, are far less likely to seek support.
Most of the women I speak to blame themselves, feel ashamed and are reluctant to share what has happened (or is happening) to them. This is not unique to them, but several studies have shown that migration is a stressful and traumatic experience, and that factors such as not speaking the local language and a lack of family and social support puts these women at higher risk of domestic violence.
When migration law gives a spouse control over the immigration status of family members, it forces many women to endure violence, as they are too afraid to seek help. The perpetrators reinforce their power by using women’s immigration status to threaten them.
The six stages of domestic violence
Sociologist Liz Kelly, professor of sexualised violence at London Metropolitan University, has identified six stages of domestic violence.
At the beginning, women try to manage the situation and hide it. They hope their partner will change.
By the second stage, when they realise he (and it is often men) will not change, they blame themselves and find excuses for him, saying he is stressed, or working hard, or they themselves need to be better. This distorts their reality – women do not perceive the behaviour as abuse, but believe they have marriage problems. Many women from developing countries see this as normal behaviour.
At the third stage, women recognise the abuse and understand it is serious. In my research, I have found that migrant women arrive late to this stage, often when their children start school and they break their isolation by meeting other parents.
By now, many women will start to make plans to find a way out. Again, at this stage, migrant women face challenges. Many don’t have anywhere to go. It’s not until women see a real threat to their lives or those of their children that they reach stage five and decide to end the relationship and flee.
This stage is often complicated because it does not mean the end of abuse. Even when women find a way to escape, they still feel threatened by their abusers. Sometimes the perpetrators find them, even at refuges. Many perpetrators keep texting or use charm to convince their partners to return. Women often go through repeated relapses before abuse ends for good.
The final stage is the end of the abuse. This can often feel like an illusion, particularly for women who need to keep in touch with the perpetrator for the sake of their children, and who must continue to manage an abusive relationship of the past.
I have found that migrant women feel they get valuable support from the police and charities, but not enough from local authorities. More also needs to be done by community leaders to reach out to women who are more isolated. Many community leaders in this country are sceptical about the scale of the problem, even when statistics confirm how widespread this issue is. We all need to be more aware, more responsible and more receptive to the signs of domestic abuse. And we need to be ready to provide the help needed.
Mirela Sula* – The Guardian
*Mirela Sula is the founder of the Migrant Woman Association and is doing PhD research into violence against migrant women in the UK.