Protecting migrant women from family violence

On the hard concrete of the streets around Collingwood, a child is lit against the dark night by fluorescent light.

If a picture says a thousand words, ‘3am’ by Kelly tells a heartbreaking story: that for her and her son this cold, uninviting place is safer than home.

Worldwide, almost a third of women who have been in a relationship have experienced physical or sexual violence at the hands of an intimate partner. Domestic and family violence is a significant public health issue in Australia, influencing the wellbeing of many women and children.

A research collaboration between the University of Melbourne, the Multicultural Centre for Women’s Health and the University of Tasmania has found that migrant and refugee women in Australia experience the same types of violence non-migrant women experience—sexual violence, physical violence, financial abuse, and emotional abuse. But, should they leave their partner, they also face language barriers, extreme social isolation, the fear of being separated from their children, and losing rights or access to services.

“We were very concerned about how the system might make women vulnerable to violence,” says Cathy Vaughan, researcher at the Melbourne School of Population and Global Health, who led the Analysing Safety and Place in Immigrant and Refugee Experience (ASPIRE) project.

Worldwide, almost a third of women
who have been in a relationship have
experienced physical or sexual violence
at the hands of an intimate partner.

ASPIRE sought to understand women’s experiences of family violence and how they vary for women who have resettled in different places, and have different cultural backgrounds and visa statuses.

By training a group of bicultural workers as co-researchers, and involving them in the design and implementation of the research program, the ASPIRE project helped migrant and refugee women tell their personal and often painful stories, providing evidence of these poorly understood problems.

A Photovoice project, allowing a means of self-expression through photography, provided vivid accounts of migrant women’s experiences.

The project also drew on 46 in-depth interviews with migrant women who had experienced family violence, 57 interviews with informants from service organisations, and 26 focus groups conducted with 233 women and men from different cultural communities.

“We were able to document the range and types of violence these women experience. We found they experience additional forms of violence that are partly related to their visa status, such as partners withholding documentation, taking away their passports, giving them false information about their rights, or saying they or their children will be deported.”

The ASPIRE project drew on the practical experience of the Australian Red Cross and Migrant Resource Centres, and was funded by Australia’s National Research Organisation for Women’s Safety.

“You need to bring that theoretical background into contact with people who are dealing with this issue in the real world, together with what community members are telling us,” Dr Vaughan says.

The ultimate aim was to provide evidence and guidance for improving response to family violence for women.

“We knew from our conversations with service providers that the types of visas women hold makes a huge difference to what services they can access,” says Dr Vaughan.

“For example, if a woman came here on a spousal visa as a partner of an Australian citizen, she could still proceed with an application for permanent residency even if she left the relationship because of violence. She would also be fully entitled to family violence support services.”

In contrast, a woman with a prospective marriage visa, engaged but not yet married to a citizen, would not be entitled to any of those services, or have access to things like Medicare and Centrelink. Similarly, partners of international students have restrictions on the services they can access because of their visa status.

“This evidence flags ways that responses to family violence need to change when assessing risk. For example, it doesn’t currently take into account visa status.”

ASIPRE is bringing about social change. The project was heavily cited in the Royal Commission into Family Violence Report, and is being used to inform the response to the Commission’s recommendations.

The collection of photographs taken by ASPIRE participants has been exhibited at libraries and other public spaces and continues to move viewers, shining a light on the challenges facing migrant women.


Picture: '3am' by Kelly, as part of the ASPIRE Photovoice project.