Violence against women has been getting the attention it deserves lately. It is heartening to see that government, media, community organisations and the general public are getting behind the movement to eliminate violence against women and to create a more equitable world for women and girls. For immigrant and refugee women, this movement is particularly important. It is by now generally acknowledged that women marginalised by structural discrimination based on age, culture, race, ethnicity, disability, sexual identity and visa status are more vulnerable to violence and are less likely to have the resources to act to report it.
Immigrant and refugee women, especially those who are newly-arrived in Australia, and without extended family, often experience a lack of support networks and knowledge about their rights. Settlement in a new country brings socio-economic pressure on women, as they struggle to establish appropriate employment, education for themselves and children, housing and community networks. Many women on temporary and spousal visas become newly dependent on their partners for an income or for access to health care, and some are not eligible for key government services such as housing.
All of these structural factors mean that immigrant and refugee women are significantly more vulnerable to violence, less likely to report it to police or to access mainstream services. It is perhaps not surprising that immigrant and refugee women are over-represented as users of family violence crisis services, and that they are much less likely to seek assistance or intervention at an early point in the violence. Similarly, if and when they do access the legal or justice system, they also face various barriers in progressing through it. We often hear the family violence experiences of immigrant and refugee women being described as ‘complex cases’. Translated, this usually means that an appropriate early intervention was not accessible and the woman’s experience and the situation has escalated and intensified.
It is clear that the system needs to change. Women’s experiences of violence are complex, but we should do our best to avoid these experiences from becoming ‘complex cases’ that can only be addressed at the acute end of our system. Immigrant and refugee women need access to support and assistance at a much earlier point. In-language information and education about family violence in their own cultural and structural context, delivered in appropriate and meaningful ways would ensure that immigrant and refugee women have the resources they need to act early. Outreach education by bilingual, bicultural educators is an effective, evidence-based intervention that reaches isolated and unconnected women in particular. Perhaps more importantly, structural and policy change is needed. A women’s visa category should not make her more vulnerable to the violence of her partner, or more likely to put up with the violence.
Structural, policy and organisational change will transform immigrant and refugee women’s experiences of the current system, making all the difference in their lives, helping them forge a path of safety, freedom from violence and self-empowerment. It’s quite simple really