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A third of migrant women experience domestic violence in Australia. But there's more to it than that.

The following post discusses domestic violence and mental health issues and might be triggering for some readers.

Prisha* was 10 years old when she and her family migrated to Sydney from Uttar Pradesh in northern India. 

After graduating high school, she studied to become an engineer – the same profession as her soon-to-be husband.

While she describes her family as modern and education-oriented, they were also quite traditional too. Marriage happens when you’re young – and it is arranged. 

Profession, culture, shared Hindu religion and caste are all taken into consideration. 

They found her a match. He ticked all the boxes. 

“But what we didn't know is that he was abusive," Prisha tells Mamamia.

Women and Violence: The Hidden Numbers. Article continues after video.


Video via Mamamia.

In June 2021, Monash University and Harmony Alliance released findings from the country's first national study into the experiences of migrant and refugee women, showing that one in three women had experienced some form of domestic and/or family violence in Australia.

Further, 42 per cent of the 1400 respondents had experienced physical or sexual violence; while 91 per cent reported experiencing controlling behaviours.

For Prisha, “it started very, very slowly". She speaks with confidence and measure as she illustrates how she saw things that didn’t seem right, but dismissed them. 

“What you often see and hear in the media are examples of really escalated physical violence. What is not shown are the smaller, more gradual things. It didn't begin with aggressive physical violence for me.”

It started with control.

“There weren’t red flags, but yellow flags,” she explains. 

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Where are you? What are you doing?

Prisha thought it was nice that he cared.

“He would wake me up with a phone call in the morning. But it was just to find out my exact plans for the day.”

Then 20-years-old, Prisha studied and worked on weekends at the supermarket – “something for myself that I was doing independently of my family”. He insisted she quit; that he would take care of her. 

As a young engineering student – and one of the few women in her course – he also implored she leave the university’s engineering society.

There are too many men. You don’t want to be a part of that.

Once they married, he demanded a joint bank account.

“If I wanted to go out and buy a burger for $8.95, I was asked, why did you buy it? Why did you spend? Why don't you make it at home? Even though I was working, I had no control over the funds.”

He berated Prisha’s friends too, and they eventually distanced themselves from her.

“And then it was, 'Don’t talk to your parents, because the phone bill will get too high'.”

Prisha was isolated. When her sister had a baby, she didn’t see the child until its third birthday.

But “it became easier than fighting back,” she says.

“Easier than his screaming and shouting.”

Prisha* in more recent years. Image: Supplied.  And then his behaviour escalated again after Prisha gave birth to their first child. 

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“I think he became jealous of the attention I gave our baby,” she reflects.

It became physical – but he was careful not to leave visible marks on her. 

What would people say?

She recalls sitting on the bed, holding her baby. In a rage, he threw an object at the ceiling lights, and shattered glass rained down on Prisha and her child.

Then there was also the time where he dropped their baby from standing height into Prisha’s lap as she sat on the floor.

He would choke Prisha too, she tells, her words quickening now.

“Oh gosh. You don’t forget these things.”

With a child to now protect, Prisha began standing up to him. She talked back. He didn’t like it. 

The police were called several times, and she finally took out an intervention order against him.

By the end of her marriage, she was left only with her baby – and $9 in the bank account. 

“I was a shell of the person that I used to be.”

The weight of shame and stigma are often very real barriers to women leaving their abusive marriages – especially for those from a migrant community. 

Speaking with SBS Hindi, Melbourne psychiatrist and the Director of the Australasian Centre for Human Rights and Health Dr Manjula O’Connor explained: “The continuity of Indian culture, in Indian diasporas or Indian migrant communities in Australia and everywhere in the world, is very, very strong. They strive to maintain the tradition, language and the family system.

"Young women from Indian-origin backgrounds often get married within their community – so there is a lot of pressure on them to maintain cultural continuity and family tradition even if the women are second or third generation.

“An unsuccessful marriage, or a single daughter, or a divorced daughter, is a shame and stigma for most Indian-background families." 

Prisha agrees. “You don't leave because you think, marriage is once; for life. That aspect is very, very strong in our community.”

Fortunately for her, she experienced strong support from her immediate family. But there were ‘friends’ and extended family who told her to “try harder”, gossiped, or cut ties with her altogether.

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“I think I became a bit disillusioned with my religion and culture, because I was always very proud of being Indian. I got a bit disheartened, and stopped going to temple.”

“But eventually, I’ve found myself again in terms of my religion. And maybe that struggle taught me to be a bit more stronger, to recognise who I’m supposed to be – and to also realise that people who were fake, were always fake. So, if they weren’t going to be a part of my life when things were bad; they also didn't deserve to be a part of my life now that I'm doing okay.”

The economic aspect is also a very real obstacle for migrant and refugee women victims of domestic violence, especially for those from communities entrenched with strong patriarchal values.

Often, the man works and controls the family finances, while the woman stays home to look after the family. 

And even for Prisha  – who had a successful professional career – her husband insisted on managing their finances, and so she had no access to her earnings.

“You think, how am I actually going to leave and survive?”

While Prisha had her family to help support her, she says many women from migrant backgrounds are often alone; with their family still overseas, and no friends in Australia due to the isolation imposed by a controlling husband; add the language barrier, and there is no access to assistance.

“There are a lot of gaps in support after you’ve decided to leave. It’s no wonder many women feel they have no choice but to stay.”

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Rita Butera is CEO of Safe Steps, Victoria’s 24/7 family violence response centre. The organisation is on the frontline, offering a crisis phone line which is open all hours and safety planning that helps women in danger. 

In 2019-2020 alone, Safe Steps received 74,377 calls for assistance. 

Rita tells Mamamia that 25-27 per cent of calls received are from those of culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds. 

“There are definitely issues highlighted in the Indian community, and more recently arrived communities where there are more rigid, gendered expectations. 

"But it’s a mix – domestic violence touches people in all cultures," she emphasises.

Rita explains that one of the “greatest challenges” that Safe Steps encounters are cases where women are on temporary visas, and don't have permanent residency. 

“It is a huge issue because of the vulnerability of their circumstances, what they believe about their situation, and their sense of helplessness. They’ve got no access to any income, or housing, or health or mental health services or anything. They don't qualify for that sort of help. So, we don't discriminate at all and we will assist in any situation and we put people up in emergency accommodation.”

The recent Monash University and Harmony Alliance study found temporary visa holders reported higher levels of domestic and family violence and reported much higher levels of migration-related abuse and threats

Aish was first on a tourist visa, and then a temporary spousal visa – and felt "trapped".

She shared an intimate account of her domestic violence experience with inTouch, an organisation that offers support, services and programs for migrant and refugee women victims of domestic and family violence.

In the winter of 2014, Aish was a new bride. She reflected on how she smiled and toasted her husband in front of friends and family thinking, How can anyone be this perfect?

Aish. Image: Supplied. 

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One month later, they arrived in Melbourne from India, and his behaviour began to change.

“Decisions about what I would wear, what I could eat, where I could go and who I could speak to were made without my consultation. Forbidden from earning money of my own, every purchase in our lives was decided upon by my husband,” she said.

“My husband told me that I couldn't work, get a Medicare card or go see a doctor. I didn't know there was this thing called Centrelink. I didn't know anything as I was new to the country.”

“I spent two years waiting to hear the outcome of my visa application and barely left the house. I didn’t know what the process or timeframe was, or how long I had to wait before I could work and earn my own money so that I wasn’t completely dependent on my husband.”

Isolated in their apartment, Aish had no access to a computer; he would change the Wi-Fi password every week and the TV was password protected. 

“I found myself passing the days gazing over the ledge of our balcony, watching the tiny people passing on the street below, waiting for 3.00pm when friends and family in my home country would begin to wake and I might receive a message from home.”

As months went on, her husband's behaviour progressed from financial and psychological abuse, to verbal – and then physical – attacks.

“I was afraid to challenge him as even a simple question could trigger an uncontrollable rage. A glass thrown, a knock to the ground or hand clasped tightly around my throat until my vision blurred.”

Finally, one day, Aish’s husband did not return home. She received a carefully worded e-mail from him that read:

I fear for my life and don’t feel safe around you, I will be contacting immigration to inform them we are no longer a legitimate couple, I do not want to mislead the department.

“When I got that email, I was stripped of all of my dignity and my basic rights… In that moment, my life changed. I had no job, no savings and bank account, no social connections, no visa, and the next thing is that my home is going to go because he's pulled out of the lease. My whole world came crashing down.”

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Aish had a nervous breakdown and was admitted to hospital. It was there that a social worker connected her with InTouch.

In the past year, inTouch has supported women from 104 countries, who speak more than 90 languages. At any given time, 50 per cent of their clients are on a temporary visa.

Aish’s inTouch case manager was of a similar background, and knew too well the issues that Aish was facing. She worked hard to protect her from being deported. 

They were successful and Aish received her visa – but was without social support. She became severely depressed and contemplated ending her own life. Aish then discovered inSpire – an inTouch initiative that supports migrant and refugee women post-crisis, assisting them with boosting their confidence, skills and community connections in rebuilding their lives in Australia. 

She is also now a member inTouch’s NOOR family violence survivor-advocate advisory group, committed to influencing positive change in the sphere. 

Speaking with Mamamia now, four years since the end of her marriage, Aish recognises the level of emotional manipulation that was at play, which ultimately prolonged the relationship. 

After a night of abuse, her husband would often love-bomb her the next day.

"It would make me doubt myself, and think, how can I be upset with a man who packs my bags, buys flight tickets, and takes me away for a weekend - Even though, the previous night, I had cried myself to sleep."

He was also very aware of maintaining a public perception as "the loving husband", insisting Aish upload photos of them together on her social media, and video-calling her family when they were vacationing. 

"From the outside looking in, it appeared that we were happy. And so, when it came to me actually telling my family and friends of the truth of the relationship, nobody wanted to believe me."

It was the doubt and absence of support that Aish says fuelled her feelings of isolation and thoughts of suicide; she didn't have the language to articulate what was happening, and the unwillingness of her loved ones to accept the abuse, only further compounded the lacking systemic support. 

In March, inTouch released a policy paper calling for migrant and refugee voices to be embedded into the Federal Government’s Second National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children. One of the key 11 recommendations implored the government to “give temporary visa holders the chance to live freely, safely and the opportunity to contribute to Australian society”.

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Further, inTouch urged the establishment of a three-year visa that includes working rights to allow migrant women economic independence and an opportunity to give back to Australia. The visa would also provide access to Medicare, social services, and school education for children. It effectively would enable them the support they need to make safe and secure long-terms arrangements for themselves and their children – including a pathway to permanent visas.

Addressing the visa situation is just one of the systemic barriers facing migrant and refugee survivors of domestic violence. More broadly, the provision of culturally safe care and collaboration with various multicultural communities must also be included in reforms. 

“If the unique needs of culturally diverse groups are considered and funded as a part of our service system, we really can be empowered to provide a comprehensive response to family violence in this country,” said inTouch CEO Michal Morris when the recommendations were released.

Shame and stigma from family and community, social isolation, access to financial means and legal support, language and cultural barriers, visa abuse and threats of deportation or loss of rights to children, are just some of the unique barriers that migrant and refugee women must navigate in order to find safety from domestic violence. Forced marriage, the misidentification of women as the predominant aggressor in family violence situations by police and dowry abuse are other factors at play too.

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“We know that family violence occurs across all countries and cultures, and over half of all Australians were born overseas or have a parent that was… Migrant and refugee women deserve the same access to support and safety as everyone else - whenever and however they need it,” said Michal.

inTouch assisted Prisha in the immediate days after she left her husband, and now, like Aish, she has come full circle, and volunteers as an advocate. 

Prisha vehemently believes that education in healthy relationships is key to prevention; as is awareness and conversation at a grassroots level – especially in communal organisations and places of worship.

“If a woman shares about what is going on in her home, we all have a duty to call it out and act.”

Since leaving her abusive marriage, Prisha has thrived. From a few dollars in her bank account, she rebuilt, going on to continue her studies and complete a Master of Business Administration. 

She then became a director at one of the big-four accounting firms.

“Initially it was about me wanting to prove myself; that I am not some of the things that I was told by him – stupid or dumb. I wanted to prove him wrong. That I am something.

“You take one step at a time, and soon you realise: you are stronger and more confident than you think.”

* Not their real name. 

If this post brings up any issues for you, or if you just feel like you need to speak to someone, please call 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732) – the national sexual assault, domestic and family violence counselling service. It doesn’t matter where you live, they will take your call and, if need be, refer you to a service closer to home.

You can also call Safe Steps 24/7 Family Violence Response Line on 1800 015 188 or visit www.safesteps.org.au for further information.

If you are a migrant or refugee woman and are experiencing family violence and need support, call inTouch on 1800 755 988 between Monday to Friday 9:30am- 4:30pm.

If you think you may be experiencing depression or another mental health problem, please contact your general practitioner or in Australia, contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 for support or beyondblue at 1300 22 4636.

Keen to read more from Rebecca Davis? You can find her articles here, or follow her on Instagram,  @rebeccadavis___

Feature Image: Jorge Salvador/Unsplash

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