Migrant and refugee women in Australia continue to struggle with the challenges of living in a new country and adjusting to new customs. Many find themselves in situations that put their health and lives at serious risk.
A staggering percentage will be confronted by acts of domestic violence and suffer unspeakable abuse at the hands of loved ones from behind the closed doors of homes that, from the outside, appear loving and safe.
While this abuse is not limited to women and sometimes men, of migrant or refugee status, it can nevertheless be worse when English is their second, third or even fourth language. This problem is compounded when women have little if any understanding of the laws of their new homeland and feel they have nowhere to turn for support.
One of the more insidious forms of domestic abuse faced by these women is little understood because it often goes undetected and unreported. ‘Coercive control’ is employed by people to force their partner to bend to their will, to abandon all control over their own lives and to weaken their resolve.
Unlike physical abuse, it leaves no outward injury, scars or bruises but the damage to victims’ self-esteem is all encompassing and the unseen and psychological injuries can take much longer to heal.
Coercive control assumes many patterns of behaviour
s, including physical, social, financial, psychological and technology-facilitated abuse. It can include acts of assault, threats, humiliation and intimidation or other abuse used to harm, punish , or frighten the victim.
The abuse may not be noticeable at first. Simple things like controlling a partner’s spending, forced isolation from family and friends
, and monitoring everything the victim does, are tactics used to intimidate a victim. Eventually, the abuse becomes psychologically impossible to endure and the victim gives up all control and the hope of living a happy, normal life.
A great deal of time, effort and money is spent educating the community about physical acts of domestic violence and how to recognise it if it is happening to a family member, friend or neighbour. Sadly, the same cannot be said for coercive control. Too many people suffer in silence, their psychological pain unnoticed by all but the perpetrator.
Coercive control is found across all cultures, but migrants and refugee women in Australia face many issues particular to their status that increase the possibility of facing and suffering from this form of domestic violence.
As a community worker, I have been working with migrant and refugee women for many years and have found that coercive control is at the centre of most of the domestic violence cases. Many women suffer for years and fail to seek help. Authorities and support centres only receive the complaints when the violence gets physical.
I recently helped Ramina (not her real name) with her domestic violence case management. She migrated to Australia from Pakistan 13 years ago. A mother of two children, she has suffered under the severe control and manipulation of her husband, who micro-manages all aspects of Ramina’s life.
He does not allow her access to their joint bank account where the money is deposited from Ramina’s Centrelink payments, he chooses Ramina’s friends and restricts her movements. He has isolated her from friends and family and keeps an eye on her social media, texts and email.
Like many people, Ramina’s husband has been working from home during COVID outbreaks. This has made Ramina’s life even more restrictive because she no longer has an opportunity to talk privately to anyone over the phone because he insists on being present at all her conversations. She was forced to speak to me from the family car.
It doesn’t stop there.
He will not take “no” for an answer, even when it concerns their intimate and sexual relationship and pressures her to comply with his demands. She has lost all confidence and developed severe depression and anxiety. “I can’t believe that I was a very happy and confident girl before I got married,” she told me. “Now I feel like I’m being held hostage. I can’t say anything, do anything or talk to anyone at my own will. I have to do what he wants me to“.
Ramina is not an isolated case. She is one of many migrant women who find themselves victims of coercive control, sometimes referred to as “intimate terrorism”.
Mariam (not her real name), who migrated from Bangladesh, said of her husband: “He has been trying for the last seven years to mould me to suit his interest. I don’t think I exist anymore.” Coercive control has chipped away at her sense of safety and independence.
Women from male dominated cultures may find it hard to recognise coercive control or see it as a form of domestic violence. Often, family and friends who are from the same community, make them believe that it’s okay and as women, they need to tolerate it. The victims are told “it happens in all families. It’s okay”. But of course, IT’S NOT OKAY.
A lack of understanding of Australian law plays a significant role in keeping the victims quiet. For a long time, Mariam doubted herself and wondered if she had misinterpreted the whole situation. Eventually, she came to understand what was happening and objected.
Her husband’s reaction was blunt but not unexpected. He made it clear that if she left him, she would get no property and would lose custody of her children. He threatened to use the Australian legal system against her and if she went ahead, he would take the kids and property away from her, leaving her homeless. This threat was enough to silence her.
Not knowing Australian law about property settlement and child custody put both Mariam and Ramina at an extreme disadvantage, played into their husbands’ hands and left them open to further abuse.
Most people currently see physical violence as the most damaging form of domestic abuse but it is wrong to label any aspect of abuse more damaging than another.
Certainly, extreme physical violence has an immediate impact, putting the victim in harm’s way, facing serious injury or even death.
But the long-term effects of coercive control can create the same lasting psychological harm as direct physical or sexual abuse. This is particularly so where children are concerned who can suffer the same mental trauma as their parent.
Women who find themselves victims of any form of domestic violence need to know they are not alone.
There is help available. They only need to reach out.
If you believe a friend, family member, neighbour or work colleague is at risk of domestic or family violence or you have concerns for their safety, you should urgently contact the national sexual assault, family and domestic violence counselling service on 1800 737 732. If you believe you are in immediate danger call 000.