Migrant women in abusive relationships not being reached, say campaigners

Abusers use immigration status to trap women in relationships, group warns

The challenges and risks faced by migrant women in abusive relationships are not being factored into the State’s response to the rise in domestic and sexual violence, a network of migrant women has said.

The “We are here too” campaign says migrant women affected by domestic or sexual violence face additional barriers which are not being addressed by national campaigns on gender-based violence.

Led by the Migrant Women na hÉireann network, the campaign says a woman’s immigration status can be used as a coercive tool by her abuser to trap her in a relationship.

It says other women are struggling to access necessary services because of language and cultural barriers, and the risk of isolation is further increased by the Covid-19 pandemic.


Sometimes women can't just go back. If their partner doesn't allow her to bring the child, she can't just leave

Gardaí have reported a surge in domestic violence since the pandemic hit, and the latest data from Women’s Aid shows the number of calls to its helpline increased by 41 per cent between March and the end of November 2020.

Migrant campaigners acknowledged the importance of last year’s national Still Here media campaign but said it failed to address the additional challenges which migrant women face.

Teresa Buczkowska, integration manager with the Immigrant Council of Ireland and a member of the network, said many migrant women in violent relationships believed they risked deportation if they sought help because of lies their partners told. Some women came from countries where supports for people in these situations did not exist and so they did not know where to look, while those who did seek help were often asked why didn't they just go back to their home country, she said.

“Sometimes women can’t just go back. If their partner doesn’t allow her to bring the child, she can’t just leave. Some of these women have lived here 10-15 years, this is their home.

“We need training which addresses personal biases about who belongs in Ireland and who doesn’t, and misconceptions about why a person is staying here.”

Interpretation service

A spokeswoman for Women’s Aid said there were many complexities in reaching out to migrant women but said serious efforts were being made to ensure women of all backgrounds could access its support services. She said the charity’s national helpline could provide support in more than 170 languages through an interpretation service.

About 4 per cent of the 17,830 calls made to the Women’s Aid helpline in 2019 came from women who identified as migrants, Travellers or disabled, while conversations were facilitated in 26 languages, according to the group’s annual report. Before Covid-19, one in five women who used the charity’s one-to-one and Dolphin House support services were migrants, it said.

A Safe Ireland spokeswoman said the agency worked with women from “a huge number of countries” and that a snapshot survey taken in October 2014 found Safe Ireland responded to women from 44 countries other than Ireland on a single day.

What a Pakistani woman might face will be very different to what a Brazilian woman will need. There isn't just one solution to this problem

All staff were trained in diversity and inclusion, she said, and the vulnerability of migrant women’s residency status was regularly discussed. However, services were “hugely under-staffed and under-resourced”, including translation services.

Ms Buczkowska believes women in these situations were most likely to turn to other migrant women for help and said network members were spending their own time and money to support these women, including buying them food and baby products. “This is not sustainable, these women have their own families and will burn out. There has to be funding made available for this work.”

Domestic violence support groups needed to hire more migrant staff to reach some of the most vulnerable women in Irish society, Ms Buczkowska said. “We need women working who have the trust of these communities.”

Alexandra Soares, from the Women of Brazil (Grupo Mulheres do Brasil) group, said disaggregated data was needed to ascertain how many migrant women were affected by domestic violence in Ireland.

“What a Pakistani woman might face will be very different to what a Brazilian woman will need. There isn’t just one solution to this problem. We need to form a partnership so all the voices of migrant women can be heard,” she said.

For support and information contact Women’s Aid Freephone helpline on 1800 341 900

Sorcha Pollak

Sorcha Pollak

Sorcha Pollak is an Irish Times reporter and cohost of the In the News podcast