Unseen barriers for diverse women reporting family violence

Australia’s National Research Organisation for Women’s Safety (ANROWS) states that women experiencing family violence in culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) communities face more barriers than Anglo-Australian women while accessing help.

Experts agree that these barriers, including a lack of English language skills, threats of retaliation, strict religious beliefs or differing cultural understanding of family violence, lack of awareness of legal rights, social isolation and home locations far from support services, shame, and stigma, lead to underreporting and a lack of data, resulting in greater risk for women and a reduced ability to develop culturally-appropriate and systemic solutions to family violence. 

Domestic Violence Victoria defines family violence as a series of incidents where a person exhibits violent and abusive behaviours against their partner, children and immediate family members. These behaviours include physical and sexual assault, emotional manipulation and financial control, which can be normalised in some migrant families or groups. 

More recently, crime data by the Crime Statistics Agency (CSA) showed an overall spike of 6.7% in Victoria’s family violence incidents in the financial year 2019-20. 

However, this data only shows reports of incidents where the violence was reported. We will never know the real numbers for violent incidents taking place in Victoria or across Australia. At best, we can only guess. 

Family Violence and COVID-19

 

As our society comes out of the pandemic and social isolation, we can now look back at the incidents of family violence curing COVID-19 holistically. 

The pandemic that crippled our economy also forced individuals into their homes; including those living with their abusers. This made reporting violence harder. 

Criminal Lawyer at Victoria LegalAid, Khushbu Malhotra says that in March and April 2020 the decrease in the number of cases reported was becoming visible. 

“There was a real drop off in the number of cases that we were getting, and it was an experience that was common to most legal services, which was quite concerning.” 

“Because in COVID-19 people are spending a lot of time at home, if anything we should be getting contacted more often instead of less.”

“What became apparent over time was that there were victims who didn’t have the means to contact us because they were in the homes with their abusers. So, they couldn’t get away from their abusers to make contact,” Ms Malhotra said. 

 

Once the legal services started engaging with different community groups, they became aware that there were people who wanted help. 

Ms Malhotra said victims were contacting their local community groups like churches or temples. 

“People talked about their abuse in their communities. Kids were coming forward to talk about their abuse.”

“In the more recent months, there has been an uptick in the number of people who seek help, and that’s been a little reassuring,” Ms Malhotra said. 

The crime data provided by the CSA is not segregated by communities. Specifically, the CSA’s report does not include any data about family violence in immigrant or CALD communities. 

“In this case, we don’t have data about the country of birth; the only way we can identify ethnicity or CALD,” Ms Malhotra said.

SAARI contacted the CSA to further understand this gap.

“Noting that there are a lot of limitations with this and the Family Incident datasets, we would be unable to provide data about migrant communities for family violence reports (L17’s),” the CSA media team said. 

Why is there no data? Barriers to data collection 

Existing data collection standards for storing information on family violence in CALD communities have made the current statistics disproportionate. 

The 2016 Royal Commission report on family violence revealed the standard data collection procedure related to a person’s cultural background and language is inconsistent across agencies and service providers. The Commission also found that Australian surveys were not specifically designed to capture information on experiences of family violence by people in CALD communities, and that data about language and the need for interpretors, for example, can be unhelpfully classified in different ways by different organisations. 

The Commission's report adds that the “Members of the South Asian communities who migrate to Australia often don’t report domestic and family violence cases.” 

Why is the South Asian community reluctant to report Domestic Violence? 

Ms Malhotra has observed various reasons why victims don’t come forward. 

“There is a lot of shame and stigma attached to being a victim. There is a common misconception that the victim has asked for the abuse.”

“There is a thing that people believe that abusers won’t attack unless they are provoked,” Ms Malhotra said. 

She adds that friends and family have disowned some survivors for speaking publically about family violence. 

“Apart from the old school thought, it is also dangerous to speak out. Some studies show that victims are at most risk when they are planning to leave or immediately after they have spoken out.” 

After filing a police complaint, a perpetrator loses control of the situation. It is then they tend to retaliate violently. 

Ms Malhotra says the feeling of shame, guilt and a fear of being an outcast is also the reason many communities form the non-western countries don’t report the abuse.

 

“Lack of legal knowledge is another reason. Many victims of the migrant communities come to this country on a spouse visa, and they are usually unaware of the law and where to seek help.”

“Also, many of them struggle to speak and write in English, which makes things more complex. They need a translator that takes a lot longer, and the process becomes slower,” Ms Malhotra said. 

Giving an insight into the legal system, Ms Malhotra says the law is not a victim’s best friend. 

“The 2013 Royal Commission into family violence report has 227 recommendations, and they are still underway,” Ms Malhotra said. 

Having said that, Ms Malhotra encourages every person going through abuse to seek help.  

Breaking The Language Barrier 

Jatinder Kaur. Image: Supplied. 

Brisbane social worker Jatinder Kaur guides vulnerable women through the barriers they face to seek help and access mental health services. 

“Because of the language barrier and cultural issues, a lot of these women have managed to find my contact detail and seek assistance,” 

I have been in Brisbane, for 4-5 years now and I have seen a rise in South (East) Asian women trying to leave abusive relationships and trying to seek assistance,” Ms Kaur said.  

Ms Kaur is the manager for Sahara housing in Brisbane that gives shelter to Indian origin women in need without any costs.

“Sahara house is a domestic violence refuge set up in partnership with the Logan Rd Gurudwara. The location is undisclosed to protect these women,” Ms Kaur said. 

Ms Kaur says the property belongs to Brisbane Gurudwara (Sikh Temple) and she is managing it on their behalf. It is a five-bedroom property, and it is always at full capacity. 

“We have never been vacant, so that means many Indian origin women are finally seeking help,” Ms Kaur said. 

 

The house provides a safe environment for women who are seeking alternative housing due to abuse at home. 

“The challenge to this is that many women who are on spouse visa are not eligible for Centrelink, so they have no source of income or financial independence,” 

“So Sahara housing transitions women to get back on their feet and each individual is allowed to stay for three to six months depending on the complexity of their cases,” Ms Kaur said. 

Sahara house has received federal government funding of $231,000 under the Domestic Violence Safe Places program, and welcomes Indian-origin women of all religions who are experiencing family violence. 

Where to go for help 

  • If you feel unsafe or threatened or fearful for yourself, a child or family member, please call 000. 

  • SafeSteps - Victoria's 24/7 family violence support centre, call 1800 015 188. 

  • Lifeline - 24/7 online crisis and suicide support, call 13 11 14. 

  • 1800RESPECT for 24/7 on call and online counselling and support. 

  • InTouch multicultural centre for family violence, for migrant and refugee support and during the COVID-19 pandemic

  • IndianCare for Indian family violence support programs in Victoria

  • Sikh Australian Support for Family Violence in Victoria 

  • Contact Jatinder Kaur (Brisbane, Queensland) at jatinder.kaur@bigpond.com


Sheetal Singh is a freelance writer who holds a Masters of Journalism from Monash University. She is based in Melbourne, and is a regular contributor to SAARI. You can connect with her via LinkedIn

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