We must acknowledge diverse women experience domestic violence differently

A third of migrant and refugee women experienced some form of domestic and/or family violence during the pandemic, reveals a landmark study into the rising rates of domestic violence throughout Australia. The alarming findings indicate the rising urgency of tailored support and resources for migrant women belonging to culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) communities.

The study, titled ‘Safety and Security’, comes after nationwide findings which report that one woman on average is killed every week by her intimate partner. Only one in two women seek help, with four out of five never contacting the police about the incidents or their experiences. In addition, several prevailing factors, any number of which can be experienced by diverse women, such as the fear of losing visas or economic support, the limited availability of interpreters or resources in particular languages, the lack of awareness of interpreter services, cultural and ethnic beliefs or even the multifold layers of intersectionality of gender-based violence, further reduces the instances and methods through which women may reach out and seek help.

Diverse women are veritably disproportionately affected by domestic violence. This is heightened by the limitations in the existing justice system and through the scarce studies and findings on the experiences of migrant and refugee women and their specific barriers in accessing support services.


The lack of data collection of the CALD communities continues to represent an unseen barrier for diverse women experiencing domestic violence, which need to change. As reflected in the Victorian Department of Justice submission to the Australian Law Reform Commission, the current nationwide data pertaining to women from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds is inadequate, noting the importance of data collection towards producing comparable data as the basis of family violence. 

The Safety and Security study, published this year by Harmony Alliance (a migrant and refugee women advocacy organisation) and the Monash Migration and Inclusion Centre, sought to reduce this barrier to data collection. The landmark study represents the largest sample of women from diverse CALD backgrounds in Australian history and uniquely examines the life and safety of the respondents before and during the COVID-19 pandemic. It captures interviews from over 1,400 women and exclusively surveys Australian migrant and refugee women on their experiences concerning domestic violence and is the first to explore the factors of residency and visa status of migrant and refugee women. It explores specific questions about the controlling behaviours related to migration abuse and offers insights into the policy design currently in place. 

While it offers some critical insights, the Safety and Security study represents only the beginning of this important conversation. 

Diverse women experience domestic violence differently

In the Safety and Security study, the surveyed women cited the main barrier in reporting domestic violence to be the belief of its ‘private’ nature and the fear of exacerbating the situation. Women from the sample reflected the attitude of assuming responsibility for the abuse by their staying in their violent relationship. There was also the widespread belief that repentance by the perpetrator can justify the abuse. 

But this minimisation can be reflective of a deeper issue: that coercive and controlling behaviours may not be identified aptly as violent. While physical abuse is the third most common form of domestic violence, controlling behaviours and violence towards others or property are even more common without being as easily identifiable. Violence exists and takes place on a spectrum, and to represent a holistic spectrum of domestic violence, the Duluth model, also known as the Power and Control Wheel, is a sociological theory of power and coercion in domestic violence. Established in the 1980s to shift the focus towards perpetrator behaviour rather than victim-blaming, the Power and Control Wheel has been recognised by The Australian Law Reform Commission as the basis of ‘integrated responses’ of domestic violence in Australia, representing one of the most renowned and successful co-ordinated programs to gain international recognition

However, the Duluth wheel is limited by not considering migrant-specific circumstances. To fill this gap, in an adapted version of the wheel specific to migrants, Peak Centre Queensland Incorporated captures nuances of power and control specific to migrant communities. ‘Using economic abuse’ can be specifically relevant to temporary visa users who exhibit the most experiences of domestic family violence and disadvantages specific to 'migration-related controlling behaviours.’ Unlike the mainstream model, the perpetrator of abuse more commonly includes extended family members and in-laws due to the collectivist structures of the communities.

To dive deeper, we spoke to Dr Nada Ibrahim, Adjunct Senior Research Fellow from the University of South Australia, a researcher and community advocate for CALD women experiencing domestic violence. Dr Ibrahim uses variations of the power and control wheel in her training and highlights limitations of the current Duluth and migrant models. She states the title, ‘migrant-specific wheel’ itself can be misleading when the discrepancy between temporary visa holders and citizens is not considered. This includes further concerns about the non-inclusion of “sexual abuse… [and] role of social isolation.” The title of non-citizen ‘power and control’ can condense the migrant voice incorrectly as a homogenous, singular voice. Where research supports that people from culturally diverse backgrounds are as heterogeneous in attitudes towards family violence as mainstream Australians, the conflation can consequently lead to policies not reflective of the issues in the population intended to serve.

How can we better support these diverse women? 

Dr Ibrahim identifies two main methods to address the current patterns of coercion and control in diverse populations: training frontline workers exposed directly to domestic violence and training of the community. 

Training staff exposed to domestic violence 

Coercive and controlling behaviours are difficult to identify. While Dr Ibrahim concurs that physical violence is ‘quickly recognised,’ this violence is underpinned by other forms of coercive and controlling behaviours, especially ‘economic abuse and isolation.’ Dr Ibrahim states that even frontline workers who work with diverse populations sometimes don’t themselves recognise abuse in the spectrum. For this reason, it becomes important to teach examples relevant to the particular community. Dr Ibrahim claims, ‘When they can’t envision what the examples look like for that particular community, then it becomes difficult for them to relay that information to those they work with or victims of violence.’

Training of the diverse community

Dr Ibrahim stresses the importance of working with the community in developing training programs. There must be rapport-building and effective communication and the content of the specific training program “needs to be underpinned by their [community] worldview… if it doesn’t, they will dissociate from it. A trainer needs to understand that there are multiple worldviews, not only one… where ‘you don’t know, we know’ is immediately a turn-off.” In that initial stage, this may require involvement with gatekeepers who can access the community and discuss accessing information to work with the group of people. There are instances of community training where Dr Ibrahim “used facilitators from their own communities to facilitate their own table discussions.” 

One such training, run by Dr Ibrahim, delivers resources in different languages using ‘strength-based’ terminology. The teaching of facilitators is referred to as ‘upskilling,’ acknowledging that they possess pre-existing skills and the training is designed to translate the ‘strategy, expertise and skills into knowledge.’ Dr Ibrahim devotes half of the training to exploring and vocalising these strengths in the community. The second half addresses ‘challenges’ faced by the community. To further solidify the conversation about challenges, the training is supported by statistics in infographics and content delivery for four different modes of learning: auditory, visual, reading and experiential.

What I found profound about Dr Ibrahim’s approach is the ability to enter the spaces without transferring her own experiences. As a member of the CALD community myself, I commenced reading the Harmony Alliance report with my own set of biases: I had conflated my own experiences of being a second-generation migrant without realising how the degrees of migration, the status of citizenship and perceptions of authority figures and lived experience could affect certain subgroups. There is a tendency to believe that my specific experiences as a minority can be generalised to other members of the same group. This presumption is where the problem begins: we bring a few individuals to represent a heterogeneous, complex group and design policies that can cater to only one subgroup.

So Harmony Alliance’s survey presents ground-breaking research, we are still in the early stages of understanding the unique experiences of diverse women experiencing domestic violence. And as ABC News reflects, domestic violence does not discriminate and its prevalence in diverse communities is ‘often hidden and sometimes even considered… the norm’, particularly for migrant women ‘primed’ for abuse. To heal as a nation in the post-pandemic recovery, we need to prioritise the safety and security of migrant and refugee women and counter the various barriers and gaps currently faced to better understand, support and work towards a reality free from gender-based violence.

Family and domestic violence support helplines

1800 Respect national helpline:
1800 737 732

Women's Crisis Line:
1800 811 811

Men's Referral Service:
1300 766 491

Lifeline (24 hour crisis line):
131 114

Relationships Australia:
1300 364 277

NSW Domestic Violence Line:
1800 656 463

Qld domestic violence Connect Womensline:
1800 811 811

Vic Safe Steps crisis response line:
1800 015 188

ACT 24/7 Crisis Line:
(02) 6280 0900

Tas Family Violence Counselling and Support Service:
1800 608 122

SA Domestic Violence Crisis Line:
1800 800 098

WA Women's Domestic Violence 24h Helpline:
1800 007 339

NT Domestic violence helpline:
1800 737 732

Ramisa is a Queensland-based law graduate, government legal support officer, and writer.