Immigrant women who suffer from domestic abuse in a new and alien country live hellishly isolated in their own homes. They have no-one to turn to and feel obliged to stay with their partners, who they economically and socially depend on.
Many immigrant women who suffer at the violent hands of their husbands never ask for help nor manage to escape.
Embarking on a new life in a foreign country means that the woman becomes a lot more vulnerable to aggression. The economic dependency which ties the woman to her partner, language barriers and her not knowing the country’s legal system means that she does not find a way out.
The organisation created to help these women, Latin American Women’s Rights Services (LAWRS), deals with an annual average of 400 cases of women in London who have suffered from violence.
The association underlines the contradiction that in terms of emigrating and suffering abuse, women become very easy prey for aggressive partners; yet simultaneously the new environment is a lot more favourable to help the woman leave the circle of violence, compared to Latin American countries.
The director of LAWRS, Carolina Gottardo, and the co-ordinator of the organisation’s violence against women prevention project, Myriam Bell, spoke to The Prisma about these silenced women and the 30 years they have spent helping them.
Myriam Bell: The rates of abuse against women in Latin America are extremely high, and the migratory experience means that these rates are even higher in the country they migrate to. Many women who come here have already suffered violence in their own country, and others who have not been abused before become easy victims for men because their situation becomes very vulnerable. They form part of an invisible, minority community, they do not know their rights, the legal system, or the language, and a very strong dynamic of dependence on their partner forms. They feel isolated and afraid.
If the abuser is not someone who came with them from their original country, and instead they met them here, the woman is equally as vulnerable because she still does not know her rights.
What is the typical profile of the abused immigrant woman?
M.B.: Well, we have cases of women between 20 and 65 years old, but I would say that between 30 and 45 years would be the age group in which domestic abuse is most common.
In the case of women who arrive in the United Kingdom with their partner, having not suffered abuse before arriving, why do men begin to be aggressive towards them? What are the causes?
Carolina Gottardo: The power dynamic in the couple changes when they arrive in a new country. In some cases what we call the threat to masculinity starts to form. They come from Latin America where the man has had absolute control over the woman. Then, when she works to become economically independent while the man starts working for a poor wage, the man consequently feels that his power has diminished after the migratory experience and the only way to recuperate it is to resort to violence.
What is more, the disorientation and destabilisation which the migratory experience produces in all migrants also has an impact on inducing violence. Alongside all this, through being part of an ethnic minority, these people are more isolated.
How do immigrant women feel when they suffer from violence?
M.B.: There are women who come to talk to us, they are scared, and they do not want to act upon it. Women spend years suffering without saying anything. The circle of abuse involves isolating the woman, and many of them do not have the tools to identify that they are in an abusive situation. They know that they are unhappy but they do not have the information to be able to act upon it.
We are surprised with the number of abusive and violent situations which Latin American women find themselves in.
C.G.: They have nowhere to turn to, they don’t know the system. When they were with their family and friends in their own countries they knew how the law worked and they felt more protected, despite the fact that the proportions of abuse in Latin America are dangerously high.
It is very common for men to say to women ‘if you say anything then I’ll turn you in and they will deport you’. The woman just thinks that she does not want to send her children back to Latin America, where they do not have opportunities. She would rather put up with his abuse and keep her mouth shut to ensure herself that she will not be separated from her children.
M.B.: And yet despite all this, women here have more opportunities of getting out of this situation than in Latin America.
M.B.: There are many cases of women who travel here with their whole family, having been abused in their own country. When they start to work here, to earn their own money, to understand how the legal system here can protect them, they realise that they can be the head of the house and get away from the abuser. And therefore they escape the violence.
The financial assistance and protection which we have here does not exist in Latin America. As a result, when victims of abuse migrate to the UK they do not understand the concept of social security, of governmental protection. In this sense, Latin American society is an accomplice of domestic abuse. Men come from Latin America where abuse is accepted. There are no anti-abuse laws there, or if there are, they are not followed.
In the cases we have seen in which men have been reported to the police, the effect has been amazing — because men do not expected it and it terrifies them. In this sense, in terms of implementing the law, the police in Latin America are also to blame. Other public bodies, like the Catholic Church, do not help the situation either. Their message is one of reconciliation, of forgiveness.
M.B.: When there is domestic abuse towards the mother, the children also become victims. Because they hear, they suffer, they make comments. On some occasions when the mother decides to act upon and stop the abuse, the children even act aggressively towards her. It is very shocking for a child to see the police arrive and arrest their father.
What is more, when women manage to break the circle of violence, men use their children to continue to be abusive against them, be it verbally or via economic means.
There are a substantial number of women who never report abuse. What happens to these cases which remain hidden? Are the figures similar to those who do ask for help?
When cannot know exactly, but we suspect that there is a high volume, that there is a large number of cases which we will never know about. Of course, there is an immense percentage which we will never be able to reach out to.
How do women feel when they break from the abuse and carry on with their lives?
M.B.: When they manage to win the right to have a life again, they feel at peace. When they free themselves you see how they learn the language, let their personalities shine, they start to have goals and projects — they develop personally. For the first time they have the opportunity to live freely.
If we were to try and measure the impact which violence against women has…it is so devastating that humanity has surely lost great writers and great artists, because they were victims of abuse and were unable to develop personally.
And the impact which abuse has is not solely psychological and emotional. It affects everything: your capacity to develop personally, your potential, your concentration span, your physical ability to sleep or even eat.
C.G.: The problem preventing the woman from leaving the situation is a lack of information. The majority of the women who we help manage to escape the abuse do so because they see that they have a future and that they can do it. It’s for this reason that the current cuts in public services are now having a devastating effect on women’s security and independence.
Do the men ever stop being abusive?
M.B.: I had a very interesting case. It concerned a woman and a man — they were both undocumented and had three children. The man started to drink and abuse his wife. She came to LAWRS and found out about her rights. She put them down on the table to her husband and told him her options. She told him that if she felt threatened by him once more, she would call the police, because she no longer wanted to be in that situation. She said they would deport him, and that they would deport her. From that moment on, he stopped abusing her.
(Translated by Rosa Elswood)