Migrant women with temporary visa status are particularly vulnerable when it comes to domestic and family violence. That vulnerability is intensified when you add technology to the mix.
Technology-facilitated abuse has been recognised as a new breed of domestic violence. Technology-facilitated abuse refers to controlling, monitoring and harassing behaviours using tools such as mobile phones, SMS, email, tracking apps and social media.
In our recent study, we analysed interviews with migrant women who had experienced domestic abuse about their experiences with technology-facilitated abuse. We found while technology can help women to reduce their isolation in a new country, a partner’s control of technology may increase isolation for migrant women, which can heighten the risk of abuse.
Why migrant women are particularly vulnerable
A number of temporary visas – including partner and prospective marriage visas – require sponsorship by partners with Australian citizenship.
Women who come to Australia on these visas are often separated from family and friends, have limited access to money, and hold fears of deportation and losing custody of their children.
They are often also ineligible to access key resources, such as Centrelink and long term housing, that could help them leave violent relationships.
Technology can make a difference, but without independent income, securing a personal mobile or internet connection is challenging.
The control of devices and digital media by abusers restricts women’s opportunities to connect with support networks, to identify their situation as abusive and to seek help.
These factors contribute to and compound entrapment in abusive relationships.
Listening to migrant womens’ experiences
We reported on women’s experiences of these harms in our study. Analysis of interviews one of us (Heather Douglas) conducted with 65 women who had experienced domestic and family violence showed that most had experienced technology-facilitated abuse as part of their partner’s coercive and controlling behaviour.
Here’s what some of the women on temporary visas told us.
Radha came to Australia after her marriage to an Australian citizen was arranged. She used Skype to maintain contact with parents, siblings, and friends overseas, but her partner intermittently disabled Skype as “a tactic to pressurise” her.
He would grant access to the internet when she ceded to his demands, such as when she agreed to make him breakfast. He restricted her access to the internet as a way to control her. She said:
it was just to make me […] do something […] Like, if I don’t listen to him he would just switch off the internet.
Celina met her partner online, and arrived in Australia to live with him on a partner visa. She was given only enough money to catch public transport. He used a mobile phone to monitor her throughout the day. She said:
I was still new to this country and I didn’t have anything. I was using his personal mobile […] He was carrying the office mobile with him all the time […] he could call me and tell me OK you do this and that during the day […] Every day after work he came home, he took the personal mobile that was with me and went to the toilet and browsed the history and everything.
Dara described how her abuser severed her connections to resources and her social circle, which were facilitated by technology. She said:
He totally destroyed […] my laptop. My email accounts, password, he changed, that’s why I can’t access my bank. I can’t see my bank account, anything, he changed everything […] He steal my mobile […] It’s my life this is just […] my contact point.
Angelina highlights how her abuser monitored her use of technology. She said:
[he] checks [the] phone but I never hide nothing. I had a password on his computer, like guest. He always can go and check history on internet.
A key area for development
As these women’s experiences show, lack of access to technology and a partner’s control of devices can heighten geographic and social isolation.
This causes particular problems for migrant women who rely on technology to maintain supportive connections with family and friends in their home country.
While programs have been developed to assist domestic violence survivors to safely use technology, there are no programs targeting migrant women who are new arrivals.
Specialised services for migrant women are limited, and rely on a small number of staff to serve large geographic areas.
So, what can be done?
WESNET’s Safe Connections program works with Telstra to provide smartphones with pre-paid credit to survivors of domestic and family violence, but this program relies on women seeking help.
Given barriers facing those on temporary visas, it would be helpful if their sponsors were required to provide a smartphone, with credit, as part of their sponsorship. Sponsors of prospective marriage visas are currently required to provide an Australian and foreign police check.
It’s important, too, that technology-facilitated abuse is highlighted in programs targeting new arrivals. Women on temporary visas are often required to attend English language courses – information about technology-facilitated abuse should also be offered in this context.
Survivors could also be better protected and empowered by amendments to the Migration Regulations to expand eligibility provisions for permanent residency and to expand eligibility for government support to those on temporary visas. More specialised support services are also needed for survivors on temporary visas.
Heather Douglas receives funding from the Australian Research Council, Future Fellowship FT140100796: Using Law and Leaving Domestic Violence Project. This funding supported the research underpinning this article. Douglas thanks the Immigrant Women’s Support Service for assisting to recruit women to be interviewed for this project and the women who were interviewed as part of this project.
Bridget Harris receives funding from ACCAN and the Australian Institute of Criminology. (I am currently working on grant-funded projects on technology-facilitated abuse and stalking that is not the specific data source for the article or this commentary but informs my perspective).
Molly Dragiewicz receives funding from ACCAN.
(I am currently working on a grant-funded project on technology-facilitated abuse that is not the specific data source for the article or this commentary but informs my perspective)