A national team that includes researchers from Saint Mary’s University in Halifax is starting to publish its findings from a project researching barriers faced by migrant women experiencing gender-based violence.

Their work involved interviews with survivors, policymakers, and frontline workers. The group is also making recommendations for governments, NGOs (non-governmental organizations), and regional and international policy-making institutions.

Dr. Evangelia Tastsoglou, who’s been a professor at Saint Mary’s University since 1993, is the principal investigator of the project titled “Violence against Women Migrants and Refugees: Analysing Causes and Effective Policy Responses.”

In an interview with the Halifax Examiner, she said there are unique vulnerabilities that apply to migrant and refugee women as opposed to women in the general population who are survivors of gender-based violence.

“Those vulnerabilities have to do with structural policies,” Tastsoglou said. “That is, policies and legislative frameworks that, not intentionally, but in reality, make this population of women more vulnerable.” 

The research team also includes Dr. Myrna Dawson with the University of Guelph, Dr. Catherine Holtman, University of New Brunswick, and Dr. Lori Wilkinson, University of Manitoba. The project is funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and Gender-Net Plus Joint Call on Gender and UN Sustainable Development Goals.

The three-part project got its start in 2019, however, work was delayed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

A woman with short reddish hair and glasses, wearing a grey blazer over a white blouse and red scarf, stands next to a wall in front of large plants.
Dr. Evangelia Tastsoglou , a professor at Saint Mary’s University, is the principal investigator with “Violence against Women Migrants and Refugees: Analysing Causes and Effective Policy Responses.”

In the first phase of the work, the researchers interviewed about 40 people across Canada who are involved in policymaking as it impacts migrant and refugee women and the settlement of this population in Canada. Some of those interviewees are also involved in anti-violence policy. 

In the second phase, the researchers interviewed about 49 survivors of violence across Canada, plus another 12 frontline workers to get the full picture of the issue from various standpoints. 

Tastsoglou said from the survivors the team learned there are unique vulnerabilities that apply to migrant and refugee women facing gender-based violence.

This first issue has to do with gaps in policies and inadequate functioning of laws, policies, and practices. The second issue was around access.

“These vulnerabilities have to do with issues of access to services,” Tastsoglou said. “It’s not the lack of services, but it’s an issue of accessing those services that we found lacking in this particular population. That had to do with language, in this case, but it also had to do with the lack of services of adequate interpretation, for example.” 

Tastsoglou said the team learned from the interviews that survivors have experienced other forms of violence beyond physical.

“[Physical violence] may be, indeed, the most common form, but there are also other forms,” Tastsoglou said. “There is some discussion about female genital mutilation, but beyond those forms there are others. Especially for migrant and refugee women, we found psychological and emotional violence, the kind that is more easily dismissed as ambiguous, not really violence.”

“The deprivation of funding, the withholding of funds by abusive spouses, for example, is a major form. Threats, especially for women by spouses, especially for women who may be of precarious status. Or women who may not have access to the complexity of the legal ramifications. Threats by spouse that you will be deported or your children will be taken away.” 

Sharing the findings with a broader audience

Tastsoglou said the team has been presenting its findings and recommendations at conferences and articles.

But they’re also sharing the information with a broader audience. For example, the project has a website, a Twitter account, newsletters that provide updates on the work, and a brochure. Their work was also chronicled in a book titled, Gender-Based Violence in Migration: Interdisciplinary, Feminist and Intersectional Approaches, which was released in November.

One of the project’s recommendations is for the government to broaden public education campaigns at various levels, including in schools, community organizations and throughout the country’s ethnic communities, and beyond.  

“We’re trying to make our research process and findings accessible and known to a broader public,” Tastsoglou said. “We don’t want to limit ourselves to scholarly projects and the academic community.”

As the project notes in its brochure, in 2018, immigration accounted for 82.5% of the population growth in Canada. Between 2009 and 2018, more than 2.7 million immigrants entered the country.

“It’s really important that problems such as gender-based violence are adequately addressed, prevented, and there are adequate interventions and services and support,” Tastsoglou said. 

Reckon with Canada’s history of racism, colonial roots

Tastsoglou said the public has a role to play in helping migrant women who are experiencing gender-based violence, too. The first step is to reckon with our country’s own history.

“Not only with respect to immigration, but also with respect to racism and the colonial roots of this country. The racism, for example, that Canada, as a settler society, has shown toward Aboriginal people is the environment new immigrants are stepping into,” Tastsoglou said.

“It is the result of those structural roots of violence that are interconnected with racism that, in fact, can have a major impact on what’s going on today, a major impact on the interpersonal violence women experience. They experience it at the interpersonal level, but we need to understand the structural roots of it. That has to do with patriarchy, that affects everybody, not just women. It’s a system, a deep-seated structure.”

And furthermore, we also shouldn’t make the distinction between them and us.

“They are not different from us,” she said of migrants and refugees. “The experience of violence is not confined to particular cultures. This is a common misunderstanding. There is this preconception that violence, gender-based violence, is a phenomenon or a problem of other cultures and has nothing to do with the mainstream. This is not the case. It is universal.” 

While Tastsoglou has done research before on gender-based violence from various lenses, she did learn something new through this particular project.

“By doing the research, and because I’m still reading and analyzing the interviews with women, the range of violence that is unfolding in front of my eyes, I didn’t anticipate,” she said. “And also, the connections between public discourse and other cultures, I realized the dangers that such ways of thinking include.”

“For example, when we say violence happens in those cultures … when we engage in those statements, unavoidably there’s a risk here of stirring anti-immigration sentiment. We should be very careful how we are phrasing these things and we should always be mindful of making that separation between them and us, but to see the universality of violence, and how it’s affecting women from different cultures, from different countries.”

To read more about the project, click here.

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Suzanne Rent

Suzanne Rent is a writer, editor, and researcher. You can follow her on Twitter @Suzanne_Rent

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