Southern perspectives on domestic violence: Contesting universalisations and reconceptualising social and lived realities of migrant women experiencing multiple marginalisation

16 Days International Blogathon

16 Days banner

This blog post by Dr. Anuj Kapilashrami (University of Edinburgh Global Public Health Unit & Global Development Academy) is part of our series for 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence.

Anuj Kapilashrami is a lecturer in global health policy at the University of Edinburgh. She has an interdisciplinary background and works at the intersections of gender and health politics and development praxis, with particular interest in their interface with human rights and social justice. She has worked with various development actors and social movements in India, the UK and Europe in varying capacity as feminist researcher, academic, and policy analyst. She currently chairs Gender Rights & Development network and convenes Scottish People’s Health Movement.

This piece draws on her ongoing research on intersectional analytics of violence among migrant women, and recent writings on political economy of violence in conflict settings.  


This year’s theme for uniting efforts under 16 days of activism to end gender based violence – Leave no one behind – is an opportunity for deeper reflection on critical gaps in our understandings and responses to gender violence. It calls for raising critical questions on who are ‘left behind’ or excluded from ongoing efforts and policy responses, and how an inclusive agenda for gender violence can be developed. In this blog, I reflect on these gaps in relation to policy responses to domestic violence and their implications for migrant women and girls.

 Acknowledgement of violence occurring in the ‘domestic’ or ‘private’ sphere dates to the ‘second wave’ of feminist struggle and activism associated with ending the social and sexual control of women by men. However, its recognition as an utmost public health and development priority and a human rights concern is relatively new, bolstered by recent endorsement of the 2030 agenda for sustainable development.

Limitations in mainstream discourse

Growing attention aside, mainstream literature and policy debates on domestic violence (more commonly referred to as ‘intimate partner violence’) conceptualise it as a universal phenomenon affecting all societies. These perspectives reflect a unified understanding of relationships as ‘intimate’, context as ‘nuclear household’ or that of ‘stable’ political economies. Such framing overlooks the complex nature of family in non-western societies, specificities (of culture and political economy) in patterns of abuse and help-seeking practices, and deep-rooted patriarchal norms and institutions within which such practices are embedded. Informed by these perspectives, policy and institutional responses to DV tend to focus primarily on presence of laws, availability of legal aid and counsel services, and processes of adjudication. Embedded in a functionalist and distributive paradigm, such focus on distribution presumes that availability of these material goods/ resources will translate into their uptake by those most in need. This paradigm is restrictive in scope as it fails to bring “societal structures and institutional contexts under evaluation”[i]. It also renders dimensions of diversity and structural inequalities invisible by ignoring unequal distribution of and access to both material and non-material goods such as opportunities for development, citizenship among others[ii].

Political conflicts and resulting forced migration have created significant risks for women, as new forms of gendered violence emerge and existing patterns get amplified and intensified for populations moving across borders and socio-economic contexts[iii]. It has also been argued that trans-border movements, while increasing risk of violence, also create spaces for women to highlight violence and gender inequalities hitherto overlooked given the focus on political violence and stability.iii However, there is dearth of analysis on how responsive policies and institutions in countries are to specific positionality, lived realities and needs of migrant women experiencing family abuse.

Complexities & lived realities of ‘domestic’ abuse among migrant women

In many societies, domestic violence is portrayed as a private issue, shaped by unquestioned belief around men’s ‘rightful’ control over women’s sexuality within a marriage. Reporting any act of violence in this context is viewed as “betrayal of family and violation of social cohesion”.iii In the context of political or religious conflicts and social uprisings, this culture of shame and silence has assumed an altogether different proportion. Here, women’s silent coping with domestic violence gets perceived as an act of ‘national resistance’ or resisting further vilification of already vilified communities (ibid).

Furthermore, in southern contexts, violence takes place within an explicit patriarchal familial, social and cultural context. Feminist scholars have helpfully reminded us that there are “many forms of families; inhabiting varied contexts and subject to different pressures”[iv]. Patriarchal structures of family and ideological formations within these are continually re-constituting and manifest differently in shifting contexts. Among South Asian migrant diaspora populations for example, women are subjected to ‘coercive control’[v] from not only the spouse but also members of the extended family, especially female kin such as the mother-in-law[vi]. While older women in these families are subject to the authority of men, they are also delegated authority over younger daughters-in-law to ensure conformity to patriarchal social norms. Besides physical abuse by partner, young women in these settings are often subjected to everyday form of abuse exercised in domains of the economic, social and political (freedom of movement and other liberties).

These micro experiences within families and households are mediated by macro factors such as border security regimes, policy and institutional provisions at the state level. Research has revealed how ‘harmful immigration policies’ and women’s immigration status creates new forms of coercion and control, such as threats of deportation, denial of asylum or separation from families[vii],[viii]. In the context of tightening border security regimes, irregular / undocumented migrants (in both transit or destination countries) have limited access to justice as they not only fear deportation but further violence from state authorities.

Thus, women’s experience of abuse in families must be understood not by virtue of their gender alone but by their position at the intersections of ethnicity, immigration status, migration journeys, class, sexual identity and their specific socio-cultural context. These structural and institutional factors determine women’s access to resources such as financial support, recourse to legal and justice systems that ultimately shape women’s choices and actions within abusive relationships including whether and how to report or ‘exit’. Disregarding these can severely limit the ability of mainstream interventions in reaching those in need. Studies in the field of violence show that VAW is not only a matter of gendered power relationships but is co-constructed with racial and class stratification, heterosexism, ageism and other systems of oppression[ix]. In accounting for these structures, an intersectionality lens can capture these diverse and unique experience of violence experienced by migrant women.

Moving forward

In conclusion, current policy level understanding and conceptualisation of domestic violence is limited on multiple fronts in engaging with the complex nature of family and kinship structures and deep-rooted patriarchal norms within which families, cultures, societies and state institutions are located. The ‘leaving no one behind’ agenda offers an opportunity to examine specific marginalisations that such universal conception creates.

Migrant women are exposed to multiple forms of violence manifested at familial, community, structural and institutional levels. Their levels of isolation and precariat conditions of living in countries with unfair immigration policies also predispose them to further domestic abuse and restrict possibilities of freedom. A transformative and inclusive agenda for addressing domestic violence must therefore adopt a multi-dimensional perspective and an intersectionality lens to understand and act upon the multiple structural drivers that underpin such pervasive violence.

[i] Young, I.M. (1990) Justice and the Politics of difference. Princeton & Oxford. Princeton University Press. pg 20.

[ii] Galston, W. (1980). Justice and the Human Good. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

[iii] Alsaba, K., & Kapilashrami, A. (2016). Understanding women’s experience of violence and the political economy of gender in conflict: the case of Syria. Reproductive health matters24(47), 5-17.

[iv] Ghosh, S.V. (2004) Contextualising Domestic Violence: Family, Community, State. In Rinki Bhattacharya (ed) Behind Closed Doors. Domestic Violence in India. 51-66. Sage. New Delhi.

[v] Stark, E. (2007). Coercive Control. How men entrap women in personal life. New York: Oxford University Press.

[vi] Mirza, N. 2017. South Asian women’s experience of abuse by female affinal kin: a critique of mainstream conceptualisations of ‘domestic abuse’. Families, Relationships & Societies. 6(3) 393-409 (17).

[vii] Anitha, S. (2008). Neither safety nor justice: the UK government response to domestic violence against immigrant women. Journal of Social Welfare & Family Law30(3), 189-202.

[viii] Mirza, N. (2016). The UK government’s conflicting agendas and ‘harmful’immigration policies: Shaping South Asian women’s experiences of abuse and ‘exit’. Critical Social Policy36(4), 592-609

[ix] Varcoe, C., Pauly, B. & Laliberte, S. (2011).  Intersectionality, Justice and Influencing Policy. In Olena Hankivsky (ed) Health Inequalities in Canada. Intersectional Frameworks and Practices. Vancouver. Toronto: UCB Press.