Lack of language skills, community support and cultural constraints prevent many immigrant and ethnic women from fleeing abusive relationships and seeking help.
The most recent figures from Statistics Canada show that one quarter of all violent crimes are domestic in nature and in nearly seven out of 10 cases women and girls are the victims.
Although there are no specific numbers for the demographic, shelters in urban centres say they are seeing a growing number of immigrant/ethnic women using their services and fear many others aren’t seeking help because of cultural barriers.
Elmas, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, is an 18-year-old, born and raised in Canada by immigrant parents. She was abused by her parents who, she says, sought to control every aspect of her life, imposing what she calls the lifestyle of a ‘traditional Middle Eastern woman’ on her.
She currently lives in a women’s shelter and is concerned her parents might find her.
[Elmas] fled her parents’ home after they tried to force her into an arranged marriage.
Elmas says that she fled her parents’ home after they tried to force her into an arranged marriage, which she refused.
Even though she was raised in a Middle Eastern culture at home, she valued her Canadian identity and wanted to be in charge of her own life. She says that’s what led to her parents abusing her.
“My parents act as [if] they’re dictators in the house, whatever they say must happen … They have anger issues,” she explains.
Elmas says her parents worried they would become the “laughing stock” of their social circle and that they valued their image in the community above her welfare and happiness.
Although they did not like being married to each other, Elmas says they chose to continue the relationship because divorce was considered taboo. Elmas desired to choose her partner herself, rather than be pushed by a culture she could not understand.
Elmas explains her parents constantly yelled at her and subjected her to harsh criticism. They began controlling her contact with her friends and restricted her social get-togethers.
“It was getting to an extent where I wasn’t having a choice in anything.”
[T]he women who most often don’t seek help are the ones who don’t speak English or French.
A common story
Elmas’ story is one that staff at women’s shelters often hear from immigrant and ethnic women.
Keri Lewis, the executive director of Nelson House in Ottawa, says more than half of the women staying at the shelter are immigrants and/or ethnic women. Lewis says the immigrant women specifically that she sees are often quite isolated due to language barriers.
The trend is similar in Toronto. About 55 per cent of the women staying at Sandgate Women’s Shelter in York region are immigrants and/or ethnic women, according to Jehan Chaudhry, Sandgate’s executive director. Of that number, 35 per cent are of Middle Eastern descent.
The types of cases both shelters handle are similar and include women fleeing physical and emotional abuse, forced or arranged marriages, and honour-based crimes.
According to Chaudhry, the women who most often don’t seek help are the ones who don’t speak English or French and aren’t aware of the services offered by shelters.
Another factor barring women from running to safety is their concern about the impact of being separated from their children. Sometimes a woman who tries to leave her husband gets pressured by her community to stay.
Economic dependency and fear of further victimization are other factors that force immigrant women to stay in abusive relationships.
Priya Kharat, a counsellor at the Students’ Union Wellness Centre at the University of Calgary, found in her research that new immigrant women compare Canadian law enforcement with law enforcement in their native countries, which are often corrupt and unfair, so they fear seeking help.
“What they were doing was wrong, no matter what they said, I knew it was wrong.”
Difficult to leave
Elmas had many second thoughts about running away.
“I felt that it wasn’t right for me to leave if I didn’t give them a full chance,” she says. But her parents didn’t change their approach. They continued to emotionally and physically abuse her, and often would inflict the same pain on her younger siblings.
“It was against my religion,” says Elmas, who is Muslim. “What they were doing was wrong, no matter what they said, I knew it was wrong.”
The day she left is seared into her memory. She remembers feeling nervous and nauseous. “But I knew it was the direction that I had to go on,” she explains.
Elmas had a friend who helped her leave home and find a shelter and a lawyer – support many women do not have. According to Chaudhry, one of the main challenges abused immigrant women face is not knowing how to navigate the Canadian system.
Chaudhry says that’s why it’s important for shelter staff to provide facilities for women based on their specific cultural and language needs.
Sandgate has Arabic and Farsi interpreters, a room designated for prayers and halal food options, for example.
Now that she is at a shelter, Elmas says she feels safe. Her goal is to enrol in university once more and pursue her dream of becoming a nurse.
Her advice for women and girls going through a similar experience is not to run unless they are committed to following through.
“You’ll end up wanting to go back and if you go back, it’ll be even worse than before.”