Gender Shapes Societal Perceptions of Domestic Violence among Refugee Communities

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Domestic violence or Intimate Partner Violence (IPV) has been recognised globally as a serious social, health and human rights concern. This may involve sexual, physical, or emotional abuse. Although domestic violence occurs across all cultural and faith communities (Devries et al., 2013), little is known about how refugee women settled in Australia experience violence (Fisher, 2013). This is because research is scarce and finding reliable data about the extent, nature and dynamics of violence against refugee women is difficult (Fisher, 2013; Vaughan et al., 2015). What is known though is that since the 1980s, the largest refugee populations in Australia have arrived from Africa, the Eastern Mediterranean and South and South-East Asia, regions known to have the highest rates of domestic violence (Vaughan et al., 2015). Studies point to attitudes towards gender as a vital barometer of how refugee communities respond to violence against women (White & Kurpius, 2002). This essay argues that gender shapes societal perceptions of domestic violence among refugee communities, and examines unique conditions that perpetuate gendered aggression against female victims such as pre-settlement violence and trauma, cultural values and beliefs, settlement issues and social pressures.

1. Pre-settlement factors:

Prior experiences of sexual violence and rape make refugee women more vulnerable to further abuse upon settlement in a new country. (Zannettino, 2012).

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  • Women treated as “damaged” and punished for sexual “immorality”. (Chung, Fisher, Zufferey & Thiara, 2018).
  • Community attitudes justify violence and shift blame (Wendt & Zannettino, 2015; Fisher 2013).
  • Victims reluctant to come forward about current violence due to painful memories of the past. (Wendt & Zannettino, 2015).

2. Cultural values and beliefs

Cultural beliefs and values around traditional gender roles and responsibilities are more extreme following war and displacement.

  • Male dominance; masculinity linked to toughness (Mose & Gillum, 2016).
  • Rigid traditional gender roles and the impact of disruption (Fisher, 2013); (Chung et al., 2018).
  • Women’s view of their role as “protector” of family and culture (Wendt & Zannettino, 2015).

3. Settlement issues

Tensions over the loss of status as the family head and financial issues post-resettlement challenge men’s patriarchal beliefs and trigger aggressive behaviours against women.

  • Resettlement difficulties and tensions over changed gender roles (Pease and Rees 2008; Fernbrant et al., 2013).
  • Male dominance and control of wealth (Fisher, 2013).
  • Challenges related to being “the other” in a new country. (Wendt & Zannettino, 2015).
  • Fair hearing is often denied in courts due to the “cultural defence” (Wendt & Zannettino, 2015).

4. Social pressures:

Domestic violence is shielded from public view to protect the community from condemnation in the new country.

  • Women face constant challenges to balance individual needs with those of the community. (Mason & Pulvirenti, 2013).
  • Community connections remain vital post migration (feelings of shame and fear of being ostracised) (Chung et al., 2018).
  • Reluctance to seek help outside the community (fear of being judged by own people as well as the wider community). (Wendt & Zannettino, 2015).


Gender dynamics are central to not only refugee women’s experiences of domestic violence but also how society perceives and responds to abuse. Studies show gendered aggression plays a key role in refugee women’s experiences of war as well as domestic violence in their post-war lives. Women’s suffering is further compounded by community practices of patriarchy and extreme attitudes towards traditional gender roles upon arrival in the new country. In addition, changes in traditional gender roles and power dynamics further heighten the risk of violence against women during acculturation as men attempt to reassert their patriarchal beliefs and authority in their homes. For victims, protecting the community from negative stereotypes and attention takes precedence over concerns for their own safety and welfare.


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