Content warning: This article discusses domestic violence.
In April 2020, amidst the height of uncertainty surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic and stay-at-home recommendations in countries around the world, increased rates of domestic violence were being reported in the Canadian media. Federal Minister for Women and Gender Equality Maryam Monsef described the temporary closure of support services and self-isolation measures as a “powder keg” for survivors.[i]
It’s a conversation to which Sheridan College professors Dr. Ferzana Chaze and Dr. Bethany Osborne are particularly attuned, given their research experience and professional backgrounds working with vulnerable populations.
“While it’s alarming that domestic violence rates are increasing, it’s not an issue specific to the pandemic,” says Dr. Osborne, who is a faculty member in Sheridan’s Centre for Teaching and Learning. “We just happen to be talking about it more broadly right now and appreciating the underfunding of vital supports.” Dr. Chaze, who teaches in the School of Community Studies agrees, adding: “It’s essential these discussions continue beyond this moment in time.”
Teaming up with Ryerson University professor of social work Dr. Purnima George, family lawyer Archana Medhekar, and seven Sheridan research students, Dr. Chaze and Dr. Osborne are doing just that – adding to the discourse with their recently published digital book titled Domestic Violence in Immigrant Communities: Case Studies.
Case studies provide insight to the complexity of domestic violence for immigrants
The publication, which was made possible in part by a Sheridan Scholarship, Research and Creative Activities (SRCA) Growth Grant, includes the anonymized summarized legal case documents of 15 survivors of domestic violence that were before the Ontario courts within the past 10 years. All are women, and all are immigrants. Each case reveals a troubling story that is highly complex and underscores the intersectional nature of the oppression faced by immigrant women experiencing domestic violence.
“Systems are not adequate. And when systems are stretched thin, there’s less accommodation for individual circumstances. Domestic violence does not look the same for every person, and particularly not for immigrant women.” – Dr. Bethany Osborne
“Not a lot is known about the prevalence of domestic violence against racialized immigrant and refugee women specifically,” says Dr. Chaze. “But factors like real or perceived precarious immigration status, which often creates psychological barriers to freedom, a lack of knowledge about Canadian systems and processes, isolation due to loss of family in their home country, economic stressors related to lack of employment, and even change in climate and diet, can create stressors for the family and trigger interpersonal conflict.”
Even for the seasoned Sheridan researchers, processing the disturbing contents of the legal documents individually, let alone collectively, was emotionally jarring. Each describes repeated physical and psychological violence faced by the survivors. They felt it important to preface the case studies with a note to readers encouraging the adoption of an informed lens to better understand, without judgment, why women may have endured violence and delayed accessing supports.
Approaching this highly sensitive topic using real stories from immigrant women survivors provides an invaluable teaching tool for students who are training in support worker and legal roles. The studies provide context, share the legal and personal outcome for the survivor, and include guiding questions to help frame the case study for pedagogical purposes.
Culturally-sensitive, trauma-informed supports for survivors are crucial
Domestic violence is not exclusive to one group, emphasizes Dr. Chaze, but despite that, immigrant women require supports that are culturally sensitive to be accessible and serve their purpose. A lack of support is a pervasive issue that Dr. Osborne believes is in part due to an absence of wrap-around supports and the barriers persistent due to institutional racism that many survivors who are immigrants face.
The book explains how strategies for culturally-informed interventions need to be part of the solution. This can include access to legal or shelter supports in the survivors’ native languages. “These types of support can be a lifeline to immigrant women,” says Dr. Chaze. “They are relatable and make women who are facing immense challenges feel accepted and understood.”
Another pervasive issue related to domestic violence is a significant under-resourcing of the sector. “Systems are not adequate,” says Dr. Osborne. “And when systems are stretched thin, there’s less accommodation for individual circumstances. Domestic violence does not look the same for every person, and particularly not for immigrant women. There’s never one solution.”
Sheridan student researchers played an integral role
The work-study program at Sheridan was an invaluable opportunity for students to gain research experience in their fields of study. Two international students (who are ineligible for work-study) were also selected to participate, thanks to SRCA Growth Grant funding. “We felt it was important to create opportunities specifically for international students considering the research is focused on immigrants,” says Dr. Osborne. “We felt they could add value to it from their own perspective and space.”
Katrina Chahal, Terri Neufeld, Denise DeJong and Jaspreet Kaur came to the project from the Social Service Worker program, and Kruttika Nene, Maria Aosaf Dawd and Seraphina Seuratan were Paralegal students. They assisted with the literature review, summarizing information from hundreds of pages of legal documents for the case studies and digital dissemination of the book.
“These types of support [culturally-appropriate] can be a lifeline to immigrant women. They are relatable and make women who are facing immense challenges feel accepted and understood.” – Dr. Ferzana Chaze
Nene relished the opportunity to take her theoretical knowledge from paralegal studies to a practical setting. She was responsible for simplifying legal components of the book and compiling a list of vital resources for survivors. “I was particularly interested in this research opportunity as I was an immigrant myself,” she says. “I understand the value of family when attempting to start a new life away from home. If English is not the first language, legislation, precedents and legal decisions can be complex and intimidating.”
Kaur helped with copy editing and to transferring the book to the ecampus Ontario Portal. She was drawn to the opportunity to work with respected Sheridan faculty researchers and better understand the issue of domestic violence from a social worker perspective. “As an international student from India, I am very passionate about supporting and empowering newcomers to Canada,” she says.
“This research endeavour would have been impossible without our students,” says Dr. Chaze. “The experience was knowledge mobilization at its best.”
Next steps to maintain the discourse
Following a successful soft launch in July 2020 (the book has been viewed more than 1,000 times), Dr. Chaze and Dr. Osborne are looking ahead to virtual events in the fall that will target people who work with survivors of domestic violence or are teaching or learning in community studies and related programs.
As noted in the chapters that precede the case studies, women who agreed to have their stories included did so because they wanted them to help other women. “And that is the strength of this publication, says Dr. Osborne. “We’ve created a teaching tool that can help shape practices and support services differently to meet the needs of immigrant women.”
Dr. Chaze views the case studies as a way for survivors to share their truths and reclaim agency, which may have been lost in years of living in an abusive household. Dr. Osborne adds: “We have to remember too, that these are women who got out of their violent situations,” she says. “Unless we implement the appropriate supports, many will not see a meaningful opportunity for change to their circumstances.”
Pictured at top of page: Cover image from Dr. Chaze and Dr. Osborne’s research. Source: “Little bird’s escape out of birdcage” by Francescoch, 2017.
Story written by: Keiko Kataoka, Digital Communications Officer at Sheridan.