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Sexual violence in Culturally and Linguistically Diverse communities

These case studies look at the kinds of information needed to make a comprehensive plan for women from Culturally and Linguistically Diverse backgrounds who are experiencing sexual violence.

Fear, misinformation and a lack of knowledge about rights in Australia can keep some CALD women unsafe and compound their experience of sexual violence. Asking further questions to ensure that as a worker you understand the situation and responding to address the complex dimensions of cases is crucial to ensuring women from a CALD background can access the services they need. These case studies look at the kinds of information needed to make a comprehensive plan and the responses required.

Sexual violence and visa status: Fear, misinformation and a lack of knowledge about rights

A woman is sponsored by her Australian born fiancé, they have a child together aged almost three. The woman speaks basic, broken English and has lived in Australia for 11 months. She identifies that before she came to Australia she received irregular visits from her fiancé in her country of origin and that his behaviour on those visits was ‘good’. She further states that since arriving in Australia her fiancé has ‘changed’, and that she does not hold her passport or that of her daughter. She has no contact with her community in a remote town in Queensland and contact with family overseas has been difficult and rare. She is left on her own during the day and on a recurring visit to a community health nurse for her daughter, the woman asks for medical attention for herself.

The nurse becomes concerned at the presentation of the woman and an interpreter is engaged over the telephone. Upon cautious questioning and clarification, the woman discloses that her fiancé drinks heavily, takes friends to their home, expects her to ‘entertain’ his friends at any time and collects money from his friends. She describes a situation where she is having sex with her fiancé’s friends against her will. She states that when she expressed her concerns and unwillingness to do what her fiancé and his friends wanted the fiancé began making regular threats that she will be sent back to her country of origin and that he will keep their child in Australia.

The woman tells the nurse that she wants to be a ‘good wife for her Australian fiancé’, that she wants to learn how to do all the things that Australian wives do and ensure he is happy.

Nurse explains issues of confidentiality of her role and the service she represents, and further provides explanations that questions are required in order to support the woman.

  • Do you know the type of visa you hold?
  • If answer is no – Do you have access to any documentation about your visa status in Australia?
  • Whatever the answer – I would like to link you with another confidential service that can give you more information about your immigration status in Australia. 

Notes for consideration: Residential status

  • Consider referral to an immigration and legal advice service for the woman to access accurate information about her residential status.
  • Women from non-English speaking backgrounds often experience threats of being sent back (deported) to their country of origin and losing their children if they tell anyone their situation.
  • The fiancé has been the person negotiating the residential status of this woman and she is not aware or conversant with the reality of her residential status.
  • Knowledge of the immigration status and associated options alleviates much of the fear and often facilitates further disclosures.
  • Women maintain knowledge based on the laws of their country of origin where identification documents are essential.

The woman does not have her passport and believes that she and her daughter are unsafe in the community without it.

  • The nurse reassures the woman that it’s ok and that actions can be taken to retrieve her ID document or obtain another from the relevant embassy or consulate.
  • She reassures the woman that support will be provided to do so.
  • The nurse asks, do you have any more children?

The woman responds that she does not.

Notes for consideration: Fear

  • Keep in mind that fear stops women from making decisions about their current situation. Fears may include some of the following:
    • Being deported.
    • Being separated from their children.
    • Bringing shame to their family for not being the proper wife.
    • Leaving an unknown community where their partner is the dominant connection.
  • Explain that a plan can be put forward about possible actions to be taken to retrieve the child as soon as possible to ensure the safety and reunion with her.
  • Be aware that more children may be involved and that their whereabouts and safety may play a part in disclosure and the action a woman is willing to take.
  • The concerns associated with Child Safety and Family Law need to be addressed and support options provided.

The nurse identifies that information about sexual violence might be needed. She states: ‘Experiences that you have just described are considered in Australia as sexual violence.’
And asks:

  • Sexual violence or sexual harassment is illegal in Australia. Would you like some information on legal and police assistance?
  • You are entitled to assistance regardless of what your residential status is.

The nurse continues to make validating statements and providing explanations such as: ‘In Australia sexual violence is illegal’; ‘rape in marriage is illegal’.

This case study may also reflect experiences of human trafficking for sexual exploitation. Sexual violence and trafficking are not mutually exclusive. It’s important to view case studies through a broader lens to ensure all potential contributing factors are considered and assessed to provide the most appropriate support possible for the individual seeking help.

For more information about resources, support services and referral options available in relation to human trafficking, please visit the Australian Federal Police website, Project Respect or My Blue Sky.

Notes for consideration: Rights in Australia

  • Lack of knowledge of rights and associated options in Australia keeps women in unsafe situations.
  • Lack of knowledge of Family Law, civil matters, immigration status and understanding of rape in marriage.

The nurse continues to ask questions.

  • How long have you been in Australia?
  • Do you have contact with people from your own community?
  • Are you currently attending English classes?
  • If the response to above is no – What is stopping you from attending?
  • If the response is yes – How do you get to the classes?
  • Have you made any friends since you arrived in Australia?

When working to understand the responses to these questions, gender and culture play a role. While these may seem random, continuing to put forward questions of this kind can paint a picture for the nurse where answers lead to understanding the isolation and vulnerability of the woman. The nurse makes sure that she asks enough questions to fully understand the woman’s beliefs around gender roles so that she can interpret her answers appropriately. Most cultures and languages recognise sexual violence, but the woman’s language or culture may not recognise a woman’s right to refuse sexual contact.

Notes for consideration: Misinformed and mislead

  • It’s common for perpetrators to provide inaccurate and misleading information as a way of ensuring ongoing fear and control over the person being abused.
  • Negotiation of safety and consenting sexual intimacy is non-existent in the context of domestic and family violence.
  • Women are often told that in Australia it is normal for wives to engage in sexual activities such as having sex with others and engaging in contact that is sexually exploitative.
  • Women are dependent on their Australian partner for communication, negotiation of systems and learning about their new community.
  • Women are often exposed to lengthy periods, sometimes years, of isolation where the only person they communicate with is their Australian partner or their family in Australia.

Making a comprehensive plan: Responding to a disclosure of sexual violence

This case study looks at the complexity of responding. When working with CALD women experiencing sexual violence, some cases require responses from multiple services across complex areas of law, migration and sexual assault services. These responses can take time, require careful explanation and involve complex service system navigation.

Responding well requires time, service system knowledge and a comprehensive plan that co-ordinates services.

Initial contact

A woman presented to a mental health service for an appointment to see a counsellor who spoke her language. An interpreter was organised by the intake worker to explain to the woman that the service did not have a counsellor from her background but engages interpreters. The confidentiality and the code of ethics were explained in relation to the service and the interpreter’s engagement. The woman was provided with options of a male or female counsellor and an appointment was scheduled at her convenience. The practicalities of getting to the appointment were checked and arrangements established.


During the meeting with the counsellor, the woman expressed concerns about her mental health, disclosed feeling extremely sad and wishing to die. Upon questioning, she disclosed that for the last five years she had been in a same-sex relationship with a person of her own cultural background, further adding that it was only a few months ago that she arranged her documents to come to Australia so they could be together. Her partner had been living in Australia for the last few years, during which time the partner frequently visited her overseas where they established a household and financial arrangement together. The woman explained that she worked hard (in her country of origin) to send money to her Australian partner every month.

Response: Power imbalance

The counsellor points out the power imbalance and dynamics in the relationship.

Upon arrival to Australia, her partner made living arrangements for her with some strangers explaining that it was temporary as she did not have enough money to organise a place for them. The woman was told to follow the instructions of the people with whom she was asked to live, and to do the work they ask her to do.

Response: Barriers and responsibilities

Discussion is held about the vulnerable position of many immigrant women while experiencing different barriers and being dependent on their Australian partners.

The woman discloses that the following day, she was taken to do cleaning jobs from the morning to evening. She did not receive any payments and was informed that the money went directly to her partner.

Response: Legal framework in Australia

The counsellor explains that in Australia there is law regulating work, employers and employee obligations and that it is illegal to make someone work without pay. The woman is offered a referral to legal advice. The counsellor explains to the woman her rights to access free legal advice regardless of her visa status.

The woman goes on to detail how she was told to attend ‘special parties’ where she was expected to undress and try on different ‘sex tools’ designed for both men and women. She was given some pills to ‘help her be more open-minded’ and participate better. Her partner told her that the parties were the quickest way to raise money for their place so ‘they could be together’.

Response: Sexual violence

  • The experiences are validated by discussing the predominance and commonality of other people’s experiences.
  • The impact of abuse and the concept of sexual violence are explained.
  • The counsellor provides information related to options for people who have experienced sexual violence as well as domestic and family violence (sexual violence commonly occurs in domestic and family violence situations).
  • The counsellor explains the authorities’ and community’s position on such matters.

The woman explains that when she expressed her discomfort and unwillingness to continue, her partner threatened to report her to the police for working illegally. The partner further threatened to tell the police about the sex crimes that the woman was committing by participating in the parties.

Response: Safety

  • Issues of safety and appropriate accommodation raised by the woman are responded to and the client is referred to a women’s shelter, specialist services and a migration agent.
  • A prompt follow-up appointment is scheduled with the woman to establish further needs and support.

1800RESPECT is the national domestic, family, and sexual violence counselling, information and support service. If you or someone you know is experiencing, or at risk of experiencing, domestic, family or sexual violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732, chat online via our website, or text 0458 737 732.