DAY TEN: Dowry abuse and exit trafficking in the transnational context  

Sara Singh sits down with Prof Manjula O’Connor, psychiatrist, researcher and advocate, to talk about the issue of dowry abuse in the transnational context and the use of exit trafficking by perpetrators to abandon victim-survivors overseas.

Sara Singh and Manjula O’Connor

Featured image: Couple crossing last fingers, reproduced from Shutterstock.

Sara Singh sits down with psychiatrist, researcher and advocate Professor Manjula O’Connor to talk about dowry abuse in the transnational context and the use of exit trafficking by perpetrators to abandon victim-survivors overseas.

In recent years, there has been growing awareness amongst policymakers, service providers and community members in Australia of the issue of dowry abuse. Defined as the use of ‘coercion, violence or harassment associated with the giving or receiving of dowry at any time before, during or after marriage’, dowry abuse is a form of domestic and family violence (DFV) that disproportionately affects women, girls and their families.

Whilst historically the practice of dowry in Indian societies was intended as a means of empowering women and providing them with a measure of economic and financial security as they began a new chapter in their lives as married women, in modern times the practice has been exploited by many individuals who utilise it as a tool for obtaining and/or accumulating wealth and money.

Research has highlighted how men and their families may make excessive demands for dowry and perpetrate various forms of abuse against women and their families to coerce them to accede to their dowry demands. At the same time, perpetrators may abuse women in retaliation for providing what they perceive to be ‘inadequate’ or ‘insufficient’ dowry.

“If the groom or his family believe that the amount of dowry given was not sufficient, then that starts to give rise to all kinds of abuse, including demands and extortion”, says O’Connor, who has spent more than a decade supporting women who have experienced dowry abuse in Australia.

According to O’Connor, one of the main factors facilitating the perpetration of dowry abuse is the power imbalance that often exists between perpetrators and victim-survivors. In transnational marriages, this power imbalance is often heightened, creating further opportunities for abuse. Research has highlighted how globalisation and international migration have generated and reinforced inequalities in power, status and socioeconomic opportunities between countries and regions. These inequalities can have implications for marriage and dowry negotiations.

O’Connor highlights how non-resident Indian (NRI; i.e., an individual with Indian citizenship who has migrated to a foreign country) men living in Australia may be perceived by residents in their country of origin as highly attractive candidates for marriage due to their NRI status and the potential social and economic opportunities that their residency in Australia provides. In these circumstances, NRI men may leverage their Australian residency status to demand greater dowry from women and their families. “The marriage prospect of an Australian resident back in South Asia…for example in India, they are very good…” says O’Connor. “They are seen to be far superior as compared to the local grooms and that increases the value of the groom in terms of the dowry amount.”

In many cases of dowry abuse in transnational contexts, the victim-survivor may also be reliant on the perpetrator for visa sponsorship into the country the perpetrator is residing in. This dynamic contributes to the power imbalance between the perpetrator and the victim-survivor, creating further avenues for abuse. 

O’Connor notes how perpetrators, for there may be multiple, may exploit their position as the victim-survivor’s visa sponsor to demand additional dowry. These demands may be reinforced by threats by the perpetrator to withdraw their sponsorship of the victim-survivor’s visa if the victim-survivor does not accede to the perpetrator’s demands. In this way, perpetrators coerce and control victim-survivors, and instil a sense of fear in them.

O’Connor also highlights cases where the perpetrator has, after receiving large amounts of dowry from the victim-survivor and her family, tricked or coerced the victim-survivor to return to her country of origin, and then abandoned her there and withdrawn sponsorship of her visa, leaving her unable to re-enter Australia. “What I have seen is that there are some grooms who are able to fraudulently send their wife back home under false pretense, and when she’s there, have removed their sponsorship and cut off all connections with her and confiscated the dowry given”, says O’Connor.

This tactic of deceiving or coercing victim-survivors to return to their country of origin, and subsequently abandoning them there, is termed ‘exit trafficking’. Defined as the use of coercion, threat or deception to make an individual leave the country, exit trafficking is a criminal offence in Australia (see s 271.2(1A), Sch 1, Criminal Code Act 1995 (Cth)), with offenders liable to a maximum sentence of 12 years imprisonment if found guilty of the offence.

Despite the criminalisation of exit trafficking in Australia, however, community awareness around the issue remains low. Victim-survivors of exit trafficking are often unaware that the perpetrator’s conduct amounts to a criminal offence and that they can be supported to legally re-enter Australia.

“Most women do not know that they are able to return back to Australia under this particular law which says that exit trafficking is illegal and a criminal offence”, states O’Connor.

Currently, multiple services in Australia assist victim-survivors of exit trafficking. The Australian Federal Police (AFP), for example, investigates cases of exit trafficking, supports victim-survivors, and offers referrals to other relevant support services. One such support service is the Australian Red Cross, which is funded by the Department of Social Services to run a support program for individuals who have experienced trafficking. The ultimate decision around whether a victim-survivor of exit trafficking can stay in Australia rests with the Department of Home Affairs.

As O’Connor notes, more work needs to be done to develop community awareness around the issue of exit trafficking in the context of dowry abuse, so that victim-survivors are aware of their legal rights under Australian law and can access appropriate services for support and assistance. “I think that the most important thing is education of the community and women”, says O’Connor. “It’s very important that [victim-survivors] are given the information that in the case of domestic violence or any threats of trafficking that they should connect with the police and relevant services straightaway”.

Authors’ bios 

Manjula O’Connor is a Psychiatrist with four decades of experience. She is also an applied researcher and a published author. Her primary area of interest for past 10 years has been family violence and mental health in immigrant communities. She chairs the Royal Australian NZ College of Psychiatrists Family Violence Psychiatry Network and is an Honorary Associate Professor at the Department of Psychiatry, University of Melbourne, as well as an Adjunct Professor at the UNSW School of Social Sciences. Manjula co-founded the Australasian Centre for Human Rights and Health in 2012 and advocates against family violence in immigrant communities. Manjula led the public dowry abuse campaign in Australia that led to the inclusion of laws against dowry abuse in the Victorian Family Violence Protection Act and triggered the Federal Senate Enquiry into dowry abuse. She is a member of South Asian Community Ministerial Advisory Council, and aa White Ribbon Advocate. Manjula’s work has been cited in the Victorian Parliament and the Federal Australian Parliament several times. Manjula was a member of the steering group that organised the Second National Dowry Abuse Summit.  

Sara Singh is a Research Assistant at the Gendered Violence Research Network (GVRN), UNSW Sydney. She has a Bachelor of Laws (LLB) and a Bachelor of Criminology and Criminal Justice from UNSW and has worked across various research projects in the fields of criminology and social work. She is interested in research aimed at informing policy development and best practice responses to individuals and communities impacted by gendered violence and has undertaken research in areas such as domestic and family violence, and economic and financial abuse. In 2020, Sara was awarded a UNSW Scientia PhD scholarship. Her PhD research explores perceptions and experiences of dowry and dowry abuse of women from Indian communities in Australia.  

DAY TEN: Whose Success, Whose Story? Indian Women on dependent visa

The narratives of migration experiences are predominantly male-oriented. Women have always been part of the migratory journey, but they are often left unseen and unheard. Read about the story of Rashmita and the violence of dependency perpetuated by the state in the form of a dependent visa.

Tasha Agarwal

Featured image: bastamanography, (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Rashmita Das from Maharashtra is a software engineer and a proud employee of a multinational firm. She is proud because she has always been an achiever and has bagged this reputed position, which paid her lakhs (hundreds of thousands of rupees), in the first round of placement held during the final year of her college. Being an educated and financially independent woman, she had her dreams, aspirations and expectations for herself. Her family arranged for a groom from the same profession, working in the US on an H1B visa offered to foreign workers in particular occupations. She married him and got settled in the US on a dependent visa known as an H4 visa. What followed in the aftermath of her migration was the unanticipated turn of her life, shattering her dreams and confidence. She found that she does not have permission to work on an H4 visa. She was scared and worried about the idea of being confined at home. The restriction on work meant that she would be financially dependent on her husband for every need, which was hard for her to accept. She could not understand why she cannot work when she was skilled enough to work. In fact, in many instances, she would help her husband in his office work at home but yet she was the dependent.

The charm and excitement of the ‘American Dream’ started fading away, and she felt lonely most of the time, confined at home. Family and friends in India would explain to her how lucky she was to be in the US and that she should stop complaining. Her loneliness turned into anger, frustration and depression. Her husband Manav could never understand why Rashmita was always talking about the need to have a job when she could have the luxury of staying at home and enjoying life. But that is not what she wanted. All she was longing for was to have an identity for herself. Manav’s sympathy soon turned into frustration, and there were frequent spells of verbal clashes, which later turned into physical abuse. Later they had a child in the hope of fixing their issues and easing her loneliness. However, things did not change much. The physical and verbal abuse became more frequent, and she started contemplating the idea of getting a divorce. She was devastated to know that in the case of divorce the principal visa holder gets custody of the child. Her visa becomes invalid because the H4 visa holder is dependent on the principal visa holder. She would have to leave the country without her child. In the blink of an eye, she felt that she lost everything. She was forced to continue in an abusive relationship to be with her child.

The narratives of migration experiences are predominantly male-oriented. Women have always been part of the migratory journey, but they are often left unseen and unheard. The story of Rashmita Das resonates with many other women in the US on an H4 visa. Though the magnitude of the issue may vary from case to case, the dependency perpetuated by the state in the form of a dependent visa has impacted many women in the US.

Every year approximately 85000 Indians leave India to join the labour market in the US on an H1B visa. There is a parallel migration stream with an approximately equal number of spouses of these H1B visa holders. Data shows that due to the systematic exclusion of women in the labour market, almost 80% of the H1B visas petitions are filed by men; implying that most H1B visa holders are men and most H4 visa holders are women (USCIS, 2019, Balgamwalla, 2014). These H4 visa holders, despite being equally skilled and educated, are legally constrained from entering the labour market. Their immigration to the US and their continuity of stay are contingent on the principal visa holder, i.e., H1B holder. The visa restricts them from possessing a social security number or even a bank account which makes women completely dependent on their husbands.

The vulnerable space in which a woman is pushed due to such a visa is exploited by many men to perpetuate violence. There have been increasing cases of physical and verbal abuse, depression, and anxiety among several thousands of women who are forced into dependency by the state. Ironically, the US was the first country to organise a national movement for women’s rights in 1848 yet after several decades, a large chunk of women have been deprived of their right to live with dignity.

The state perpetuates the patriarchal notions of social roles by assigning superior positions to men through immigration laws. Despite the US being a land of opportunity, there is no level playing field within the immigrant household. On the one hand, H1B visa holders have ample scope to excel in their careers; on the other, their married women counterparts are pushed into the confines of domestic spaces where they can be trapped in abusive relationships.

While an article on 24th February 2009 from Forbes read ‘Indian Americans: The New Model Minority’ applauding Indian immigrants in the US for their achievements and successes. But the question to ask is–whose achievements and whose successes are we talking of? Whose success stories are we extrapolating under the banner of ‘Indian’s success story’?

Author’s Bio

Tasha Agarwal is presently working as a Consultant in the Ministry of External Affairs. She has a PhD degree from the School of Development Studies, Ambedkar University Delhi and an M. Phil degree in Educational Planning and Policy from NIEPA. Her research interest lies in the field of international migration and gender, refugees and education. She has been associated with several national as well as international projects by Stanford University, SAAPE, and NCERT. She has also worked with national-level education bodies to develop innovative learning tools such as audio-visual content, comic books etc.

DAY NINE: Missing Girls: Displacement, Disconnection and Criminalisation 

In this powerful piece, the authors reflect on missing women, seen as ‘runaways’ in Australia. These women’s experiences and the reasons for running away, are not questioned at all and seen as offenders who leave home as an act of rebellion in the first place. When they are found, it is usually because they have been in contact with the criminal justice system, which further disrupts their access to welfare and their community through incarceration.

Phillipa Evans, Peita Richards, BJ Newton and Maree Higgins

Featured image: shoe on train tracks, reproduced from iStock

Gendered research into contact with the criminal justice system overwhelmingly focuses on contextual vulnerabilities, life experiences, and the issue of recidivism versus rehabilitation for male offenders. Yet in Australia, statistics show that the number of women in contact with the criminal justice system is increasing. Between 2009–2019, the prevalence of women detained in correctional facilities rose by 49%, and the number of women in contact with the criminal justice system for violence-related offences increased from 38% to 46% between 2016-2017. Concerningly, many women in prison have experienced gender-based violence throughout their lives and are at increased risk of ongoing victimisation once they are released from custody. Despite this, research into female offenders, and how they have come to enter the criminal justice system, is still largely overlooked.  

Research has identified that girls and young women are more likely to come in contact with the criminal justice system after being reported missing, or ‘running away’. Studies in the United States confirm that as little as one-fifth of missing girls are reported to authorities, and Australia records an average of 38,000 missing persons each year.

So, we pose the question: where are the missing girls?  

We know that between 40–60% of missing persons are aged 13–17 years at the time of reporting. Previous research has found that girls are more likely to have contact with the criminal justice system after they are reported missing or classified as ‘runaways’ from Out-Of-Home Care, in which Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander girls are over-represented.

What we seek to know is: why are these girls only ‘found’ through contact with the criminal justice system? 

Displacement from family, community, and culture are significant factors when considering the experiences of, and decisions made by, missing girls. For these girls – often classified as ‘runaways’ – the period of time in which they are classified as ‘missing’ is fraught with challenges and fragmented service provision and engagement. Exposure to high-risk situations, such as homelessness, substance use, and exploitative sex work heightens their vulnerability. Engagement with service agencies may be sporadic or non-existent until after initial contact with the criminal justice system is made, further exacerbating displacement and disconnection.  

The term ‘runaway’ conjures up a mix of emotions regarding young women, often leading to stereotyping that their behaviour is an act of rebelliousness, or that they have a clear choice to leave home. The reason that girls run away is complex and may be due to reasons including child sexual abuse and family and domestic violence. When a girl runs away and cannot be located, she is classified as a missing person. However, when she re-emerges or is ‘found’ through contact with the criminal justice system, this welfare approach is disrupted. 

In these cases, girls and young women are instead labelled as ‘offenders’, and their displacement from family, community and culture is often reproduced through incarceration. Their lived experiences in those missing years are often ignored or treated as a mere afterthought during sentencing.   

It may be that the very nature of being classified as missing is more criminalising for girls than it is for boys with similar early life experiences, potentially including removal from the family of origin and placement in Out-Of-Home Care. The complexities of lived experience for girls and young women who go missing have significant implications for both their safety and well-being over the short and long term.

 Specifically, there is heightened concern about girls and young women with lived experience of sexual abuse and/or neglect being further exploited during the years in which they are formally missing. Of particular concern is their exposure to broader social challenges, such as homelessness, drug use, targeted sexual exploitation, and accidental deaths.  

There is uncertainty about how government and non-government service providers are best able to respond to these girls and young women, both after they appear in the criminal justice system, and through interventions that will prevent the commencement of offending in the first instance. Understanding missing girls’ experiences, including the impact of displacement and contextual vulnerability such as experiences of gender-based violence, will drive better outcomes and enable more meaningful engagement with partners, families, communities, and women themselves.  

Authors’ Bios 

Dr Phillipa Evans is the Chief Investigator on the ARC linkage grant – Missing Girls: From childhood runaways to criminalised women. A Senior Lecturer in the School of Social Sciences at UNSW, Phillipa worked for over 18 years as a social worker in clinical, policy and academic roles across a variety of contexts including youth justice, child protection, and mental health. Phillipa is also currently working on an ARC linkage grant examining the effectiveness of a training and coaching program for youth justice custodial staff. This study aims to increase the interpersonal and behaviour management skills of youth justice staff through specialist training, coaching and supervision. 

Peita Richards is a social psychologist with an interdisciplinary academic history across justice studies, politics, and law. Having recently completed her PhD, Peita joined the School of Social Sciences at UNSW as the Research Associate for the ARC linkage grant – Missing Girls: From childhood runaways to criminalised women. A proud Wiradjuri woman, and former political analyst, Peita is dedicated to solution-based research. You can tweet her @peitalr  

Dr BJ Newton is a proud Wiradjuri woman and Scientia Senior Research Fellow at the Social Policy Research Centre, UNSW Sydney. BJ’s research focuses on working in partnership with Aboriginal organisations to build evidence and support Aboriginal families interfacing with child protection systems. Her current research, Bring them home, keep them home, is the first of its kind to investigate the rates, outcomes and experiences of successful and sustainable restoration for Aboriginal children in out-of-home care. 

Dr Maree Higgins is a Senior Lecturer and convenor of the Social Work Honours Program and UNSW. Maree undertakes research on human rights priorities of people from refugee backgrounds, those with disability, older people, and missing girls. She is an Associate of the Australian Institute of Human Rights and is affiliated with the Forced Migration Research Network, the Kaldor Centre, and the Gendered Violence Research Network. You can tweet her @MareeHiggins  

DAY EIGHT: Bodies at the Border: reflections on LGBT+ Ugandan refugees in Kenya 

Through their research project ‘Bodies at the Border’ funded by the British Academy, Bompani, Camminga, and Marnell reflect on the different forms of care, religious experiences, and support that are needed by Ugandan LGBT+ displaced communities in Kenya.

Barbara Bompani, B Camminga, John Marnell

Featured image credits: Nature Network in Nairobi

The last decade has witnessed a sharp rise in homophobia and transphobia in Africa, including the adoption of discriminatory legislation and the emergence of government-initiated crackdowns. This politicisation of sexual and gender rights is often presented as a moral crusade[1] and is enacted with the support of many religious and cultural leaders across the continent[2]. Consequently, an ever-increasing number of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT+) people are leaving their homes to seek protection elsewhere.  

Image credits: John Marnell
Ugandan sexual discrimination and LGBT+ displacement in Kenya 

In the aftermath of the passing of the Anti-homosexuality Act (AHA) in March 2014 in Uganda[3], the first group of LGBT+ Ugandan asylum seekers in Kenya made themselves known to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

Their existence highlighted a significant geo-political tension: Kenya’s domestic legislation does not recognise LGBT+ rights, while the UNHCR – through its mandate of international protection – does.

To resolve this, the UNHCR established what can be understood as a parallel legal regime, providing financial support and safe housing for LGBT+ claimants and fast-tracking them for resettlement. Expedited resettlement meant that the government and local communities were not too concerned with the lasting cultural impact of recognising these refugees and were even less concerned with providing support. However, in the wake of COVID-19, the heightened securitisation of borders in the Global North and diminishing places abroad for resettlement, these refugees must now remain in Kenya for extended periods. In the absence of access to the already strained structures of support which non-LGBT+ refugees rely on, such as in-country ethnic communities, religious groups or family, findings from our project suggest that LGBT+ refugees have had to create and foster new forms of care with what little resources they have available to them. 

Home and homemaking  
Image credits: Nature Network in Nairobi

A strategy in which this is visible is the self-funding of safehouses. Unable to reside in Kenya’s refugee camps due to discrimination[4], some LGBT+ refugees and asylum seekers in Kenya have been able to team up and rent houses on the outskirts of Nairobi through self-organisation and fundraising on platforms such as GoFundMe[5]. Difficult to reach, behind high walls, and often at the very end of dirt roads with a distinct absence of neighbours, these spaces have become critical safe havens for the LGBT+ refugee community in an otherwise largely hostile environment.

Safe houses, however, are not just homes where residents wait out their time. They are microcosms of possibility as they transition from meeting spaces to arts-based therapy centres to makeshift churches to ballrooms to boardrooms to fashion houses. Crucially they are places of nurture and community care existing only as long as the period of time between police raids or the next eviction by a suspicious landlord[6].

Image credits: Nature Network in Nairobi
Spirituality and religion 

Another important care strategy in the everyday lives of Ugandan LGBT+ refugees, a community coming from a highly religious country, is the spiritual and religious sphere. This can be complex given religion is in part a cause of their displacement[7], but at the same time something which they do not always abandon; although how their understand and practice their faith may transform. Religion in this context is neither entirely ‘positive’, a source of social capital as often articulated by development and migration studies[8], nor ‘negative’, a critical component of the worldview that institutionalises and normalises homo- and transphobia[9],

These complexities mean that displaced people may reject their own religion or develop more personal forms of spiritual identity without joining formal religious communities. Most of the displaced LGBT+ people who participated in this project described themselves as remaining religious but divorced from organised religion because of the fear of being exposed again to trauma or further persecution.

Individual prayer and reading of sacred texts in their transitional (but often lengthy) time spent in Kenya were described as an opportunity to rebuild a joyful relationship with God, something that ‘was taken away from them’ in their country of origin, but they remained distant from and wary of attending churches and mosques.  

Pushing our thinking further  

The transient and precarious situation of Ugandan LGBT+ displaced people in Kenya create conditions that necessitate the building of different forms of care and support that in some ways challenge conventional ideas of family, social networks, and of religious experience with regards to those communities. This gives us fresh perspectives on new forms of kinship, domesticity and care within displaced communities affected by sexual and gender-based violence.

[1] Kintu D. 2018 The Ugandan morality crusade: the brutal campaign against homosexuality and pornography under Yoweri Museveni. Jefferson: McFarland & Co.

[2] van Klinken & Chitando E. (eds) 2016. Public Religion and the Politics of Homosexuality in Africa. London: Routledge. 

[3] Nyanzi S. & Karamagi A. 2015 ‘The social-political dynamics of the anti-homosexuality legislation in Uganda’. In Agenda. Empowering women for gender equity, vol. 29, issue 1, 24-38. 

[4] Camminga, B. 2020. ‘Encamped within a Camp: Transgender Refugees and Kakuma Refugee Camp (Kenya)’. In Invisibility in African Displacements, edited by Jesper Bjarnesen and Simon Turner, 36–52. London: Zed Books.

[5] Camminga, B. 2021. ‘“Go Fund Me”: LGBTI Asylum Seekers in Kakuma Refugee Camp, Kenya’. In Waitinghood: Unpacking the Temporalities of Waiting and Irregular Migration, edited by Christine M. Jacobs, Shahram Khosravi and Mary-Anne Karlsen, 131–49. London: Routledge.

[6] Camminga, B. 2020. ‘Encamped within a Camp: Transgender Refugees and Kakuma Refugee Camp (Kenya)’. In Invisibility in African Displacements, edited by Jesper Bjarnesen and Simon Turner, 36–52. London: Zed Books.

[7] Bompani B. 2016. ‘For God and for My Country’. In edited by van Klinken A. and Chitando E. Public Religion and the Politics of Homosexuality in Africa. London: Routledge. 

[8] Sanchez M. et al. 2019. Immigration Stress among Recent Latino Immigrants: The Protective Role of Social Support and Religious Social Capital’. In Social Work in Public Health, vol. 34, issue 4, 279-292. Hagan J. & Ebaug HR. 2003. ‘Calling upon the Sacred: Migrants’ Use of Religion in the Migration Process’. In International Migration Review, vol. 37, issue 4, 1145-1162. Saunders J. et al (eds) 2016. Intersections of Religion and Migration. Issues at the Global Crossroads. London/New York: Palgrave MacMillan.

[9] Kaoma A. 2018. Christianity, Globalization, and Protective Homophobia: Democratic Contestation of Sexuality in Sub-Saharan Africa. London: Palgrave-MacMillan. 

Authors’ Bios

Bodies at the Border: Hostility, Visibility and the Digital Voices of LGBT+ Refugees in Kenya  is a research project generously funded by the British Academy (January 2021- December 2022) that brings together researchers from the Centre of African Studies at the University of Edinburgh and from the African Centre for Migration and Society at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.  

Barbara Bompani (she/her) is a Reader in Africa and International Development at the Centre of African Studies at the University of Edinburgh. Her work focuses on the intersection between religion, politics and development in Africa and on the many ways religion shapes the lives of African citizens.  

B Camminga (they/them) is a postdoctoral researcher at the African Centre for Migration and Society at the University of the Witwatersrand. They work on issues relating to gender identity and expression on the African continent with a focus on transgender migrants, refugees and asylum seekers.  

John Marnell (he/him) is a researcher and PhD candidate at the African Centre for Migration and Society at the University of the Witwatersrand. His research uses creative methodologies (visual, narrative and embodied) to explore the everyday lives of LGBTIQ+ migrants, refugees and asylum seekers.  


DAY EIGHT: Livelihoods Collectives – A safe space for refugee women in India 

Hamsa Vijayaraghavan from Migration and Asylum Project writes about refugee women’s needs to find a safe space and the small livelihoods projects, such as Silaiwali, a local social enterprise that employs refugee women as artisans.

Hamsa Vijayaraghavan

Featured image: Refugee women creating handmade artefacts as part of the small livelihoods project  by Hamsa Vijayaraghavan

“We are all refugees here, our lives in this country are difficult. When we come out of our homes to work at the centre, we sit and laugh and work together, and learn from each other…it makes our troubles lighter”. 

In India, the world’s largest democracy, a country that has prided itself on its warm treatment of its guests, refugees continue to be persona non grata. In the absence of a specific law that regulates asylum, they are simply “illegal aliens” with no legal status or socio-economic rights. Women make up over half of the total refugee population and are even more vulnerable within this group; they are often traumatized by past experiences of sexual violence and conflict during transit. It is often only much later that they find the words to speak about their past, if at all. In the aftermath of the global pandemic that has increased the burdens of isolation, increased the risk of exposure to sexual and gender-based violence, and reduced access to support networks and services, these women are now more vulnerable than ever.  

The most immediate challenge for refugee women is that of providing for their families. For many of these women, they find themselves to be in a position of caretaker as well as provider for the first time. Many arrive in India as single heads of families, having been forced to flee their countries after the death or disappearance of male family members. The factors that drive sexual exploitation – engendered patriarchal norms, poverty, low literacy, lack of human rights protections, and personal history of gender-based violence – are all amplified for refugee women. There have been recorded instances of refugee women and girls forced into survival sex in the country of asylum due to the almost total unavailability of work avenues for them.  

Against this backdrop, the opportunity to find a safe place where they can earn a decent living is an almost unachievable dream for these women. Most of these women, raised in conflict-ridden countries, have not had the opportunity to go outside the house to earn the formal qualifications that almost all employers in India ask for, nor can they demonstrate the work experience that might help them make up for lack of a degree nor the language skills to articulate their suitability for available jobs. However, at my organisation, Migration and Asylum Project, we have the opportunity, as legal advisors, to interact closely with them; we see that these are women who have survived despite the odds, and need but a small push in the right direction to thrive.  

In the course of our work, we have spoken to over 2000 survivors of gender-based violence, women who have risen above their trauma and are now raising their families in a foreign land that offers so little by way of support, driven by nothing more than sheer determination to ensure that their future children have better opportunities than they were given.

We hope to encourage this spirit with a very small livelihoods project that we run in collaboration with Silaiwali, a local social enterprise that employs refugee women as artisans to produce high-quality handmade artefacts out of waste fabric sourced from clothing manufacturers.  

Our objective simply is to provide a healing space for the women, a place that they can come to for safety and comfort, while also ensuring that they can engage their own creativity and strengths to acquire the skills and earnings that they need to live with dignity and to rebuild their lives, one stitch at a time. Many of these women already come with skills in traditional crafts such as embroidery, handed down from previous generations. At Silaiwali, they get to use their talent to provide for their families and also receive training to enhance ancillary skills such as tailoring, business and management.  

Needless to say, most are thankful to step out of their homes – often cramped spaces with too many people and too few resources – and into a space where they are amongst friendly faces that know what it takes for them to show up and carry on. There are also many empirical studies that suggest a mindfulness practice such as embroidery can have a therapeutic effect on the mind and body, and is effective in reducing the stress, anxiety and depression induced by severe trauma.  

This project, small in scale and huge in impact, has been no less gratifying for us than for the artisans. It has taught us that, while we tend to speak in numbers about refugees, there is an individual story of resilience – made up in many words, in many languages – behind each one. The satisfaction provided by seeing a finished product emerge from this exercise is definitely worth every bit of time and effort we put into ensuring we can all keep at it, artisans, program staff and funders alike.

Author’s Bio

Hamsa Vijayaraghavan completed her law degree from India and her Masters from the University of Rouen, France. She has nearly 2 years of work experience with the UNHCR field office in India. Hamsa has previously worked with Bail for Immigration Detainees and with Refugee and Migrant Justice, both in London. She has also worked as a consultant with the Ministry of Women and Child Development of the Government of India and UNICEF on drafting child protection laws. Hamsa is currently the Chief Operating Officer at Migration and Asylum Project, India’s first law centre dedicated to the study of forced migration issues, where she manages all the refugee legal assistance programmes including those for legal representation in the UNHCR asylum project. She has expertise in dealing with claims involving displaced women and children.