Mengzhu Fu, Youth Coordinator for Shakti discusses the barriers migrant women and girls of Asian, Middle Eastern or African descent in New Zealand often face to seeking help after experiencing sexual violence. Aside from language and culture differences, they have often lost the security of the social networks they had back home.
This article discusses sexual harm.
In 2014, I interviewed a colleague who worked with youth survivors of family violence for my thesis. She told me a story of a young woman who was being sexually assaulted by her uncle. When the young woman disclosed her experience to her mother, her mother told her to keep quiet because they were dependent on him for their visa.
While the #MeToo movement has gained momentum around the world, including many parts of Asia, we also need to understand the ‘double silencing’ of migrant women survivors of sexual violence in Aotearoa New Zealand.
To say “#MeToo, I’ve also been sexually assaulted and harassed,” is difficult enough for anyone. But for migrant women of colour speaking up and disclosing experiences of sexual violence is often more complex than for mainstream women or Hollywood actresses.
Rape culture (that is an environment in which rape is prevalent and sexual violation is normalised) crosses all cultures, but for migrant women and girls of Asian, Middle Eastern of African descent, there are often additional barriers to disclosure and seeking help.
Aside from language barriers and culture differences, they can experience social isolation from leaving behind their social networks or extended family back home and can find it hard to make social connections in a new country.
Experiencing sexual violence adds further emotional distress when the survivor is shamed, blamed or silenced.
Culturally and linguistically appropriate services for migrant and refugee background women and youth are a crucial lifeline for many of us.
The organisation I am part of, Shakti Community Council, has supported another young woman, who at 14, was raped on her way home from school in New Zealand. When she told her parents about this, they forced her to marry the rapist. While her marriage was not legally registered, it was still culturally binding.
In a culture where sex before marriage is taboo and virginity before marriage is prized, the parents probably thought they were doing their daughter a favour by getting her married to avoid the shaming from the community.
When she gave birth to her first child at 15 years old the hospital did not investigate whether she had been raped. Despite New Zealand law stating that young people under 16 years old cannot legally consent to sex!
If they had intervened then and she had been offered an option to get out, maybe she would not have to suffer three more years of rape and violence until she was finally able to leave at age 18.
In the first story, the system of immigration makes migrant women much more vulnerable, and much less likely to report violence and abuse due to the fears of deportation. The uncle had control over the family because he had the power to determine whether they could stay in the country or not.
Too many migrant and ethnic minority women do speak out and seek help. That’s why services that specifically cater to ethnic minority women are so important, and why we need to support them.
We need the government to to put their resources toward ensuring the freedom and safety of everyone in Aotearoa New Zealand.
Our schools need compulsory consent education. Consent should also be culturally sensitive. It should not just be about sexual relationships or interactions, consent needs to be respected and understood also in terms of marriage and other matters that could be a violation of human rights.
The good news is that at Shakti Youth we are seeing a generational change with the children of migrants who are ready to break the taboo and talk more openly about consent and rape culture. I am one of those people.
We need you to support our efforts to prioritise prevention and intervention, to break the cycles of violence for good.
I recently returned from reporting at the UN on the status of immigrant women’s rights in New Zealand at the CEDAW (Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women) 70th Session. In good news, they released their Concluding Observations that also recommends that the government ensures culturally sensitive sexual health education and support services for domestic and sexual violence, especially for Māori and migrant women.
The world is watching — join us to demand consent education in schools, resourcing for culturally specific support services, and programmes for perpetrators to get help and to stop the violence.
Mengzhu is the Youth Coordinator for Shakti, a feminist organisation that works with Asian, Middle Eastern and African communities in Aotearoa to provide culturally appropriate responses to domestic violence.
If you or someone you know is in need of support, call 0800 SHAKTI.
1. In a summary of her Honours thesis, Setayesh Rahmanipour (2016) defined double silencing as referring to the internal (within ethnic minority communities) and external (from institutions and structures) silencing:
“Externally, the lack of priority given to research, funding and action in this area for these groups (and the fear of stereotypical representation) silence sexual violence issues, alongside the silencing internally, which happens due to the fear of community gossip and the internalization of shame and stigma associated with sexual violence, sex and sexuality. Thus, a ‘double silencing’.”
2. Concluding observations on the eighth periodic report of New Zealand, Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, 20 July 2018