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by Yee Man Louie
30th June 2021

Domestic violence is a widespread social problem. At any given time, one in three women worldwide falls victim to violence and abuse perpetrated by her current or previous intimate partner. I was once one of these women. In Australia, women like myself who are immigrants from culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) communities face unique challenges when experiencing domestic violence, including the emerging technology-facilitated domestic abuse (TFDA).

When I learned about TFDA, where perpetrators exploit technology such as smartphones and other internet-enabled devices to do their dirty deeds, it sent a shiver down my spine. My immediate thought was “how could we ever be free?”. If I were to experience domestic violence today, my abuser’s coercive control and power would no longer be confined to the home or a physical place but could be enacted anywhere and at any time.

I feel lucky that my lived experiences happened when technology was in its infancy. The closest I experienced to TFDA was the restriction of home phone and internet use and the constant check-up calls I received at home. My abuser would also monitor whom I spoke to and intercept overseas calls from my family whenever he wanted.

Post domestic violence, I acquired my very first mobile phone, a personal computer with dial-up internet, and a cordless answering phone machine. I got them for safety, social networking, work and education reasons. So, how is today’s technology harming or helping other CALD women who are experiencing or have experienced domestic violence?

In the first stage of my PhD research on the intersection of technology and domestic violence, I interviewed 13 domestic violence frontline workers to find out. They have worked or are working closely with CALD women and have first-hand experiences. Their narratives show that TFDA is pervasive among their CALD clients. However, they also saw the benefits of technology in preventing and intervening in domestic violence. Let me share some of the TFDA experienced by CALD women as witnessed by these workers.

Many frontline workers in my study reported having seen CALD women being controlled or stalked by smartphone, GPS, social media or email. In one case, a refuge worker told me the abuser spied and tracked her client through their children:

…kids were playing [on] their iPad and the iPad location was also on and you know those family photo-sharing iCloud is there as well, so perpetrator actually found the mum in a caravan … mum being supported by one of the women’s refuge, and she was hiding basically overnight with the kids in the caravan, but the perpetrator found her.”

CALD women are also being harassed, gaslighted or controlled by their perpetrators. Workers revealed some of their clients’ ongoing threatening and harassing messages on social media, messaging platforms and by email. A bilingual and bicultural Chinese family-violence worker shared with me how damaging this aspect of TFDA can be:

They try to send messages or threatening messages through WeChat or SMS, to make the victims feel unsafe … I have come across a client who … just kept receiving the messages from the perpetrator. She tried to block him, but she couldn’t do it because she’s worried that if she blocked him, he’d revenge.”

Even though her client has left the abusive relationship, she continued to feel powerless and feared her life would be in danger if she cut him off online. In contrast, abusers can freely cut or restrict women’s access to technology as a way to further isolate them or as a form of punishment, making it very difficult for the victim-survivor to contact anyone or be connected.

Many workers I interviewed said abusers would manipulate the financial status, English aptitude, digital literacy or immigrant status, as pointed out by one of the workers from a state-wide anti-violence agency:

“…one client, she has come from an Asian country, married an Australian man, she didn’t have fluent English, she wasn’t well connected, she didn’t have her bank account so [she was] financially dependent on the perpetrator…”

They witnessed a range of tracking, harassing, controlling and hacking acts against their CALD clients. However, many CALD women do not recognise technology-facilitated abuse as part of their experiences. Many are unsure about what constitutes domestic violence in their host country, and tend only to identify physical violence as domestic violence, or minimise their experience.

Although CALD women’s lived experiences of TFDA are similar to that of other Australian women, what they have to deal with can be more complex. For example, one worker told me abusers would threaten women with deportation or immigration sponsorship cancellation. There are many intersecting factors at play in migrant women’s lives. As one worker said, when women are new to the country, they will be dealing with other more pressing priorities such as stabilising their home and work life, financial income or coping with further family stress. In my case, I did not even know that what I was experiencing had a name, that it was a form of domestic violence, and nor did I think anyone would be able to help me.

Some CALD women have limited access to legal, welfare and income support due to their visa status and many have only a small social network. Together with language and digital literacy barriers, TFDA presents challenges for women victim-survivors, workers, support services and policy makers.

The phenomenon of technology-facilitated abuse brings domestic violence from the offline to the online space. The omnipresence of abusers makes it very difficult for women to feel free, even after they have left the abusive relationship. However, we have to remember that technology itself is not the problem, and having safe access to communication media can in fact help women in terms of support and resources. Many workers recognise the potential of technology-based response (TBR), such as smartphones or safety apps, for curating evidence or accessing services remotely and anonymously via online platforms. This is particularly the case during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown, where professionals have accelerated the use of TBR through helplines, online chat and telehealth appointments to reach and support women.

As I reflect on my own lived experiences in the 1990s, I realise we have come a long way in our effort to eradicate domestic violence. We have brought a once-hidden crisis into the open. The battle is far from over, however, especially with the emerging issue of TFDA and for marginalised women like CALD victim-survivors. When TFDA first emerged, some workers told me that affected women were told to go offline. This short-sighted approach puts the digital rights of victim-survivors in jeopardy.

Instead, we need to hold perpetrators accountable, build an equitable and safe digital environment, and educate everyone about technology safety, privacy and security. My research on TFDA and CALD women has also made me aware of how online resources need to be culturally and linguistically appropriate and familiar and accessible to CALD communities.

I hope as a society we can work together, collaborate and innovate to reclaim the online space and make it a safe place for all.

Yee Man Louie is a PhD candidate at Digital Ethnography Research Centre, RMIT University in Melbourne. She’s a survivor advocate, and her research explores the intersection of technology and domestic violence, particularly Chinese migrant women victim-survivors’ lived experience and their relationships with communication technology.

 

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Image credit: Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash