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Immigrant women and domestic violence

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In October, 2000, Lori Mihalich, a student at Princeton University, New Jersey (now a lawyer practicing in Washington, DC), visited SOS Femmes Accueil and met the team when doing research on the situation of Maghrebi immigrant women facing domestic violence in France.
In May, 2001, she sent us her thesis as well as a summary of her work that you can read below.

Download the complete thesis
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Original file type : .doc microsoft word 97

© Yves Lambert
No exit :
The Plight of Battered Maghrebi Immigrant Women in France

Lori K. Mihalich
Email : mihalich01@yahoo.com

Domestic violence traps many women in the hell Sartre envisioned in No Exit. For these women, like the characters in the play, “Hell is other people.” Unfortunately, there is a paucity of research about and understanding of the specific problems faced by immigrant women who are victims of this type of
. This thesis examines the social, economic, and above all, legal difficulties faced by battered immigrant women, as well as the intersection of French immigration and domestic violence policies. The conclusion of this study proposes three strategies for ameliorating the situation.

Research indicates that at least 7 percent of the 30.1 million women living in France are victims of domestic violence each year. This is likely a conservative estimate, however, as many women feel they cannot come forward and thus do not report the violence they experience. The national domestic violence hotline is one of the only sources of statistics on violence within the immigrant population. More than 20 percent of the women who called this toll-free number in 1999 were foreign-born (8.4 percent were from the Maghreb and 3.9 percent were from Black Africa). The proportion of callers from North Africa is particularly disproportionate to their 1.2 percent share of the French population. Thus, the hotline statistics reveal a serious problem, but one whose magnitude is still not sufficiently understood.

Certain socioeconomic conditions render immigrant women particularly vulnerable to domestic violence. First, many immigrants in France come from Islamic countries, particularly Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia. Gender inequalities in these countries are institutionalized through Muslim tradition and personal
status laws. Domestic violence has been explained as the manifestation of unequal power relationships between men and women: thus, patriarchal relationships are directly linked to violence. One should not expect that immigrants would leave all of their cultural mores and traditions behind when they enter France. The belief that women provoke violence and deserve to be beaten is transmitted across generations, as women themselves come to believe they are at fault.

Additionally, immigrant women in France are often extremely isolated. The majority lack competency in the French language: 57 percent of Algerian women (versus 16 percent of Algerian men) and 65 percent of Moroccan and Tunisian women (versus 40 percent of Moroccan and Tunisian men) do not speak French.
Immigrant women also suffer disproportionately high rates of unemployment: 42.1 percent of Maghrebi women are unemployed (in contrast to only 21.9 percent of Maghrebi men). These factors play a significant role with respect to domestic violence. Unemployed women who speak little French are less likely to leave
abusive husbands, because their conditions render independence difficult. Sometimes a man (often a Muslim) will go as far as sequestering his wife in the home and rejecting the assistance of social workers. Such isolation is very dangerous for battered women and can even prove fatal. Unfortunately, even if
immigrant women from the Maghreb overcome cultural barriers and decide to leave abusive spouses, they may not legally be able to do so without being evicted from France.

In 1992, the French government modernized its penal code. Under the revised code, punishments for acts of domestic violence (including marital rape, sequestration, and threats) were made harsher than before. Yet, there is no legal provision in the new code that would resolve the unique problems that battered immigrant women face. Theoretically, immigrant victims have the same rights and access to justice as do native French women. In reality, however, language barriers, isolation, cultural traditions, and immigration laws discourage immigrant women from reporting violence to authorities or bringing charges against their abusers.

Often, immigrant women are not able to self-petition for legal residency in France. This creates a particularly dangerous situation for victims of domestic violence, because they cannot leave their spouses without risking expulsion from France. The second Pasqua Law of 1993 makes a woman who entered France under the family reunification program to be with her French citizen or legal resident spouse completely dependent on her husband for legal residency during her first year on French soil. Women will often choose to suffer through a violent relationship for this first year rather than be forced to leave France. Even after her first year in the country, when she is legally allowed to apply for her own residency papers, a divorce or separation may lead a prefecture to deny her green card renewal. A battered immigrant woman can thus find herself dependent on her husband for her continued stay in France.

Another problem that institutionalizes patriarchy within immigrant families is the fact that France recognizes (through Article 3 of the French Civil Code and bilateral accords between France and the three countries of the Maghreb) the personal status codes of an immigrant’s country of origin. This philosophy of private international law is problematic for immigrant women. For example, an Algerian or Moroccan immigrant man can return to his country of origin and repudiate his wife, or at least obtain a divorce under which he does not have to pay alimony. He could never separate from his wife in this manner in France, but France recognizes decisions rendered by Algerian and Moroccan tribunals. This recognition creates a system in which gender inequalities are deemed acceptable and immigrant women are more likely than French women to be subjected to domestic violence.

How can domestic violence be reduced and battered immigrant women be made less vulnerable ?
First, a study must be conducted that provides data on immigrant women and abuse. In 1999, the government subsidized a study on violence against women (known as the ENVEF study). Seven thousand women were surveyed, but unfortunately the published results do not include any data on the women’s nationality or country of origin. The ENVEF study is a prime example of a missed opportunity.
Second, France should adopt a new philosophy of private international law that recognizes legal decisions of an immigrant’s country of origin rather than the country in which she has citizenship. Movement toward an egalitarian French society—for all women living on French soil—cannot possibly take place as long
as its public policy implicitly condones patriarchal laws.
Finally, the French legislature must adopt provisions that allow battered immigrant women to self-petition for legal residency status. Such laws would allow her to separate from her abuser and still obtain legal residency in her own name. Above all, French public policy must provide an exit to battered
immigrant women so that they can escape the hell of domestic violence.

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