Domestic violence: Nowhere to turn for migrant women trapped in violent relationships

By Ursula Malone


Psychologist Eman Sharobeem has not heard from one of her regular clients for three days and she is worried.

Sitting at her desk, she taps out a message on her mobile phone, her face illuminated by the screen.

“Hello dear,” she writes. “Are you OK?”

She does not want to cause trouble for her client, so she uses a message service that will not show up on the bill.

Secrecy is paramount. Three of her clients have been murdered in the past five years.

The woman Dr Sharobeem is concerned about has already suffered a broken jaw and dislocated shoulder, but she has decided to stay in the family home until her last child has grown up and moved out. She does not want to bring shame on the family.

Dr Sharobeem is uneasy. “My fear is there will come a day when she is murdered before I am able to say ‘out we go’. That is my fear,” she said.

For the past 10 years, Dr Sharobeem has been the director of the Immigrant Women’s Health Service in Fairfield in the sprawling multicultural suburbs of south-west Sydney.

Born in Egypt and married off to a cousin at 15, she speaks openly about her own experience in a violent relationship.

By the age of 29 she was a widow and mother of two. She trained as a psychologist and found her calling in working to improve the lives of migrant women.

Centre hears cases of violence daily

The health service, which is housed in an unassuming converted single-storey brick house, is a place where women come for health checks and to socialise and learn English.

But there is one topic of conversation that keeps coming up.

“We used to have a case every second day, now I have more than one case every day. Maybe now I am more immune [to] the shock, but of course there are cases that really raise my eyebrows,” Dr Sharobeem said.

Some of the most shocking cases involve girls taken out of school to be married off by their families.

“We have at least 60 recorded cases … and we are just one service,” she said, adding that many of the cases are identified because of domestic violence.

One case involved a girl who gave birth at the age of 11 as a result of being raped after a forced marriage. The abuse only came to light when the girl registered for English classes and gradually divulged her story.

I am stuck in this situation because I don’t know what to do, where to go.


“When she has her period, in their mind she’s ready to have babies, ready to be a mother, ready to have sex – ‘She’s ready to be a wife. Let’s seal the deal’,” Dr Sharobeem said.

Dr Sharobeem says the fact the practice is illegal under Australian law proves no obstacle.

“If the marriage doesn’t take place here, they travel overseas and bring the young bride here, pregnant most of the time,” she said.

Dr Sharobeem says some migrant men feel threatened and emasculated by Australian laws that protect women’s rights.

She tells of one asylum seeker who called his wife from inside the Villawood Detention Centre in Sydney saying he would send his relatives to kill her if she attempted to learn English or went to any women’s group.

Another man dumped his pregnant wife on the health centre’s doorstep after the woman reported him to police.

“He actually pushed her in front of him and he said to me, ‘Here take her, I don’t want her any more’,” she said.

“The woman was left, no family, no visa, no accommodation, no relatives, no language, no income, nothing.”

‘I am stuck in this situation’

Sarah sits fiddling nervously with her hands. She has agreed to speak on condition of anonymity, but even then it is a brave step.

If her husband finds out she could be in serious danger.

A petite softly-spoken woman, Sarah came to Australia five years ago from a Middle Eastern country.

Her husband started abusing her on their honeymoon, and since then the insults and beatings have continued.

Violence knows no boundaries


While many people watched the Simon Gittany murder trial with a sense of sorrow, for Kay Schubach it was far more personal.


“I don’t feel I’m treated like a human being,” she said. “I just want to leave this situation and live in peace with my daughter. I don’t want her to be exposed to all this humiliation against her mother.”

Sarah says she does not feel she can leave her husband as she does not have a job or money and speaks little English.

“I am stuck in this situation because I don’t know what to do, where to go.”

She is worried that if she speaks out she will be ostracised by her community.

When confronted by domestic violence, Dr Sharobeem says it is common for religious and community leaders to side with the abuser.

“The first thing they say to the woman is, ‘What did you do? How did you provoke him?’, without even first condemning the violent act,” she said.

More education is needed, she said, on how to deal with domestic violence.

“Many of these communities are quite guarded and it’s quite hard to get in and give them the right information. We’re relying on the gatekeepers, the community leaders.”

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