Abstract: Capabilities and Opportunities for Immigrant and Refugee Survivors of Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault to Engage Services (Society for Social Work and Research 23rd Annual Conference - Ending Gender Based, Family and Community Violence)

Capabilities and Opportunities for Immigrant and Refugee Survivors of Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault to Engage Services

Friday, January 18, 2019: 11:15 AM
Union Square 19 Tower 3, 4th Floor (Hilton San Francisco)
* noted as presenting author
Julianna Nemeth, PhD, Assistant Professor, Ohio State University, Columbus, OH
Cecilia Mengo, PhD, Assistant Professor, Ohio State University, Columbus, OH
Brieanne Beaujolais, MSW, Doctoral Student and Graduate Research Associate, Ohio State University

According to the United Nation’s Refugee Agency, over 22.5 million refugees have fled their homelands worldwide--over half of whom are under the age of 18.  Women and children who immigrate to the United States, both those who flee for safety or those who emigrate for opportunity, are particularly vulnerable to higher rates of sexual violence (SV) and domestic violence (DV) victimization than male immigrants or US-born women and children.  Despite this, few immigrant and refugee adolescent girls and women who have experienced sexual or domestic violence prior to emigration, or since settlement in the United States, seek criminal and health services to address the sequel of such victimization. Guided by an intersectionality framework, the purpose of this study was to build a model for immigrant and refugee adolescent girl and women’s increased engagement with criminal and health justice services for sexual and domestic violence victimization using the Capability-Opportunity-Motivation Behavioral (COM-B) System informed by the experiences of immigrant and refugee adolescents and adults [1]. 


Adolescent and adult women (N=35) were purposefully recruited through immigrant and refugee service agencies in a large, Midwestern city (U.S.A.) in December 2017. Eligible participants included those who were (a) female, (b) 14 years and older, (c) immigrant or refugee, (d) fled or emigrated originally from Bhutan, Burundi, Somalia, Rwanda, or the Democratic Republic of Congo, and (e) ever-experienced DV or SA. Participants were not required to speak English. In-person interviews conducted in English, or with the assistance of a translator, contained close-ended demographic questions, and open-ended questions to probe perception and use of criminal, health, advocacy, and culturally-specific domestic violence and sexual assault services. Interviews were audio recorded, translated and transcribed. Five research staff analyzed the data using coding and thematic agreement to determine: 1) how multiple forms of oppression shape immigrant and refugee women’s experiences with DV and SA, and subsequent help seeking behavior from criminal justice, advocacy, and culturally-specific agencies, and 2) how capability (psychological and physical capacity to access available services) and opportunity (all the physical and social factors that make access to services possible or prompt it) generate behavior (engagement with criminal justice, advocacy or culturally-specific DV and SA focused services).


Immigrant and refugee women from these primarily African nations have experienced intensified oppression and targeting due to displacement and resettlement, including gender-based violence, strict gender expectations, colorism and nativism.  This context has impacted both immigrant and refugee women’s capability to access services for domestic violence and sexual assault sequel (i.e. trauma) and has limited their opportunity to engage in traditional criminal justice and rape crisis/domestic violence advocacy services in the United States.  Opportunities are identified for working within culturally-specific organizations, and among inter-generational groups of adolescents and women, to promote education, wellbeing, justice, and healing for these DV and SV survivors.   


A presented theoretical model can serve as the foundation for intervention development to encourage greater engagement with criminal and health justice services among immigrant and refugee adolescent and adult women survivors of DV and SA.