Case scenario: Helping ‘Nina,’ a sponsored immigrant spouse

During the data collection, we used a fictional case scenario (‘Nina’) in focus groups with service providers to understand what actions could be taken in a complex case of intersecting vulnerabilities of a sponsored spouse (being coerced into sex-selective abortion, threatened with divorce, unable to seek help from her own family, isolated and with English language barriers).[i] There was no clear consensus on the complicated immigration related situation or in-depth understanding of the collectivist coercion and family dynamics involved. Nevertheless, the participants agreed that the case is one that speaks to reality and is incredibly difficult to handle. The following sections highlight the diversity (and occasional helplessness) of the responses.


Nina is 21 years old, a sponsored resident in Canada, and has been referred to you by a grassroots community organization. She speaks Punjabi and Urdu fluently. In her conversation with you, it emerges that she is about 2 months pregnant with her second child, a girl, like her first. Her husband and mother-in-law insist that she end the pregnancy. Nina desperately wants the child but is worried – her husband has threatened divorce if she doesn’t go through with the abortion. Her parents-in-law reside with them and support her husband. Nina’s aged parents live in her home country. They do not know of her situation and she doesn’t want to tell them: “If he divorces me, they will die of shame. I can’t go back. I can’t!”

Group 1 discussants perceived the need to conduct a detailed risk and safety assessment and to offer ‘Nina’ counselling about her rights as an individual and available community supports (financial options were mentioned but not discussed in detail). The group was unaware of the sociocultural ramifications of divorce for women in some communities, specifically South Asian. As well, other family dynamics not explored included the level of pressure or support from birth family members and nature of ‘Nina’s relationship with other kinship/peers networks. The group was aware of the IRCC exception from the rules of conditional residence for newly sponsored spouses/family members in cases of abuse/violence. They did not describe the process and level of difficulty of obtaining exception. Shelter options were not mentioned as a possible outcome of the risk assessment.

Group 2 discussants proposed starting with a detailed information gathering, specifically risk assessment, followed by counselling, rights education and referral to legal services (not specified). The question of language barrier and related solutions was not mentioned. The IRCC exception was mentioned, but not the difficulties of obtaining it. Potential sociocultural family dynamics (and associated challenges for ‘Nina’s’ decision making) were not discussed – violence involving extended family, pressures from birth family to stay in marriage, pressure to bear sons.

Group 3 discussion was scanty. There was no mention of risk assessment, counselling, or rights education. The nature of support from women’s groups (not specified) were not elaborated. The group did not explore the issues related to language barriers, not only in intervention/protection but also for rehabilitation – job finding, financial and social. Solutions against the immigration-related abuse were not discussed. Lack of immigration stability was seen as an insurmountable barrier to access to all services. The group did not discuss the human rights/ethics violation involved in son preference, and did not assess to what extent patriarchal son preference was shaping the coercion and violence towards ‘Nina’.

Group 4 discussants noted the importance of culturally safe and competent shelters (Carol’s House for South Asian women), the need of longer stays and significant case resources and supports for obtaining an exception from sponsorship-related conditions for those suffering abuse. Since the process is meant to be client-centred, a perceived barrier is that the counsellor should not impose personal opinion and choices on the help-seeker. Even in a situation that the help-seeker/client wishes to return to the situation of risk, the service provider/counsellor cannot interfere. In the case scenario here, the woman may well return to the family and act as they wish; the alternative for her may be a loss of all social networks and ties (on both sides of the immigration fence). One of the well-documented aspects of HBV is the extended networks of violence (perpetration and complicity at several levels). The case ‘Nina’ illustrates the intersecting harms to a woman navigating collectivist social contexts, immigration-related instability and family violence, lack of job options owing to lack of pertinent language skills, as well as isolation from the mainstream.

Group 5 discussants identified a need for risk assessment, counselling, or rights education. The group also identified the collectivist aspects of violence towards ‘Nina’, i.e., patriarchal son preference and associated violence. The group recognized a potential conflict of wants and outcomes from the client’s perspective: end a desired pregnancy or leave the family/community network. Also, the group identified the family’s potential for abuse of female children, alongside with the fact that violence often peaks during pregnancy. The group discussed the possibility of obtaining an exception from sponsorship-related conditions for those suffering abuse. The group saw victims as very often unware of their immigration-related rights, or even if they are, as unable to pursue them. Rights awareness and education are crucial. Additionally, the group recognized that cases of complex family violence (outside the dyadic intimate-partner type) have a cross-border aspect. It was not clear if they understood that networks of support and violence span borders. While the group was rather optimistic that IRCC could be supportive and sympathetic, one finds little statistical evidence to support such optimism. Indeed, many commentators have recorded concern that under the current terms, the onus of proof of abuse largely rests on the victim (and her advocates). There is no guarantee that even an abundance of proof would yield an outcome favorable to the applicant for an exception.

Group 6 discussants saw the need to address the language barriers facing ‘Nina’. While some discussants suggested that community members could be of assistance, this recommendation must be weighed against the concern reported in the interviews that help seekers often avoid fellow community members and refuse their assistance. Perpetrators of violence mobilise their own networks and seek to muster support in the community. This has an effect on the availability of safe and trustworthy cultural connectors, particularly interpreters. Given the small size of ethnocultural communities, interpreters and perpetrators often know each other – implying potential conflicts of interest that may extend to legal situations (where a biased interpreter may twist the victim’s words in the presentation of evidence for court purposes), heightened risk of violence to the victim if the interpreter divulges her whereabouts to the perpetrator, and revictimization if the interpreter exerts pressure on her and/or (subtly or explicitly) criticizes her choices and decisions.

In Group 7, which was rather large and thus broken into three sub-groups, participants were highly wary of applying any ‘preconception’ to the scenarios and insisted against the signposting of these cases as associated with HBV. They saw no or few safety or confidentiality barriers in talking to the husband and the in-laws. They identified but did not explore issues of immigration-related vulnerability or the feasibility of advocating for victims of immigration-related abuse within the family. Shelter options did not emerge as a protective measure. The risks associated with the use of ethnocultural connectors and interpreters were not explored.  Spiritual beliefs were associated with ‘Nina’s’ reluctance to end the pregnancy and get a divorce. In a case of sex selective abortion (a real possible given the pressure to abort a female child after the very early detection of fetal sex alongside the birth of a first female child; cf the documented statistical rise of sex-selective abortion in S Asian Indian families after the birth of a first female child), Sub-Group 1 remained equivocal about the attitudes of the family. In any case, understanding whether family were gender biased or not is irrelevant – the pressure and psychological violence of a group against the vulnerable individual is the most relevant fact to be considered here; pregnancy is a predictor of heightened violence. The discussants queried but did not explore ‘Nina’s’ reluctance to tell her parents of her family situation – indicating lack of comprehension of (1) the sociocultural dynamics and perception of marriages as alliances between families in South Asia, with (2) complex economic and social exchanges based on marriage (e.g. dowry), and (3) the associated collective loss of face associated with divorce in a society where the girl’s birth family are seen as wife-givers in debt to the man’s family which are seen as wife-receivers and thus incurring a burden.

In Group 8 risk assessment, counselling, and rights education were suggested as courses of initial action. Prenatal care in a culturally safe shelter environment was raised as a protective solution, alongside financial options via Alberta Works (not elaborated further). However, there was no exploration of immigration-related challenges for ‘Nina’s’ access to services. There was no mention of the exception from conditional residence for sponsored spouses or of related barriers and solutions.


[i] Case scenario ‘Nina’ was based on the interview data and a reading of the situations presented in Anitha, S., Roy, A., & Yalamarty, H. (2016, February). Disposable women: abuse, violence and abandonment in transnational marriages: issues for policy and practice in the UK and India. British Academy. Link

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