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Culturally diverse women highly vulnerable to domestic violence: support agencies

Language barriers, fear of authorities and social isolation are making culturally and linguistically diverse Canberrans one of the most vulnerable groups for domestic violence, support workers say.

The problem is being compounded by a lack of interpreters for at-risk women seeking the protection of ACT courts on their own and by looming federal cuts threatening the ACT Domestic Violence Crisis Service's ability to access interpretation services. 

Roughly one in 10 clients of the Domestic Violence Crisis Service said they were from a culturally or linguistically diverse background in 2013-14.

It was almost one in four the year prior.

Executive director Mirjana Wilson said those worrying statistics were not reflected in police or court data, because such women often do not go to police or seek the court's protection. 

The majority of the service's domestic violence clients identify as English-speaking Australians and Ms Wilson said there was always a danger that violence against women from different backgrounds is simply dismissed and ignored as a problem of a foreign culture.


But she said victims from diverse backgrounds faced tougher obstacles in seeking help.

Many, Ms Wilson said, will not look for help on their own.

"It's very rare that they come to our attention by calling out for help on their own. They usually come to the attention of courts, police, a social worker at a hospital, a GP, a neighbour, possibly a concerned English teacher," she said.

"That's the way we get to find out about [culturally and linguistically diverse] women living with violence, they don't access our services on their own."

Poor English is often the steepest barrier. It can restrict victims from talking about what is happening to them, seeking help, or even understanding what supports are out there.

"They may not even know that such a thing as a domestic violence service exists, depending on which countries they've come from, because those services might not even exist," Ms Wilson said.

"In a lot of places domestic violence isn't even seen as a crime, so you might not even report to police."

The problem is also compounded, in some cases, by a mistrust of police and the courts carried over from some countries. 

Ms Wilson said she'd also seen cases where victims pull out of criminal action against a partner because their family has been threatened in their home country. 

In July, the service is facing the prospect of losing access to the Department of Immigration and Border Protection's around-the-clock Translating and Interpreting Service National.

That would force them to find money in an already stretched budget to pay for interpreters. 

Women's Legal Centre ACT executive director Heidi Yates said the cuts were "extremely concerning" and it was "absolutely essential" the service continued to be funded.

Another barrier, Ms Yates said, is that a husband was often the primary financial and social support for many women who were new to the country.

"The decision to isolate yourself from that person is really difficult," she said.

Women also often feared reporting domestic violence could lead to a criminal record for their partner, which could complicate employment opportunities and visa status.

Ms Yates said women faced greater barriers if they spoke an uncommon dialect or came from a small community where they knew the interpreter.. 

She said language barriers could mean women who showed up at court to seek legal advice or a protection order could be turned away.

"If they've got the guts to turn up to the court, are they referred to the Legal Aid domestic violence unit, or are they not getting across what they need?"

She said that meant there was a need for frontline training to ensure staff knew they could access interpreters to communicate with women, and education on how to use them effectively.

"If a client is made to feel like they're causing trouble by needing an interpreter it's another burden that woman feels in seeking an order."

Legal Aid ACT chief executive John Boersig hoped to provide more specialised advice and assistance to women from different cultural groups this year to cater to a growing need in those communities. 

"We're looking at how we can best target community legal education to work out where best we can assist the culturally and linguistically diverse community."