Women with insecure immigration status who are suffering domestic violence have few places to turn. There is little support open to them which means they often face a stark choice – living in destitution or being forced to stay with their abuser. This problem has received very little attention in academia despite the fact that it highlights key issues in the wider literature on violence against women, the politics of immigration and human rights.
One in four women in Europe experiences domestic violence in their lifetime and women with insecure immigration status are especially vulnerable.
Halliki Voolma  wants to shed more light on what is happening and explore the tension between necessary immigration control and the human rights of women escaping violent relationships.
Halliki came to the subject through an innovative community-based project set up by the University of Cambridge and Cambridge Women’s Aid, which is part of a wider European initiative of community-based academic research.
Halliki, who is just 22, showed an early interest in human rights, internationalism and equality issues. Born in Estonia, but moved to Budapest when she was 10 as her father was working there for the Soros Foundation, working on education programmes for former Soviet Union countries.
She and her two older sisters all went to the British International School in Budapest as her father admired the British education system because of its balance between fact learning and creative thinking and they subsequently won scholarships.
Halliki says her mother was the main influence on her growing up. Her mother is a linguist and translator, but took time off from paid employment when Halliki and her sisters were growing up to raise what is a very close family – Halliki says she speaks to her mother every day.
She adds: “My life was defined by our move to Hungary. From a young age I was with people from all over the world. It gave me an international mindset.”
Given their British education, she and her sisters all decided to go to universities in the UK. Halliki wanted originally to do international relations. At school, in addition to being involved in athletics and dancing, drama and the school council, of which she was president, she had taken part in model UN conferences simulating the UN process and debating international issues. On one occasion she gave a speech in the Hungarian parliament about the World Bank. “I was always thinking in an international way,” she says. “From a young age I was interested in human rights and did charity projects. I never turned down any opportunity,” she says.
Although the University of Cambridge does not have an international relations undergraduate degree, Halliki applied to do Social and Political Sciences at King’s College, the most international of Cambridge’s colleges. She was the first person at her school to get into Oxbridge and she chose to apply because a senior tutor from King’s visited her school. “I felt a bit of a connection even though Cambridge seemed like a fairytale land and I felt it was out of my reach,” she states.
She studied psychology, anthropology, sociology and politics in her first year. By her second year, she got involved in a project run by the Community Affairs team. The aim was to get students doing community-based research in conjunction with local NGOs.
The project has a European dimension since the University is one of 26 partner institutions involved in the PERARES [Public Engagement with Research And Research Engagement with Society] programme. The programme aims to strengthen interaction between researchers, civil society organisations and citizens in Europe.
Halliki was given several options of projects she might like to work with, but she knew straight away she wanted to work with Cambridge Women’s Aid. “I had always been interested in equality and justice and had studied gender issues at school so it was the obvious choice for me,” she says. She had to write a 5,000-word project on the Women’s Aid project. “It has defined my academic career so far,” she says.
For her project she interviewed women seeking support at Women’s Aid and asked them how it could be improved. “It was hugely inspiring. People had suffered terrible things, but were willing to talk to students,” she says. The abuse they had suffered included physical, psychological and financial violence.
After her second year Halliki wanted to continue her research on domestic violence. She went back to Women’s Aid and asked if they had any issues they could suggest. They spoke about the problems suffered by women who had insecure immigration status because of the ‘no recourse to public funding’ [NRPF] policy for people with such status. It brought together all the issues which Halliki was interested in – equality, human rights and justice.
For her undergraduate thesis she interviewed women from Cambridge Women’s Aid about the barriers they faced. All were living in poverty. Due to lack of access to safe accommodation, half of the participants feared for their own and their children’s safety. The report argued that by denying women fleeing violence the benefits they need to access safe accommodation and support, the UK Government was failing its obligations under international human rights law. It recommended that women fleeing violence be exempted from the NRPF requirement.
For her MPhil she has been interviewing lawyers, politicians, judges and NGOs to get the other side of the story. “It’s very topical because there have been some important recent policy changes,” she says. There is now some funding for women on spousal visas who are victims of domestic violence though other groups of immigrant women are still excluded. Furthermore this support is at risk of being undermined by the proposed cuts to legal aid, she says. Also, a crackdown on illegal immigration will make it harder to argue for greater resources for this group of women. Moreover, while women on spousal visas can apply for indefinite leave to remain after two years, abusive partners sometimes withhold the documents they need to apply for this. “It’s a huge issue,” says Halliki, “but people’s image of overstayers is very negative. They don’t realise that some people are not overstayers by choice.”
Every individual and organisation she spoke to mentioned the need for better communication about the support on offer. “They all talk about the language barrier and the need for awareness raising or language training. These women are doubly vulnerable because of the violence they have suffered and their immigration status.”
Halliki will continue her research this autumn when she begins her PhD in Multi-Disciplinary Gender Studies, with funding from a Gates Cambridge scholarship. She wants to return to do an international comparison, but has yet to choose which countries to look at. She also plans to do regular volunteering at Cambridge Women’s Aid and will be co-supervising an MPhil dissertation at the Public Health department next year in conjunction with PERARES.
She doesn’t intend to stay in academia. Her aim is to effect policy change and to eventually work for the UN. Already she is making an impact. Her undergraduate dissertation, for instance, has been cited in a Home Office evaluation.
At her Gates interview she was asked about definitional issues surrounding domestic abuse as well as about ethical concerns raised by her research. At the end, the interview panel asked her if she did any extracurricular activities. “I think they breathed a sigh of relief when I told them I was involved in competitive latin and ballroom dance,” she says. “The research is quite harrowing and they could see I had some balance in my life.”
Not only does she do latin and ballroom dance, but, as with everything else in her life, she does it to a very high level. She is a member of the award-winning Cambridge University Dancesport blues team and England’s XS Latin Formation team which recently won the UK championships. She trains up to nine times a week and will be going with the XS team to the World Championships in Vilnius in December.
She hopes her Gates scholarship will open up more opportunities for taking on her research to new dimensions. She says: “I’m very excited to be part of this cool community of people. It seems really active, involved, international and dynamic.” The perfect fit.