Part 1 – Unpacking Norway’s Intimate Partner Violence Incidence Among Immigrant Mothers

Behind Closed Doors Investigation

Trigger warning: The article contains content of specific persons’ experiences with domestic violence and reproductive abuse. This may be triggering to readers with similar experiences

By Ka Man Mak and Macel Ingles

Three Mothers Share Their Story of Migration, Child Custody Battles, Domestic Abuse and Discrimination

Linh, mother to a 7-year-old boy from Vietnam is facing four legal court cases in Norway – immigration, child custody, child abduction and child abuse crime after her marriage to a Lithuanian man residing in Norway turned sour.

Now, she is fighting for custody of her son in Norway (after losing a custody battle in a Lithuanian court).  She has also filed a kidnapping case against her son´s father who took him to his country without her consent again and she is facing an immigration case that would decide if she will be allowed to remain in Norway to take care of her son. 

Linh claims she suffered physical and emotional abuse while she was married to her husband.

Like Linh, Suki Park, a South Korean businesswoman, is also facing a custody battle for her daughter. She moved to Norway in 2016 for business reasons and got married to a Norwegian man. When the marriage ended, he filed for sole custody of her daughter citing difficulties in communication with Park regarding parenting. 

Suki left her marriage after enduring what she called “put-downs” from her ex-husband, suffered his bad temper and controlling behaviour that left her “feeling hopeless.” Years of mental abuse from her partner broke her down.

After a turbulent marriage marred by infidelity and domestic violence, Kim, a chartered accountant from South Africa, is fighting to get back custody of her two sons.  She met her ex-husband in South Africa and they had both lived in South Africa and Norway.  When she travelled back to her home country in 2015 with her sons, she received divorce papers and a summon from an Oslo Court to bring her sons back to Norway.

The Oslo Desk had been following the journeys of Linh, Kim and Suki since 2019 to spotlight the consequences on immigrant mothers of fighting child custody battles even in some cases, across borders through the practice of international law on parental child abduction. It is through this investigation that TOD also uncovered the thread of intimate partner violence that the immigrant mothers had been subjected to.

Nordic Paradox

Intimate partner violence (IPV) refers to any behaviour within an intimate relationship that causes physical, psychological or sexual harm to those in the relationship. Incidences of IPV in Norway had been noted in a study that found 27% lifetime prevalence against women with 9% of these having experienced serious physical violence. This has been referred to as a Nordic Paradox because the level of gender equality in Norway and other Nordic countries is high.

According to the Norwegian Directorate for Children, Youth and Family Affairs (Bufdir), 2 out of 3 victims of abuse in close relationships are women. In 2021, the police registered 2 774 women and 1 508 men as victims of violence in close relationships. The number could be higher and the number of victims in such cases has been increasing since 2006. 3 out of 4 accused of violence in close relationships are men.

In 2020, 288 people were charged by the police with violence in close relationships; 228 of them were men and 60 were women. In a study of adults, 15% of women and 11% of men answered that they had experienced psychological violence from a parent when they were growing up.

Behind closed doors

It took years before Linh, Suki and Kim, immigrant mothers, realized that they were subjected to abuse. For some of them, it was only after they had sought help in women’s shelters that they found out that they are not alone in their IPV experience.  In fact, IPV is a global health problem with a serious impact on the physical and mental health of those subjected to it, the majority of them, women.

While domestic violence is a crime, most of the offences committed by partners, aside from physical violence, cannot be captured on a charge sheet until it is too late. Red flags in the relationships such as controlling behaviours that can lead to serious partner violence or even homicide is largely ignored by institutions until a crime is committed.

Since 2017, the Norwegian newspaper VG has been documenting the number of murders related to intimate partner violence as there are no official statistics from the police, courts and other government institutions. Since 2000, 166 women and 18 men were registered murdered by their partner. IPV-related murders contribute to 33% of all murders. Partners who are more vulnerable to IPV are from a marginalised group, such as unemployed and asylum seekers. 

The reality is, the law is silent on the offences committed before a crime is committed. Women are refused refuge at shelters as they cannot show evidence of physical abuse. Non-physical violence is hard to prove in court, especially those who are already in vulnerable positions, such as immigrant women, who reluctantly give up on their rights just to keep the family intact, or in some cases to appease their abuser or personnel from institutions to get access to their children.

Domestic abuse

“It was a great time before marriage, before I came to Lithuania. He promised me many things,” Linh told The Oslo Desk.  Before she left Vietnam, she was attending university and teaching at a kindergarten. Her husband convinced her that she should drop her studies and move with him to Lithuania. He told her that a degree from Vietnam will be useless in Lithuania anyway. He also refused the option that they stay in Vietnam. She trusted him enough to be swayed to move.

It was after she moved to Lithuania, that the abuse started. She claims, “he hit (me on) my shoulder and then took my neck like this (showing hands grabbing her neck).” It was nothing strong that people can see something [on my neck].”

“Because there is nothing. No red. No blue. No black. Nothing. But it hurts. I was scared. After that he said sorry. And didn’t do it again,” she added.

A few months later, the conflict between them escalated and the abuse got even worse.

She recounts that she has had to endure verbal abuse and disrespect, “he was very rude to me and I told him if he is like that to me then I should leave and go back to Vietnam.”  

Linh also remembered an incident where her friends brought her favourite traditional food when she was pregnant and her ex-husband called it “shit food.”  She said that her husband shouted at her friends and they got scared of him.

“I lost many friends because of him. He said that they are not good friends. They were not polite. They don’t allow you to sleep,” she sadly added.  

There were also several occasions where he humiliated her in front of his friends as well as in front of their son by calling her ‘stupid’ because she still has not learned the language after a year of staying in Lithuania.

He also pressured her to find work so they can get benefits if she gets pregnant. She tried volunteering at a kindergarten and learned the language privately. She got a job at a farm plantation but the job was making her sick because of the cold environment.  She later found work at a cable factory.  After some months into the job, she got pregnant.

She used her salary to pay for her language study as it turns out her husband lied about her getting free language lessons. When she got pregnant, she was told that she also needs to pay for the food. “When we went to the supermarket together, he said that I need to pay for half of the food as he said he paid for the house and electricity,” she added. He owns three houses yet he was putting pressure on her to give up her studies to contribute to the house expenses.

Since she was obliged to pay for the food from her salary, she no longer has money left to pay for her studies. She got upset when he told her that she “needs to support the family and not only just for (her) pleasure. He called her study “just for my pleasure” and even accused her of “being ‘selfish’ and ‘using him’, and not wanting to have a family with him. 

She was also subjected to reproductive violence, which includes forms of violence such as rape that result in pregnancy, pressure to undergo abortion, violence under pregnancy and after birth,

abuse at childbirth, as well as lack of care during pregnancy and after.

While pregnant, Linh was made to sleep on the mattress on the floor as she was told that her twisting and turning in bed is disturbing his sleep. At times when she was tired, she didn’t get the support she needed but she felt that she needed to be happy so her emotions won’t affect her pregnancy.

She only understood that she was subjected to domestic abuse after talking to case workers in the women’s shelter.

Like Linh, Suki was living in an abusive relationship that she escaped from in 2020 by checking herself into a hotel with her daughter to give herself the peace and safety she did not feel at home.  She had earlier sought safety at the Women Crisis Shelter and NAV counsel housing, but these institutions cannot do anything to help her.

Little did Suki know that when she moved to Norway,  she will be put in a difficult position of fighting for custody of her daughter with her Norwegian ex-husband. She agreed to move to Norway after her being told that “he would show (her) the world.”

She moved to Norway, upon the advice of her ex-husband, on a “skilled worker visa.” It was better that way, was what she was told.

The fairy tale marriage did not last.  Suki suffered abuse that came in the form of reproductive violence and mental abuse. She was forced by her ex-husband to get pregnant and pressured to undergo IVF consultations. Furthermore, she was subjected to “put-downs” and insults against her family, ridiculing her culture, and called her a “gold-digger” by taking child support which he called “exploiting the system.”

As for Kim, she is desperate to get back custody of her two sons after an Oslo Court awarded custody to her Norwegian ex-husband. Her marriage was turbulent and marred by infidelity and physical violence.

She recounted an incident where “he threw cell phones at me, pushed, and shoved me when I tried to leave the house for some breathing space and came close to hitting me on many occasions. When he pushed and shoved me, I fought back.”

She also revealed that they fought over his live chats with Bulgarian prostitutes whenever they live apart. She has even threatened to end her life if he does not stop.  The disagreement got so bad that her ex-husband already started divorce proceedings in South Africa in 2013 but after admitting to being on dating sites and promising to work things out, they patched things up. She found out later that he continued with his live chats after she found the live sex, and nude photos on the internet with his face on them on his iPad.

He got violent when she asked him about what she found on his iPad, “He chased me down the passage of our home and shoved me to the floor with the iPad underneath me. He strangled me and lay on top of me trying to get the iPad away from me. I could not breathe and bit his arm for him to let go. He eventually did and I handed him back his iPad.” 

She also disclosed that her ex-husband forced her to abort their third child. “I did not want to. I saw my child’s heartbeat on the monitor and cried just as I did when I saw both sons’ heartbeats for the first time.

Despite her objections, in September 2014, her ex-husband inserted cervical thinners into her vagina to induce the termination of her pregnancy. “I started bleeding within half an hour so I showered and got dressed.” While undergoing surgery at the Ullevål Hospital, he insisted that a Mirena (contraceptive coil) to be inserted into her. He left her at the hospital. “I woke up crying and resenting myself for killing my unborn healthy baby, for the sake of the three other children. I still live that guilt and sadness today.”

Intersectionality and Coercive Control

All three women were subjected by their partners to a pattern of abuse over time that involves acts of assault, threats, isolation, humiliation, intimidation or other abuse that serves to harm, punish, or frighten their victim called coercive control. The controlling behaviour seeks to isolate their victims from support, exploiting their trust, depriving them of independence and regulating their everyday activities, subjecting them under their control.

While there is physical violence in their relationships, the women were aware that it will be their word against their spouses and since their injuries are not visible, hard to prove in court. It also took them a while to see the overall pattern of controlling behaviour that they were subjected to and sadly, the coercive behaviour is not enough to get them the help they need as victims of abuse and their spouses were not deemed criminally liable for these behaviours.

In most countries, prosecuting abusers for coercive control remains a challenge but some countries like the United Kingdom and Australia are already treating it as a criminal offence. According to the European Institute for Gender Equality, Denmark, Spain, France, Hungary and Ireland have implemented specific criminal offences for psychological violence or coercive control. However, only Denmark and Ireland use the language of coercive control in legislation.  There is yet no such legislation in Norway.

Also, the forms of domestic abuse that these women suffered and the responses to their experiences can be better understood if it is recognized that they are shaped by intersectionality. Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term intersectionality to reflect the unique experiences of oppressed people with multiple identities. After all, not all women experience domestic abuse in similar circumstances and their abuse should not be seen only through the gender-based identity lens. By having multiple identities shaped by history and social relations such as age, class, ethnicity and immigration status, women of colour are subjected to compounded oppressions due to their position of power in relation to that of the privileged group‘s. Since inequality emerges at the intersections of these power dynamics, women of colour find themselves in even more vulnerable positions than other women suffering abuse.

Therefore, when intersectional identities of marginalised people are ignored in law and institutions dispensing help to women of colour, the society with its systemic bias renders it incapable of addressing intersectional justice.

Marital breakdown and custody battles

Before these three immigrant mothers can even process and recover from the domestic violence, and the breakdown of their marriages, they were thrust into the legal quagmire of fighting for custody of their children.  Alone, in a foreign country with little or no support, and hardly speaking the language let alone grasp of the complex Norwegian bureaucratic processes, these women found themselves on the brink of despair and helplessness.

What they realized was that they do not only have to fight against their ex-husbands but also the Norwegian institutional support apparatus in the system that was supposed to protect their rights as women and mothers. 

Trigger warning: The article contains content of specific persons’ experiences with domestic violence and reproductive abuse. This may be triggering to readers with similar experiences

Investigation – Behind Closed Doors Overview
Part 2 – Through the Legal Wringer
Part 3 – Gender-Based Violence: Norway Failed to Address Repeated Concerns from CEDAW, GREVIO, and Amnesty International

Behind Closed Doors is supported partially by FrittOrd Foundation with a fund of 50 000 NOK. Our investigations are important and expensive. Ka Man Mak has been working on this topic for the past 3 years voluntarily and onboarded Macel Ingles in 2022 as a contributing editor and reporter.

Ka Man Mak

Ka Man is an investigative journalist, documentary photographer, and social entrepreneur, as well as the founder of The Oslo Desk. She is a British-born Hong Konger residing in Oslo, Norway. She holds a Master in Environmental Geoscience and have taken numerous diplomas including child psychology, and a course in big data analytics at OsloMet. Made numerous publications in newsletters, magazines and Norwegian newspapers. Interested in edtech, constructive journalism, women in migration, Cantonese language, alternatives to capitalism and asylum policy.