Transnational marriage abandonment: A new form of violence against women?

Transnational marriage abandonment lies at the intersect of immigration and patriarchal control, allowing abusers and states to enjoy impunity for violations committed against women in transnational spaces.

Sundari Anitha Pragna Patel
6 June 2016

‘M’ at the Houses of Parliament: launch of report on transnational marriage abandonment.

'M', an abused young mother of Pakistani origin, finally found her voice on 4 February 2016, in front of a large audience at the Houses of Parliament in London. Although struggling to hold back her tears and faltering at times, she nevertheless gave a moving and powerful account of her experiences of violence and abandonment that crossed the national borders of the UK and Pakistan. Her appalling experience has left deep emotional scars that have remained with her despite the passing of time.

M came to the UK in April 2000 to join her British national husband, following her marriage and the birth of her eldest son. From the outset, she was subjected to constant emotional and physical abuse by her husband and in-laws. She was not allowed  to go out or talk to people outside the home. She could not speak English, did not know the ways or laws of the UK, and was completely isolated and severely depressed. By then she had given birth to twin girls, one of whom had a heart condition.


In 2005, M and her children were taken to Pakistan by her husband and in-laws on the pretext of attending a family wedding. In Pakistan, M’s in-laws took away their passports and subjected M to further abuse and domestic servitude. Her husband then returned to the UK without her and her children, and two and half months later, they were thrown onto the streets by her in-laws who also returned to the UK. Homeless and destitute, M had no choice but to return to her parents who were reluctant to support her because, in her community, female abandonment following marriage is deemed to be a matter of great shame and dishonour.

Southall Black Sisters (SBS) join demonstration against immigration controls.

Desperate to claim her rights to maintenance and property, M fought a seven year battle for the right to return to the UK with her children. She eventually obtained a visitor’s visa and in 2012 returned to the UK with her children. She now lives in north England but is still fighting for the right to remain in the UK.

M’s story, like that of many abused women who attend Southall Black Sisters (SBS), follows the all too familiar contours of gender-based violence and domestic servitude faced by South Asian women. What sets them apart from the more routine experiences of abuse is the fact of their abandonment. This little known phenomenon, referred to as Transnational Marriage Abandonment or Stranded Spouses, is a form of violence against women that occurs in transnational spaces due to the overlapping processes of migration and marriage. It involves the deliberate abandonment of foreign national wives in their country of origin by their husbands who are nationals or residents of another country.

Transnational marriage abandonment takes many forms but is essentially a gendered phenomenon that forms part of a continuum of violence and coercion experienced by women at the hands of abusive and exploitative husbands and their families. The impact of abandonment also creates contexts for further forms of violence against women due to the stigma associated with divorce, women’s vulnerability within natal families, and issues related to inheritance and residence arrangements within the natal home after divorce. The transnational nature of this problem therefore raises specific challenges for women seeking justice, mainly because it involves a number of jurisdictions.


Southall Black Sisters protesting in Southall, London

SBS’ front-line experience reveals three main forms of transnational marriage abandonment in the UK (a) a woman who migrates to the UK after marriage and is abused and abandoned or is forced to flee within this country; (b) a woman who is brought to the UK and then deceived into returning to her home country on some pretext and abandoned there, while her husband returns to the UK, revokes her visa and initiates divorce proceedings; (c) a woman who is married or left behind in her home country following her marriage, usually with her in-laws, and is never sponsored to come to the UK. All such cases can also involve abandonment with children or the separation of women from their children.

These forms of transnational abandonment are now the subject of a significant report based on a study conducted in India by Dr Sundari Anitha and Prof Anupama Roy (funded by the British Academy). It was this report that M helped to launch in the Houses of Parliament in February 2016.

The study involved interviews with 57 women in India who were taken back to their home country and abandoned there or were never sponsored to join their husband. 28 had been married to men resident in the UK, with smaller numbers from countries including Italy, Australia and the USA. About two-fifth of the women had migrated after marriage while the rest remained in India with their in-laws.

Most of the marriages had been hastily arranged, often within two weeks of the proposal, which left little opportunity for the bride’s family to ascertain the credentials of the groom. A majority of the women experienced physical violence perpetrated by their husband, in-laws or both. A third of the research participants disclosed sexual abuse perpetrated by their husband, while just under a quarter disclosed sexual abuse by male in-laws. A fifth of the women had been coerced into undergoing abortion(s).

Where women were left with their in-laws, they faced increasing dowry demands and violence when they could not meet these demands. Many were also forced into domestic servitude, and denied adequate food and lodgings:

“My husband used to hit me with a belt, hanger or whatever was at hand, so would my mother-in-law. After a month, my husband left for London. Before leaving he whispered to me, "Live according to mum's instructions - don't expect anything from me." Back in his house, I was under strict watch. It was as if I was in a jail. I was like this full- time maid who never had any days off, never had to be paid.” (Manju, 31)

Following a period of abuse, most women were abandoned by their husband or in-laws, often after being taken to India on false pretences, as this woman reported:

“He often used to hit me. He would tell me that he had much better girls to choose from. After three years like this, we came to India for a holiday. … After two to three days, he left me at my mother's place. He phoned me and said he was returning to the UK that very night and I should come back later. Later on, he suggested that I stay on to attend English classes, so I extended my return ticket. It was only later that I realised that he was waiting for my visa to expire. As soon as the deadline passed, he called to say he was divorcing me.” (Hira, 32)

By strategically abandoning their wives in their home countries, South Asian migrant men made it nearly impossible for their wives to participate in legal proceedings in the UK, thereby depriving them of their matrimonial rights such as an equitable financial settlement upon divorce, child custody and recovery of dowry or personal property (stridhan). For example, following abandonment, ex-parte divorce proceedings were frequently initiated by the husband, without the knowledge of most women. In some cases where women wanted to challenge their divorce or engage in legal proceedings, they could not obtain a visa to visit the UK or indeed any other country in which their husband resided, and in most cases did not have the money to mount a costly legal battle overseas. Some of the women did initiate legal action in India against their husbands and in-laws, however most complaints ended in a compromise agreement or were not pursued by the police. Very few of the women received financial settlements upon divorce, and none received any maintenance for their children or a return of their dowry or stridhan.

The study sheds light on practices such as dowry, son preference, and social norms which devalue women and play an important role in the violence and abandonment to which women are subjected in such marriages. Often families face huge debts and financial ruin due to the high costs of hosting a wedding and meeting ongoing dowry demands, not to mention coping with the social consequences of stigma that also arise when married women are abandoned. But the study also points to the crucial role played by the UK and other states in perpetuating and exacerbating such violence through strict immigration controls and the lack of effective legal mechanisms that can address violence committed across national borders. It is this ensuing gap in protection that has enabled men to abuse and exploit women with impunity. As one woman commented:

“I found out later that he has done this to three women.  If nothing happens to them, this is what they'll continue doing! He would taunt me, “Can you come all the way here (to the UK)? Can you reach me? Show me if you can.” Sometimes I think he was right about that.  The law does not work for women like me, nothing can harm these men who are abroad, no one can get to them.” (Jatinder, 30)


The true extent of the problem of transnational abandonment is not known but the staggeringly high figures of abandonment from India (said to affect tens of thousands of women in the states of Punjab and Gujarat alone) suggest that the problem is growing. We suspect that what we know is only the tip of a massive iceberg that is also mirrored in countries such as Pakistan and Bangladesh. Yet little or no attempts have been made by the states in these countries to address the problem, and the few measures that are taken are often ineffective and riddled with corrupt practices and a lack of transparency. In January 2010, the Government of India Ministry of Women and Child Development introduced some measures to cope with the rising demand for assistance by abandoned wives, but these responses are woefully inadequate because of a lack of robust mechanisms for implementation and enforcement.

What this study tells us is that states must do more to respond to changes to the patterns and dynamics of violence against women that result from increased flows of migration overlapping with socio-cultural norms relating to marriage and gender. The  disconcerting ways in which the imperatives of patriarchal and immigration control intersect, result in abandoned women being trapped in abusive and limping marriages, and in circumstances that involve the deliberate infraction of their legal rights to protection, support and rehabilitation; this is at the heart of women’s experiences in the UK. It is a dynamic in which immigration structures and patriarchal power relations reinforce each other’s mutual systems of domination and control. It is arguable that, in these contexts, the very act of abandonment itself constitutes domestic violence: a fact that is little recognised in the UK’s policies and strategies on violence against women and girls.


SBS demanding the abolition of the "No Recourse to Public Funds Rule" in British immigration law

For over 20 years, SBS has led campaigns demanding that the British state should extend the principles of protection and non-discrimination to migrant women who are caught by the intersecting nets of patriarchy and immigration controls. Following some success, women who have been abandoned in the UK now have access to support in the form of housing and welfare benefits, and the opportunity to apply for Indefinite Leave to Remain via the Domestic Violence (DV) Rule and the Destitution and Domestic Violence (DDV) Concession. These are significant victories which do not apply to women abandoned abroad. Our experience tell us that all too often abandonment is tactic used by abusive men to precisely and deliberately prevent women from accessing their rights under the DV Rule and the DDV Concession.  

In the last few years, the family courts here have begun to recognise and deal with this form of abuse, although limited to cases involving children. In Re S (Wardship) Guidance in Cases of Stranded Spouses [2011] 1 FLR 319, Hogg J set out useful guidance for such cases, but this does not assist the increasing numbers of single women rendered vulnerable by abandonment. Nor does the guidance have any teeth in the face of an increasingly hard line immigration system which constantly frustrates requests made by the judiciary for women to be returned to the UK so that they can engage in a meaningful way in children and other legal proceedings. This means that even if the welfare of children is deemed to be paramount, immigration controls continue to trump all other rights in all respects including the right to family life and the right to a fair trial under the European Convention of Human Rights. This predicament is well encapsulated in the following statement made by a judge in a 2013 case: Akhtar v Ayoub [2013] EWHC 3840 (Fam), involving an abandoned mother separated from her five British children:

"I have very considerable sympathy with the position of the mother, who is now separated from all her children. It cannot be a desirable situation for the children to be thus separated from their mother, whether or not on a daily basis they should be living with her or with their father. But I have to say that it seems to me that this wardship has now become futile and, indeed, potentially abusive of the proper boundaries between this court and the Secretary of State in immigration matters."

These developments demand urgent reform in key areas of family and immigration law and practice in the UK. We would like to see transnational marriage abandonment explicitly recognised by the British state as a form of domestic violence in and of itself. We are also asking for better judicial understanding of the practices of dowry and stridhan - as pre-marital assets - in divorce, maintenance and other financial settlements, so that women are not left destitute and dependent on their own families. Better reciprocal arrangements between countries that allow for the enforcement of legal decisions concerning divorce, support, maintenance, residency and contact with children is also desperately needed.


SBS leading protest against immigration raids in Southall, London 

Ultimately, however, we are only too aware that in a context in which the central features of contemporary politics in the UK are austerity measures, growing nationalism and a heightened anti-immigration culture, it is a tall order to get the state to address the problem of transnational marriage abandonment. We are witness to an unprecedented drift towards political and social authoritarianism that is amongst other things, enshrining new techniques of immigration policing and surveillance at all levels of society. This is often referred to as the ‘in-sourcing’ of border controls, a process that effectively hands over immigration management and control to state and civil society institutions that that can penetrate into the every day lives of migrants and minority communities. This in turn produces a culture that is subverting even those institutions that are meant to safeguard and protect the most vulnerable in our society, creating a climate that is conducive to the exercise of patriarchal power and to new configurations of violence against women. Despite the difficulties, or precisely because of them, we need to continue to expose the troubling ways in which immigration law and policy allows the state to violate the protection principle that is enshrined in domestic and international laws and human rights standards on violence and discrimination against women.

This is why M’s story is so significant. It illuminates the complex ways in which in an increasingly globalised world, the social control imperatives of immigration and patriarchy overlap creating extraterritorial gaps in legal protection and redress. Ultimately it is this lacuna that allows both abusers and states to evade responsibility and accountability for human rights violations committed in transnational spaces. M’s personal struggle challenges us to transform our political understanding of and responses to the growing phenomenon of transnational violence against women.

 All images courtesy of Southall Black Sisters

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