‘Forgotten girls of Sweden’: Foreign women fight for rights after domestic abuse

Foreign-born women who try to leave abusive relationships in Sweden face a multitude of challenges, including the lack of a social network, threat of losing their residence permit and battle to keep their children safe. Journalist Keith Moore investigates.

two people talking
Many foreign-born women don't have a network of friends and family to rely on when they get out of an abusive relationship. File photo not connected to the article. Photo: Marcus Ericsson/TT

Consult any of the rankings of gender equality or type into Google which countries are the best places to live as a woman and Sweden is often near the top.

But there is a group of foreign-born women who are isolated and hidden from view whose experience of the country is unrecognisable from the Sweden of the reputation and the rankings.

Ann, which is not her real name, arrived in January 2017. It was -13C when her flight from east Africa landed at Arlanda. She had a baby daughter in her arms and was about to start a new life, but she and her husband made their way through the airport in silence.

“I felt I am just coming here because he had threatened me,” she said.

file photo of snow at arlanda airport

Ann remembers her arrival in a cold Sweden was ‘like going from the oven to the freezer’. File photo: Lars Pehrson/SvD/TT

Ann had been working for the ministry of health in her country. Her husband was a Swedish citizen, living in the country for many years and working in a respectable job. After connecting on Facebook via mutual friends, she first visited him in Stockholm in 2015.

She got pregnant on that trip. She told me she hadn’t been awake when it happened. She had fallen unconscious after being given a drink at a party and doesn’t remember anything until the next morning. 

Ann said that after her daughter was born back in her home country, the baby’s father registered her birth in Sweden and lied to Ann that they would need to get married and move to Sweden or the Swedish embassy in her home country could take her child away. He then arranged to pay a dowry to Ann’s mother and they were married. 

He had already been physically abusive before, but it became worse when she got to Sweden.

She says he forced her to have sex with him, something she wouldn’t consider reporting to the police where she was from, and had a violent temper when he was drinking. “He told me there is no one to protect me here,” Ann said. “I have no family or anyone.”

She was alone at home with her daughter, couldn’t speak the language and didn’t have a network of friends or family to turn to for advice.

It is hard to know how many other women find themselves in Ann’s situation, but according to the non-profit association Somaya, Ann’s isolation is not unusual. They estimate they have been in contact with a couple of thousand foreign-born women experiencing violence in the last few years.

“These are like the forgotten girls of Sweden,” said Romila Khan, who is on Somaya’s board and who has personally helped at least 25 women from Pakistan over the past three years.

Crime figures show that 80 percent of women in Sweden who are assaulted know the person who attacked them (whereas for men this figure is 45 percent). In 2020, women reported 28,900 incidents of being abused to the police.

Those numbers, though, are likely the tip of the iceberg, with research by the Swedish National Council for Crime Prevention (Brå) in 2012 suggesting that 96 percent of incidents of domestic abuse are never reported.

Women who end up living here isolated, with no support network or knowledge of the language or their rights, are probably even less likely to report violence, coercion and control to the police. 

One of the women Khan helped, who didn’t want me to use her name in the article so she could speak more freely, explained how her husband didn’t want her to leave the home and threatened that he could divorce her, cancel her immigration status and she could be deported to Pakistan while her children were left in Sweden. 

a migration agency sign

The women’s right to stay in Sweden is often tied to their relationship. Photo: Adam Wrafter/SvD/TT

She didn’t know her rights and there was a power imbalance that, according to Khan, is also typical.

The men in these abusive relationships know that a marriage has to last for at least two years for the woman to be allowed to stay and, Khan says, “In many cases, there’s economic abuse also. They take loans in their names. Then they can’t get a house. They can’t get any loans. They can’t even get a phone out of the system.”

Ann explained that her husband also controlled her money and used most of the child allowance they received to pay off his own loans. He gave her just 500 kronor per month (approximately $53) so she had to rely on handouts from a church to have enough nappies for their daughter. 

They eventually ended their relationship and, after her husband locked himself in the bedroom with their daughter and wouldn’t let her out despite her having an asthma attack, Ann fled and was taken to a women’s shelter in a new city with her daughter. 

She was later moved into an apartment and their address was protected for their safety, but they had to move cities again after a social worker clumsily gave away their location to her ex-husband. Both she and her daughter use different names at school, work and preschool. Ann is neither her real name nor the one she uses at work. She asked me to not use either to protect her identity.

Even in cases where women didn’t have to escape to a new city, it is often they who have to leave the family home, said Khan.

“She loses her friends in the area. The guy doesn’t lose his job. The guy does not lose the house. He keeps living where he is, so he doesn’t have to change his behaviour,” Khan explained.

“He has to be moved from there. The society on the whole has to say this is not OK. You don’t do this here, this behaviour is not allowed in Sweden. The laws of Sweden do not allow this. So you need to move out of the home, the lady stays here, the kids stay here.”

Another of the Pakistani women Khan has helped also did not want her real name to be used in this article so she could be more open about her experiences. She was a university graduate who moved to Sweden for an arranged marriage back in 2006. She lived with her husband and some of his relatives. Despite living in the same house as her husband’s aunt, she felt alone and rarely left the house.

She said that her husband pushed and verbally abused her. He eventually divorced her after three years of marriage but she described how he would not let her leave the house without signing over sole custody of the children – who were two and three years old – to him.

She felt intimidated and threatened and, at that time, was not really sure of the impact of what she had done. She couldn’t speak Swedish and didn’t understand how the system worked here and her husband took advantage of that, she said.

It was the start of a difficult few years fighting to see her children and battling to stay in the country.

At one point, the social services said the cost to house her in Stockholm was too much and found her an apartment in the north of Sweden, a six-hour train journey from her children. She became sick and felt hopeless. “To live without my kids is a very hard thing,” she said.

With Khan’s help, she eventually moved back to Stockholm in 2020 and has been working in a preschool. She was given permission to spend time with her children but, now as teenagers, they refuse to see her. 

a swedish legal book

Swedish authorities have a strong focus on giving shared custody to parents. Photo: Johan Nilsson/TT

Linnea Bruno, who is a lecturer at Stockholm University, wrote a paper in 2018 detailing how there was such a desire in Sweden to try to give parents shared custody of children, that men who had been violent towards the children’s mother were often still given access to children post-separation, even if the children had witnessed the abuse. 

She also described how previous research had shown that in cases where there were concerns children had been physically or sexually abused by a father that, in half of cases, children still met them unsupervised.

Bruno said her impression was that since she published her paper there was more knowledge among welfare professionals and awareness of these systemic problems, but still a lot more to do. 

The fact in many of these cases is that it is one person’s word against another. Ann took her allegations of physical abuse to the police and the social services. She also said that her ex-husband had sexually abused their five-year-old, but has struggled to get the authorities to believe her and they have accused her of coaching her daughter to make accusations against the father. 

She feels that she is treated differently because she is foreign. “I went once to an office with the social services and they told me, ‘if you were only Swedish, your case would have been treated differently’. And this is someone in authority who told me that,” Ann said.

“And then they have this mentality that they’ve had many cases of foreign women who have lied against their husbands or ex-husbands, so it’s like they judge us all in that sense, even when someone really knows you’re innocent or you’ve not done anything wrong.”

It can be difficult for social service staff to get to the truth of a situation and several people told me that, by and large, people working in the system have good intentions. There has been research showing that social workers can find a language barrier difficult when trying to help women from a foreign background who have been abused. 

According to Minoo Alinia, an associate professor at Uppsala University who has been researching discrimination against minorities in Sweden, Ann’s complaint about being treated differently because she is foreign isn’t unusual.

“It is very common,” Alinia explained. “Both in my research and others that women or men, especially from Africa, from the Middle East and Asia, in the contacts with social services, and even with healthcare in fact, there’s a lot of testimony about discrimination, about being treated differently. Sometimes they’re not taken very seriously with their problems.”

An approach that might work for Swedish women who have a network of family and friends shouldn’t be the same for women who are here alone and struggle with the language, Alinia said, yet their problems are seen just as another woman who has a problem with her husband.

“They don’t look at a person’s whole situation, they look at just one thing,” she added. “That’s the problem.”

two people talking

In many cases, it’s one person’s word against the other. Photo: Marcus Ericsson/TT

In recent months Ann said one particular caseworker from the social services had believed her concerns about her former partner more than others had previously.

She shared a document with me from that social worker which details her worries about Ann’s daughter continuing to meet the father, that the child doesn’t want to meet him and that there are allegations of sexual abuse (which he denies). 

Last year, Ann was in court. She says her body shook involuntarily due to fear and nerves as she glanced across at her ex-partner. She expected the court to follow the social services’ recommendation and stop visits between her ex and their daughter. But that didn’t happen. 

So she is now continuing to share custody of her little girl with the man she is supposedly being protected from. If she doesn’t take her daughter to meet him she runs the risk of losing custody. She already owes him more than 40,000 kronor in fines for missed visits and legal fees. 

Her life in Sweden has been tough so far and sometimes it can seem as if everything is against her. But she has started studying to become a nurse, which was always her dream and, when it comes to her daughter, she has no intentions of giving up. 

“I still fight for this because I just know at the back of my mind and in my heart, I know I’m fighting for the right reason.”

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.


One year on: How Sweden’s new permit rule for PhDs has upended lives

In July last year, Sweden's new migration law tightened residency rules for PhD students, sending the future plans of thousands into disarray. The SACO union spoke to three of them about how their lives had been changed.

One year on: How Sweden's new permit rule for PhDs has upended lives

Chen, 31, from China.

PhD on non-pesticide methods to reduce insect damage in newly-planted forests.

Chen, who came to Sweden from China in 2017 to study a the Swedish Agricultural University, says that she has felt trapped in Sweden since defending her thesis in November, as the Migration Agency does not normally allow those applying for a residency permit to travel 

“I feel like I’m under house arrest,” she complains. “I haven’t been able to take a vacation outside Sweden since my permanent residency application is pending, and I can’t go back to China to visit my family for the same reason — two years since the first Covid outbreak at the beginning of 2020.” 

Now the exemption from residency permit requirements for PhD students has been removed, PhD students generally need to get a job as soon as they graduate to show that they can support themselves, but Chen says she was so deeply engaged in her studies that it was near-impossible to send off job or research applications. 

“There are many days I woke up at 8am and left my office at midnight,” she remembers. “I ate for only one meal during the day in order to finish my thesis in time. I could barely spare any time to look for jobs or send job applications even though I knew I had to get a job offer for at least two years to get a positive decision on my permanent residency application. “

“After my defence, there was no time to celebrate my achievement but I instead started to search for jobs immediately.”

Before the change in the rules, Chen had planned to look for post doctoral studies in another European country, but the new rules makes that difficult. 

“My plan was to do a one or two year postdoc in another country to strengthen my competence and then come back to Sweden,” she said. It is rather common to do a postdoc in a new country and then come back to the PhD country for a more stable academic position,” she said. “By doing so we could broaden our vision, establish collaboration and bring back new insights.

“When we got permanent residency, returning to Sweden was easier, without having to go through all the energy-consuming stuff, like getting a job offer and applying for a work permit, getting a personal number, Swedish ID, bank account, Bank-ID and insurance.” 

She believes that the Swedish government should acknowledge that the impact of the new alien act on PhD students is a mistake and take steps to reverse the changes.

“Do not be afraid to admit that you made wrong decision, be open-minded and listen to different voices,” she tells the Swedish authorities. “There are ways to fix the mess and regain people’s trust.”

Now she’s considering whether to carry on seeking work and waiting for the Migration Agency to take its decision, or whether to take her expertise to another country, probably The Netherlands or Germany. 

“The way to regain my freedom is either to get a job that fulfils the new requirement or to leave Sweden to build my life and career somewhere else.” 


Melissa, from Australia. Photo: private

Melissa, 36, Australia

PhD on riparian ecosystem science

“It’s brought a big, dark shadow of insecurity into mine and my partners’ long term plans,” says Melissa, who decided to do her PhD in Sweden partly because her partner is Swedish, and partly because she knew she would be “a better researcher and scientist” if she spent time researching in another country. 

When she arrived, she wasn’t necessarily planning to continue her research in Sweden, but as she began to realise she perhaps wanted to, the change in the law came in, making it more difficult. 

“Turns out, I really like it here and I like the research environment! I do want to stay in Sweden to pursue a career here. I knew that an academic career was already very unpredictable but I had hoped that after finishing my PhD I could continue branching out from the research I’ve been doing in boreal forests in the form of postdoctoral positions with some of the Swedish researchers I really admire.”

That is now all looking more and more unlikely. 

“It’s almost like there’s this atmosphere of uncertainty that’s with me when I think about life after my PhD,” she says. “It’s already stressful to think about what I will do when I finish my doctoral studies, but adding in the stress of possibly not being able to stay in Sweden is massively draining, especially when the Aliens Act seems to ignore, or not care to consider, the realities of an academic career.”

She believes that the Swedish government should at least adapt the Aliens Act to reflect what she calls “the realities of academic careers”. 

“It is virtually unheard of for a young researcher to gain a position that fulfils the support requirements for 18 months and by not adjusting the Aliens Act to account for this you are discouraging really talented and passionate young researchers from coming.”

Although she wasn’t set on staying in Sweden for the long term when she started her PhD, she’s finding the new barrier to residency is putting her off, pushing her to consider positions in Australia or the US. 

“I’m more hesitant about pursuing an academic career in Sweden because the added feeling of ‘temporary-ness’ in everything I do,” she says. “It even just manifests itself in little things like abandoning our plans to get a dog, buy a house, or have a more long term career goal in Sweden because permanency isn’t so much of an option anymore.” 

Tuser Biswas, from Bangladesh, is researching textiles at Borås Högskola. Photo: private

Tuser Biswas, 34, Bangladesh 

PhD on sustainably printing biological materials onto textiles which can fight bacteria and viruses

Tuser Biswas has also  had his plans to work as a postdoc outside Sweden thrown into chaos by the new law, which came out four months after he’d applied for permanent residency. 

After I finish my PhD in Sweden, I would like to go work somewhere else as a postdoc. When I started my PhD, I knew that if I want to go somewhere else, I could always come back to Sweden (and I probably would) but know I am not sure what I would do,” he says. 

Also, like Chen, he has been stuck in Sweden as a result of the law. 

“I’ve had to cancel attending conferences and still can’t plan work related trips outside Sweden. My family is very stressed for not being able to travel to home country for a long time now.”

He says that the change in labour laws has changed his views on Sweden. 

“The total political environment is getting unfriendly for international mobility. I came to live in an open-minded society, but it seems like a mirage now.” 

He believes that the government should better tailor its migration laws to fit researchers. 

“Don’t make a ‘one size fits all’ type law. The working conditions for PhD researchers and other employees are not the same. How can you judge them all under the same law?”.