‘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.”

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How foreigners can get on the fast track for a work permit in Sweden

It can now take about six months to get a work permit in Sweden, and a year for an extension. Here's how you can get on the fast track.

How foreigners can get on the fast track for a work permit in Sweden

How long does it normally take to get a permit to work in Sweden? 

According to the calculator on the Migration Agency’s website, 75 percent of first work permit applications are completed within three months, and 75 percent of work permit extensions are completed within 14 months. 

These numbers, though, are only for people in non-risk industries. If you are applying for a job in the cleaning, building, hotel and restaurant, or car repair industries — all of which are seen as high risk by the agency — applications can take much longer to be approved. 

For these industries, the calculator suggests a long 12-month wait for a first application and a 17-month wait for an extension. 

This is because of the higher number of unscrupulous employers in these industries who do not pay foreign workers their promised salaries, or do not fulfil other requirements in their work permit applications, such as offering adequate insurance and other benefits. 

So how do you get on the fast track for a permit? 

There are two ways to get your permit more rapidly: the so-called “certified process” and the EU’s Blue Card scheme for highly skilled employees. 

What is the certified process?

The certified process was brought in back in 2011 by the Moderate-led Alliance government to help reduce the then 12-month wait for work permits.

Under the process, bigger, more reputable Swedish companies and trusted intermediaries handling other applications for clients, such as the major international accounting firms, can become so-called “certified operators”, putting the work permit applications they handle for employees on a fast track, with much quicker processing times. 

The certified operator or the certified intermediary is then responsible for making sure applications are ‘ready for decision’, meaning the agency does not need to spend as much time on them. 
You can find answers to the most common questions about the certified process on the Migration Agency’s website

How much quicker can a decision be under the certified process? 
Under the agreement between certified employers and the Migration Agency, it should take just two weeks to process a fresh work permit application, and four weeks to get an extension. 
Unfortunately, the agency is currently taking much longer: between one and three months for a fresh application, and around five to six months for an extension. 
This is still roughly half the time it takes for an employee seeking a permit outside the certified process. 
The Migration Agency told the Dagens Nyheter newspaper in a recent article that in September the average decision had taken 105 days, while over the year as a whole, applications for certified companies had taken 46 days, and those for non-certified companies 120 days. 

How can someone planning to move to Sweden for work take advantage of the certified process? 
Unfortunately, it is very much up to your employer. If you are planning to move to Sweden for work, you should make sure to ask prospective employers if they are certified, or sub-certified through an intermediary firm, and take that into account when deciding which company to take a job with. 
Smaller IT companies are often not certified, as they tend to start off by recruiting from within Sweden or the European Union. 
If you have begun a work permit application with a company that is not certified or sub-certified, then you cannot get onto the fast track even if your employer gets certified while you are waiting for a decision. 
The certified process can also not be used to get a work permit for an employee of a multinational company who is moving to the Swedish office from an office in another country. 
If my employer is certified, what do I need to do?
You will need to sign a document giving power of attorney to the person at your new company who is handling the application, both on behalf of yourself and of any family members you want to bring to Sweden.  
You should also double check the expiry date on your passport and on those of your dependents, and if necessary applying for a new passport before applying, as you can only receive a work permit for the length of time for which you have a valid passport. 

Which companies are certified? 
Initially, only around 20 companies were certified, in recent years the Migration Agency has opened up the scheme to make it easier for companies to get certified, meaning there are now about 100 companies directly certified, and many more sub-certified. 
To get certified, a company needs to have handled at least ten work permit applications for foreign employees over the past 18 months (there are exceptions for startups), and also to have a record of meeting the demands for work and residency permits.  
The company also needs to have a recurring need to hire from outside the EU, with at least ten applications expected a year. 
The Migration Agency is reluctant to certify or sub-certify companies working in industries where it judges there is a high risk of non-compliance with the terms of work permits, such as the building industry, the hotel and restaurant industry, the retail industry, and agriculture and forestry. 
Most of the bigger Swedish firms that rely on foreign expertise, for example Ericsson, are certified. 
The biggest intermediaries through whom companies can become sub-certified are the big four accounting firms, Ernst & Young, Deloitte, KPMG, and Vialto (a spin-off from PwC), and the specialist relocation firms Human Entrance, and Alpha Relocation. Bråthe estimates that these six together control around 60 percent of the market. Other players include K2 Corporate Mobility, Key Relocation, Nordic Relocation, and some of the big corporate law firms operating in Sweden, such as Ving and Bird & Bird. 

What is the EU Blue Card, how can I get one, and how can it help speed up the work permit process? 
Sweden’s relatively liberal system for work permits, together with the certification system, has meant that in recent years there has been scant demand for the EU Blue Card. 
The idea for the Blue Card originally sprung from the Brussels think-tank Bruegel, and was written into EU law in August 2012. The idea was to mimic the US system of granting workers a card giving full employment rights and expedited permanent residency. Unlike with the US Green Card, applicants must earn a salary that is at least 1.5 times as high as the average in the country where they are applying.
Germany is by far the largest granter of EU blue cards, divvying out nearly 90 percent of the coveted cards, followed by France (3.6 percent), Poland (3.2 percent) and Luxembourg (3 percent).

How can I qualify for a Blue Card?

The card is granted to anyone who has an accredited university degree (you need 180 university credits or högskolepoäng in Sweden’s system), and you need to be offered a job paying at least one and a half times the average Swedish salary (about 55,000 kronor a month).

How long does a blue card take to get after application in Sweden? 

According to the Migration Agency, a Blue Card application is always handled within 90 days, with the card then sent to the embassy or consulate named in the application.

In Sweden ,it is only really worth applying for a Blue Card if you are applying to work at a company that is not certified and are facing a long processing time.

EU Blue Cards are issued for a minimum of one year and a maximum of two years.