skip to content

University of Cambridge Centre for Gender Studies


Ms Halliki VoolmaGates Trust Scholar

Domestic Violence in the context of Human Rights: Women with insecure immigration status exposed to domestic violence in England 

 Supervisor: Professor Jude Browne (UCCGS)

 “The PhD in Multi-disciplinary Gender Studies as a Gates Cambridge scholar was the culmination of almost six years of research on the nexus between domestic violence, migration and human rights, which I had already begun for my Bachelors dissertation, also supervised by Dr Jude Browne. The experience of undertaking the PhD was both very challenging and very rewarding. My supervisor supported my decision to do an internship with the UN Women peace and security team in NYC at the end of my first year, which was a fantastic way to gain insight into the workings of the UN where I had wanted to work since I was a young teenager, and also conduct research interviews with international experts for my PhD research. Independent fieldwork in Sweden and England in the second and third years of the PhD was challenging because of the unique access and ethical issues that are associated with researching violence against women, but also inspiring because I was able to speak to brave women who shared their stories with me, and professional stakeholders who were doing important work to advance women’s and migrants’ rights. Writing the 80,000 word thesis was the biggest task I had ever embarked upon, so it was terrifying in its own right, but it was also great to get down on paper so many of the thoughts that had been developing in my mind during my three degrees at Cambridge. I successfully defended my PhD in September 2015 and had a wonderful viva experience for which I am grateful to my examiners Prof Loraine Gelsthorpe and Dr Monica Burman, and to Dr Jude Browne for helping me prepare throughout the years for this final, unique, test. I am currently working on a social innovation project 'Action-Metre’ in Estonia, my home country where I had not lived since I was ten. Action-Metre is a web platform designed for running social campaigns on different social and public health issues, with the focus on individuals committing to micro- ctions in their everyday lives which have a positive societal impact. I have also been working on publications from my PhD thesis, presenting my research at several international conferences, and volunteering with the Estonian Refugee Council. Going forward I want to continue working on gender and migration issues, contributing both to research and to international policy development.”


 Violence against women, including domestic violence, is a pervasive global problem of epidemic proportions, rooted in gendered power relations, which intersect with other axes of inequality. Since the 1990s, EU member states have begun to address domestic violence as an issue warranting significant political and legal recognition, but key gaps remain in national and international responses. This thesis addresses the problem of domestic violence against women with insecure immigration status in England and Sweden, from a human rights perspective. This is the first comparative and multi-scale qualitative study of this issue in the EU. The study examines survivors’ experiences, stakeholders’ perspectives, law, policy, politics and service provision with the aim of providing a nuanced account of the nexus of domestic violence, immigration status and human rights in these two countries. The empirical component consists of data from in-depth interviews with 31 survivors from 14 different non-EU countries residing in England or Sweden, and 57 professional stakeholders including specialist support service providers, politicians and experts from EU and international organisations. The thematic analysis of interview data is couched within an innovative human rights theoretical framework. The data highlights the importance of an expansionist model of human rights whereby different categories of rights are addressed as indivisible and where presence in a territory, as opposed to immigration status, is the basis for recognition as a rights-bearing subject. Survivors’ narratives of the dynamics of domestic violence in the context of insecure immigration status demonstrate the need for a broad definition of domestic violence, foregrounding the pattern of abuse as opposed to individual incidents and recognising migrant-specific dynamics. The interview data also reveals the complexity of survivors’ pathways out of abusive relationships, linked to legal and policy barriers such as the threat of deportation built into the spousal visa probationary period in both countries. Addressing the issue of domestic violence in the context of insecure immigration status reveals the international dimensions and international relevance of domestic violence and suggests not only that the personal is political, but that the domestic is international.