6.3 Risk and Protective Factors

Risk Factors

For immigrants/refugees and United States-born individuals alike, there are many factors that increase the risk of IPV. Individuals who have experienced abuse in childhood, either experiencing child abuse or witnessing IPV between parents, are more likely to experience IPV as adults (Simonelli, Mullis, Elliiot, & Pierce, 2002; Yoshioka et al., 2001). Experiencing trauma in adulthood increases risk of perpetration of IPV: men who have been exposed to political violence or imprisonment are twice as likely to perpetrate IPV as those who have not (Gupta, Acevedo-Garcia, & Hemenway, 2009; Shiu-Thornton, Senturia, & Sullivan, 2005). Additional risk factors for victimization and or perpetration include having high levels of stress, impulsivity, and alcohol or drug use by either partner (Brecklin, 2002; Dutton, Orloff, & Hass, 2000; Fife, Ebersole, Bigatti, Lane, & Huger, 2008; Hazen & Soriano, 2007; Kim-Goodwin, Maume, & Fox, 2014; Zarza, Ponsoda, & Carrillo, 2009). Social isolation, poverty, and neighborhood crime are also associated with increased risk (Koenig, Stephenson, Ahmen, Jejeeboy, & Campbell, 2006; Zarza et al., 2009).

In addition to these shared factors, there are many risk factors of experiencing IPV specific to immigrants, as well as a key protective factor. Each of these will be addressed in detail here.

Changes in Social Status During Resettlement

IPV is more likely to occur when an individual’s social status changes due to immigration (Lau, Takeuchi, & Alegria, 2006). During resettlement, many men lose previous occupational status and are no longer able to be the sole provider for their families. They may also experience a decrease in decision-making power relative to their partners. This kind of major change can lead to a loss of identity and purpose.

Shifts in social status are associated with greater risk of IPV. For example, in a study of Korean immigrant men, abuse toward wives was more common in families where the husband had greater difficulties adjusting to life in the United States (Rhee, 1997). In a study of Chinese immigrant men, those who felt they had lost power were more likely to have tolerant attitudes toward IPV (Jin & Keat, 2010).

Time in the United States and Acculturation

Greater time in the United States is associated with greater family conflict and IPV (Cook et al., 2009; Gupta, Acevedo-Garcia, Hemenway, Decker, Ray, & Silverman, 2010). Studies find that recent immigrants generally report lower IPV than individuals in the home country, United States-born citizens in the destination country, or immigrants who have been in the destination country for a long time (Hazen & Soriano, 2007; Gupta et al., 2010; Sabina et al., 2014). It may be that the process of immigration requires an intact family, and that families who can successfully migrate to the United States have strong coping and functionality skills (Sabina et al., 2014). However, over time, ongoing stresses contribute to an increase in IPV.

Studies have shown that when an individual has greater levels of acculturation to United States and greater experience of acculturation stress, they face greater conflict, IPV, and tolerance of IPV in their relationships (Caetano, Ramisetty-Mikler, Vaeth, & Harris, 2007; Garcia et al., 2005; Yoshihama, Blazevski, & Bybee, 2014). Acculturation is associated with less avoidance of conflict and more expression of feelings, which may partially explain why IPV would increase (Flores et al., 2004).

Although acculturation is associated with greater IPV, research has also demonstrated its protective effects. For example, one study found that women who are more acculturated practice more safety behaviors in the face of IPV (Nava, McFarlane, Gilroy, & Maddoux, 2014).

Norms from Country-of-Origin

Rigid, patriarchal gender roles learned in the country-of-origin are associated with increased tolerance for and experience of IPV (Morash, Bui, Zhang, & Holtfreter, 2007; Yoshioka, DiNoia, & Ullah, 2001). Arguments about fulfilling gender roles are also associated with greater IPV (Morash et al., 2007). For example, a study found that a quarter of their sample of Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, and Cambodian immigrants believed that IPV was justified in certain role-specific situations, such as in cases of sexual infidelity or refusal to perform housekeeping duties (Yoshioka et al., 2001).

Social Support: A Protective Factor

There are many other protective factors that reduce risk of IPV in many populations including education, parental monitoring for adolescent relationships, and couple conflict resolution strategies and satisfaction in adult couples (Canaldi, Knoble, Shortt, & Kim, 2012). However, the limited research on immigrant and refugee communities has addressed only one protective factor: social support. Social support from family, friends, and community can protect against IPV in immigrants and refugees. For example, involvement in one’s own cultural community was associated with reduced IPV-supporting attitudes among East Asian immigrants (Yoshihama et al., 2014). However, there are exceptions. A study of 220 immigrant Southeast Asians found that those reporting more social support experienced more IPV than those reporting lower levels of social support (Wong, DiGangi, Young, Huang, Smith, & John, 2011). This may be due to social pressures within the community (see the “Barriers to Help Seeking” section).


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Immigrant and Refugee Families, 2nd Ed. Copyright © 2019 by Jaime Ballard, Elizabeth Wieling, Catherine Solheim, and Lekie Dwanyen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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