The two-year rule, which can be found in the Swedish Aliens Act, dates back to 1983 when the Swedish Migration Board brought attention to fictitious marriages where a Swedish citizen marries – sometimes for money – a person from another country in order for that person to qualify for a Swedish residence permit. The rule was adopted to combat this practice, as it provides that if such a couple gets divorced within two years, the spouse from the foreign country, usually a woman, loses the right to reside in Sweden.
‘The intention might have been good, as they wanted to put an end to fictitious marriages. But, just like in so many other cases, it’s the women who have to pay the price,’ says Mehrdad Darvishpour, gender and ethnicity researcher at Mälardalen University College.
End up in a weak position
Darvishpour concludes that most import marriages are in fact real and not fictitious. They usually involve a Swedish man and a woman from Southeast Asia, but import marriages are also common in various immigrant groups where men who are Swedish citizens meet their wives in their countries of origin or arrange a marriage with the help of their families in their home countries.
For many years, Darvishpour has studied marriage and divorce among immigrant families, including import marriages. He has tried to explain why these relationships tend to be more unequal than others.
‘If two spouses arrive in Sweden at the same time, they have pretty much the same opportunities. This shifts the balance of power towards the woman, which in turn leads to a more equal balance of power in the family. Import marriages are different in this respect. Many of these relationships are based on a clearly unequal power balance between a man who is relatively well-established in Sweden and a newly arrived woman who doesn’t know the language and lacks a job and a social network. The man already has a residence permit and the woman ends up being totally dependent on him, not least because of the two-year rule. All of this puts her in a very weak position.´
The unequal relationship may lead to conflict and in some cases violence. Darvishpour says that no group in society is more vulnerable to domestic violence than women in import marriages.
‘Tens of thousands of women fall victim every year. A doctoral thesis from 2011 shows that foreign-born women, in particular those with low income, are three times more likely than Swedish-born women to experience domestic violence. Women who come to Sweden via import marriages may be even more at risk. A study by Roks from 2009 shows these women were overrepresented among those who had contacted and been granted protection through their women’s shelters.´
Darvishpour’s studies show that few women dare reporting the violence or contacting a women’s shelter. Victims of domestic violence with roots in Iran have told him in interviews that it took them a long time to get established in Sweden. The man tends to isolate the woman by restricting her social networks and blocking her access to society. As a result, the women have difficulties learning about their rights in Sweden, where to turn if they are victimised and how to manage on their own if they decide to report the violence. And many of those who do report the abuse end up withdrawing their reports.
‘The problem is that many women refuse to report perpetrators or withdraw their reports also in relationships where the woman is relatively independent. How then can the women who are dependent on the two-year rule be expected to trust that their reports will lead to a conviction?’
No legal rights
Karin Svensson at the National Organisation for Women’s Shelters and Young Women’s Shelters in Sweden (Roks) says that the two-year rule locks abused women into a hopeless situation.
‘If they’re lucky they have two options: they can either stay in an abusive relationship or return to the country they came from. But many women can’t return home. Maybe they are not welcome back as a divorcee, or perhaps they have nothing to come back to.’
In 2014, a total of 1 197 women with these types of problems contacted Roks’ shelters. That was a big increase from 2013, when the number was 340. The increase can be attributed to mainly a few shelters that have specialised in reaching out to this group, and their efforts have been effective. But Svensson believes that the number of unknown cases remains very large.
‘Exceptions to the two-year rule can be made for victims of domestic violence. But not many women meet this criterion since it also requires that the woman must have been exposed to severe and repeated violence, and that she left the man in connection with the violence. Those of us who work with men’s violence against women know that this is not how it works in real life. Getting into a violent relationship is a process, and so is getting out of it.’
Since few women qualify for a residence permit without their husbands, they end up in a situation where they do not have any legal rights.
‘Most of them are forced to endure the abuse for two years until they can get their own residence permit and leave the violence behind. This is the reality many women face – they can’t return home and they don’t dare reporting their husbands since they are afraid it will reduce their odds of being able to stay in Sweden.’
Forced to endure both more and more severe violence
Roks is one of several organisations that have pushed for the abolition of the two-year rule. And as long as we still have the rule, we have to reduce the requirements that these women have to meet to qualify for an exception, says Svensson.
‘It can’t be acceptable that women who come here from other countries are forced to endure both more and more severe violence than women born in Sweden. There should only be one definition of violence.’
She also says that we need to find preventive measures. For example, we need to find channels through which we can inform the women about their rights before they come here. Another possibility is to carefully assess the man before letting the woman into the country.
‘According to our definition, wife importers are men who live and are established in Sweden and who import a woman from another country with an intention to hurt or take advantage of her. Serial importers and men with a record of previous violence against women or paedophilia could be stopped with a review function in place.’
However, no such measures are in the pipeline. The demand for abolition of the two-year rule is growing. Politicians, researchers and women’s shelters keep raising their voices. So why isn’t anything happening?
‘We can see the same pattern across the board: it’s not a prioritised issue. This strikes import wives particularly hard. If we’re serious about ending men’s violence against women, just talking about it won’t do the trick. We need to act, too. Almost everybody agrees about which measures we need to implement. All we need is a transition from words to action at the political level.’
Facing racist attitudes
Darvishpour agrees that the two-year rule should be abolished and the legislation concerning men’s violence against women tightened.
‘With today’s legislation, racist violence is a more serious crime than non-racist violence. This is a way to signal that society does not accept violence targeting particularly vulnerable groups. Why can’t we apply the same rationale to gender-based violence?´
The Swedish government’s spring budget sets aside SEK 25 million for local women’s shelters. According to Darvishpour, increased resources are of critical importance.
‘The women’s shelters are dealing with one of society’s most serious problems with very little funding. This forces women to return to abusive relationships.’
Finally, he points out that social services, law enforcement and other public actors and authorities who come across these women need to change their perspective.
‘Today they have a neutral perspective that hides women’s subordination. Many women who contact the police for support are confronted with racist attitudes and are not taken seriously. The attitude is like, “there’s always a lot of fighting in immigrant families.” I believe an antiracist feminist perspective would help this vulnerable group.’
Excerpt from Roks’ latest statistics:
In 2014, a total of 18 803 women and girls contacted Roks’ 110 shelters for support; in 2013 the number was 17 144.
The shelters turned away 1 858 women in 2014, which is about the same number as in 2013 but almost 500 more than in 2011.
Of those who contacted a shelter for support, the number of women involved in an import marriage increased from 340 in 2013 to almost 1 200 in 2014.
Of those who contacted a shelter for support, the number of victims of honour-related violence increased from 626 in 2013 to 1 128 in 2014.