Vathsala Illesinghe

Study program:
Policy Studies
Current affiliation:
Ryerson University

Vathsala Illesinghe (policy studies, Ryerson University) is analyzing the migration trajectory of people who have moved from Sri Lanka to Canada to determine how immigration policies affect immigrant and refugee women’s vulnerability to violence.

Doctoral research

Immigration policies and violence against immigrant and refugee women in Canada: A transnational perspective

In Canada, as in many countries across the world, one of three women experience abuse by intimate partners during their lifetime. Even though immigrant and refugee women experience the same types of violence as non-immigrant women, they face additional, specific risks. In an era of global governance, transnational citizenship, and the large movement of refugees, women’s experiences of violence cannot be contextualized as the experiences of those who belong to a single nation-state or as being affected solely by the policies and programs there.

This study brings a transnational perspective to the analysis of immigration policies in Canada in order to examine how immigration policies shape immigrant and refugee women’s vulnerability to violence. The study focuses on the trajectory of people who migrate from Sri Lanka to Canada. 

As a country shaped by immigration, Canada will benefit from understanding the complex intersections of gender, violence, and immigration, as well as the policy implications thereof. This understanding is central to ensure the inclusion, dignity, and human rights of immigrant women, and to craft the future of citizenship in Canada.

Vathsala Illesinghe is examining immigration policies and violence against immigrant and refugee women in Canada from a transnational perspective.

The inspiration for Vathsala’s work transcends borders and is strongly influenced by her experiences as a newcomer immigrant woman in Canada. Building on decades-long research and advocacy work in Asia, Vathsala has developed a deep understanding of South Asian women’s vulnerability to violence in their home countries, the complexities surrounding these women’s experiences, and the gaps in services and government responses to addressing violence against women.

When Vathsala began her work on violence against women more than a decade ago, silence and stigma surrounded women who experienced violence in Sri Lanka. While working as a doctor in a teaching hospital in Colombo, Vathsala witnessed women’s suffering first-hand and was among the first to call for for a health sector response. Since then, Vathsala pushed back against the stigma associated with speaking out and went on to publish some of the most-cited work on violence against women in Sri Lanka. She helped build capacity among care providers, engaged with governmental and nongovernmental agencies, and collaborated with an international community of researchers to place violence against women on the health agenda.

Following her work on the front lines, Vathsala joined a university in Sri Lanka where for 12 years she worked with researchers in Canada, Sweden, and the United Kingdom to study the determinants and root causes of violence against women and to seek solutions. She moved to Canada in 2013 and begun her doctoral studies two years later.

Using her interdisciplinary training in public health and social sciences, and drawing on her strong community connections to Sri Lanka and the diaspora in Canada, Vathsala is now examining how immigration policies in Canada shape immigrant and refugee women's vulnerability to violence within the context of the multiple identities and attachments that they maintain to their home country.