Australian Human Rights Commission

Family and culture 15.1Balancing culturally-sensitive services and information on Australian cultural norms

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15Family and culture

15.1Balancing culturally-sensitive services and information on Australian cultural norms

    For people arriving from Africa, there can be a significant difference between family and gender roles and expectations in their home countries and those in Australia. This is reflected in the roles of men, women and young people, who face a tension between maintaining their traditional African cultural practices while trying to meet the expectations of a new society. It can also create challenges for maintaining and enhancing relationships.

    There is a need to ensure that services for African communities are culturally sensitive, while also teaching Australian cultural norms. What is, and is not, acceptable or legal is not necessarily obvious to newcomers. There is also a different cultural understanding of domestic violence, both around its definition and appropriate responses.

15.2Effects of shifting male/female household roles

    Changing gender roles can create challenges for newly-arrived families. There is often a shift in male and female household roles, which can impact on the family’s prospects for successful settlement.145

    Omar Farah, in his research on the needs of Horn of Africa men in Carlton, states: “For Horn of Africa Men, their traditional values that placed men as the head of the family giving them significant responsibility and control over their family and environment. Contrasting this, in Australia men find their role is challenged due to the changed status of women.”146

    This issue has begun to generate considerable research interest, particularly from African Australian academic men.147 Juma Abuyi is currently undertaking research on best practice in service delivery to African men migrating to Australia to prevent family violence and the breakdown of family relationships. Specifically, the research will identify and critically analyse the current approaches that service providers use to resolve acculturation problems, family relationship issues and gender role conflicts experienced by Acholi men in Australia. It aims to inform policy development and service provision for these communities.148

    African men feel they must have a job to be seen as a ‘real man’ who can provide for his family.149 When the woman finds work and the man does not, there can be a shift in control of the family’s financial resources. This will also influence domestic roles and duties, as the women will require more help at home if they are working full-time. Some men feel it is not their place to do domestic work and either do not help, and then become angry with the wife for not fulfilling her family duties, or they do help but resent the diminution of their status. These tensions were especially noted in Muslim communities.150

    The payment of child support and other Centrelink allowances directly to the mother can further undermine the father’s self-esteem and his position as the head of the household and financial provider.151 The husband may develop an inferiority complex towards his wife due to changes in the position of authority.152 Refugee men have also expressed frustration that their wife is unduly influenced by Australian women. Some research suggests that these internal family tensions can lead to incidences of domestic violence.153

    It is also important to note that the woman might also not be happy with her changed role. African women tend to occupy the domestic sphere and men are the breadwinners. As such, she may feel her husband is neglecting his duties and failing the family by not finding work. She may also resent being put in the position of having to work and thereby neglect her domestic responsibilities and care of her children.154

15.3The role of schools in a child’s upbringing in Australia and its effects on African families

    The fact that Australian schools take an active role in a child’s well-being can also be a factor in changing family dynamics. While expected among the Australian-born community, it is unfamiliar to members of the refugee community that schools should be concerned with, or attempt to influence, a child’s home life and also have the authority to intervene.

    If mainstream services are unaware of African cultural practices, there will be a clash over acceptable modes of disciplining children.155 Some members of African communities feel Australian authorities should make concessions to the African tradition of physical discipline. Family matters, discipline or disputes, it is felt, should not be police matters but remain a family issue.156

    Not being able to physically discipline their children can also contribute to a breakdown in family structure and respect for parents. For example, if a child knows that their father’s ability to hit them is a sign of his authority, but that this is unacceptable in Australia, then the child may believe that their father has no authority over them here. Intergenerational conflict, and parents’ dwindling authority over their children, can be the result of conflicting expectations between traditional African cultures and mainstream Australian culture.157

    It is therefore important that child and family welfare service planners are well informed about how best to support refugee families using culturally competent family intervention and community development practices.158

16Women’s isolation

16.1 Changes to women’s social environment and networks

    In some African communities, culture and religion can influence decisions about where women can go and what they can do. Within certain spaces, women enjoy a significant level of freedom, mixing together with other women in their community and building strong social networks.

    However in Australia, the situation is different. African women no longer have the same strong community links or an established social support network around them. They still operate within the same constrained spheres, but they now do so alone.159

    A study with Somali women showed that the loss of social relationships as result of civil war and displacement contributed to their feelings of distress and sadness, which affected their everyday lives and overall well-being. This lack of social networks for African women in Australia restricts their access to social capital.160

    The market place is an example of an important social space lost to African women after their arrival in Australia. The market represents both a social network and gathering space in most African communities. Sellers and buyers are all part of their community and the act of going to the market is as much about relationships and social support as it is about purchasing goods.

    Markets in Australia, however, are not social centres. Indeed, they can often be frightening and confusing, especially for the newcomer. For women who have not established a social network in Australia, or whose network is dispersed geographically, going to the market becomes a solitary activity.

    Culturally-embedded gender roles underpin an unequal distribution of family responsibilities, which African women have identified as reasons for a lack of leisure time and barriers to their participation in sport and recreation activities.161

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