16.2 Impact of men’s concerns on women’s socialising
Some men in African communities are fearful of women in their family being exposed to the perceived licentiousness and immorality of Australian society162. They express concern about the effects of being exposed to a culture that allows social mixing between men and women, that allows women to wear revealing clothes, to be independent and outspoken, to be employed and generally to participate in ‘men’s activities’. Consequently, men may seek to place more restrictions on the movements of women in their family to prevent them from being unduly influenced by Australian social mores. This only adds to their sense of isolation, as they can be restricted from going out and making friends with other women, even among the refugee community.
Some African women can experience health consequences from leading a much more indoor life than they did in their home countries, where there were outdoor women’s spaces where they could unveil. In Australia these spaces are mostly indoors. As a result, Muslim women who veil have fewer hours of exposure to sunlight, which can lead to Vitamin D deficiency.163
Health care, like going to the market, is another point of social connection in the lives of African women. Women would often pair a trip to the market with a trip to the health clinic, so they could take care of two errands rather than make the trip to town twice. This is another activity that has a different structure and meaning in Australia.
17Issues for Muslim women
The Muslim population in Australia almost doubled between 1991 and 2006, growing from 0.9% to 1.7%. The increase was mainly due to immigration and partly attributable to a high birth rate.164
Female Muslim refugees belong to multiple groups of marginalisation, which can each exacerbate the other. These women must deal with the unique intersection of their experience of being a Muslim, a woman and a refugee.165
Not only are they dealing with past trauma and looking to find security in their new home, at times they can at times come ‘under attack’ from other parts of Australian society because of their religious identity. Female Muslim refugees may also experience fundamental differences with mainstream Australian society that can inhibit their integration.
Some Muslim women may experience personal, psychological and cultural insecurity, which can be compounded by their social isolation from the broader Australian society and from members of their own communities, as they struggle with settlement and the lack of a support network to help them cope.
Many of the barriers they face as refugees are heightened by issues surrounding their religion. In their home countries, their faith had been what had connected them to society. However, they find now themselves in a society where their religion ‘otherises’ them even more.166.
As a group, Muslim refugee women face four key issues that impact on their successful settlement in Australia:
Muslim women who came to Australia with some English language skills have reported the tremendous help it provided them in the settlement process. They found settlement to be more straightforward than those who did not know English, as they were better able to understand and navigate issues to do with employment, education and accessing services167.
A lack of English language skills often leads to imposed isolation, forced dependency, unemployment and an inability to mix with others and form relationships. It can be a self-perpetuating barrier to settlement in Australia, where a person is unable to navigate Australian society and unable to make friends to help them. Fear leads the person to stay home, preventing them from mixing with others and making them less likely to learn or practice English.
Some Muslim women seek to increase their independence through employment. In doing so they can encounter multiple roadblocks, including racism and discrimination based on their religion, e.g. one woman who was surveyed had been told by her boss to not to pray in working hours and asked to wear less colourful ‘veils’ because “it distracts the customers”168.
Many Muslim women expressed feeling greater isolation in Australia than in their home countries because their husbands sought to have greater control over them and their movements in an effort to ‘protect’ them in a non-Muslim country. Further compounded by having limited social networks, many Muslim women are unable to share their feelings and experiences with others going through the same experiences.
Members of Muslim refugee communities said they “did not feel secure that Australian authorities could guarantee their safety.”169 Reports of harassment and discrimination against these communities are widespread170, which often stems from negative attitudes within parts of mainstream Australian society towards people who follow the Muslim religion.
Nearly one in three Australian women experience physical violence over their lifetime and almost one in five women experience sexual violence.171
While there is no available data on the prevalence of family violence in newly-arrived communities, the issue is increasingly highlighted as requiring urgent attention, particularly among community leaders and service providers working with new and emerging communities.
In 2005 a major conference in NSW172 discussing the settlement needs of refugee women identified family violence as a major concern and recommended that further research be undertaken to identify levels of understanding and awareness within new communities.
Although there is no data to show that the prevalence of family violence involving refugee women is greater than for other women, several researchers have indicated that refugee communities may be at greater risk than other groups. “Without knowing the relative weight of the various causal factors for gender based violence, it is nevertheless reasonable to assert that the risk factors would be high for refugee women.”173
A Victorian Government report also found that women from culturally and linguistically diverse communities are more likely than ‘mainstream’ Australian women to be victims of violence and sexual assault. Furthermore, experiences of trauma or torture, including rape and sexual violence, are frequently reported in many newly emerging refugee communities.174
Research undertaken recently by the Victorian Immigrant Women’s Domestic Violence Service175 identified particular risk factors for refugee women including:
isolation, cultural betrayal and language skills
trauma and alienation
gender roles and cultural change
lack of appropriate information targeting refugee communities.
A NSW study suggests that the incidence of family violence in refugee communities may be higher due to what the authors refer to as ‘cumulative risk factors’:
Whilst domestic violence in the wider community results from several factors that interact to create the climate for abuse, in the case of refugee families there is an abnormal or extra-ordinary cumulation of risk factors which may result in a greater propensity for violence, understanding this cumulative risk enables us to locate the cause of refugee men’s violence in the interplay of psychological factors, cultural factors and the extreme socio political and socio economic situations they experience.176
It is important to note that the notion that some men in particular communities have a greater propensity for violence is highly contentious. While the literature broadly concurs that changes in identity or perceptions of self, combined with the psycho-social effects of war and persecution prior to arrival, impact considerably on the settlement experiences of refugee men, there is a great divergence of views about whether such factors could be said to be ‘causal’ of family violence.177
In consultations with African communities in Western Australia, participants wholeheartedly acknowledged that domestic violence is wrong, disrespectful and violates the rights of the abused.178 However, actions or behaviour which African communities would consider as ‘domestic violence’ differed from what other Australians understand domestic violence to be. Further, even in understanding that domestic violence is wrong, it is still seen as a family matter – not a legal issue – that should be dealt with inside the family.
There are numerous reports to suggest that migrant and refugee women are either not aware of the support services available to them or do not view them as being culturally relevant or appropriate. “A major challenge in responding to domestic violence in the community is adopting strategies that are cognisant of the importance retaining community support for women who become alienated if they follow the dominant strategy of leaving their husbands or seeking help through the judicial system. Women reported that responses from the police were unsatisfactory and often culturally inappropriate.”179
Research has also been conducted to explore family violence within the Eritrean and Somali communities in Melbourne’s western region, in order to understand the key issues and identify how existing services could be improved.180 Three groups were targeted, including Eritrean and Somali women and service providers (ethno-specific and mainstream). A literature review was undertaken, along with focus groups and semi-structured interviews. Key findings indicated that:
the family violence service system meets needs around housing and food but may not meet other needs (for example, the crisis refuge system may require women to share facilities or to move away from their communities)
ethno-specific workers deal with family violence issues in a culturally sensitive way but this may not provide the most appropriate response for women
there is a lack of services for Eritrean and Somali men to assist them adapt to Australian society and laws, to access unemployment benefits or to deal with their own violence
Eritrean and Somali communities prefer to deal with family violence within the family and community, rather than seeking outside assistance.