My father murdered my mum, Salwa Haydar in March 2015. In the years leading up to the murder, my mum frequently expressed the desire to divorce him, but she held back partly for fear of the disapproval and gossip that she believed would ensue.
She was afraid of being labelled a bad mother and, at the same time, embarrassed about how the abuse would be perceived and racialised by outsiders. Her concerns for how her extended family and community would judge her and the way this would impact her children had kept her trapped in an abusive, unhealthy marriage for 27 years.
Mum’s fears were not unfounded. Victim-blaming and blatant slander ran rampant in the weeks following the murder and at the time of my father’s trial.
According to research, women from culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) backgrounds are less likely to report violence and experience more barriers in accessing support services, making them less likely to leave a domestic violence than other women.
One of the main reasons for under-reporting is the shaming or family disapproval.
One of the main reasons for under-reporting is the shaming or family disapproval faced by CALD women. The repercussions of divorce vary from culture to culture; however, a common thread is that women are often concerned about their reputation being attacked by extended family and community members. This alone can be enough to prevent some women from leaving abusive situations.
It is not uncommon for the family of the offender to rally in support of him even when the abuse is clear. Sometimes, saving face and upholding the family name overwhelms the pursuit of justice or the importance of providing the appropriate support to survivors.
Women are often expected to sweep male shortcomings under the rug. Victim-blaming, excusing offenders and shaming of survivors is by no means limited to any particular culture. But in tight-knit CALD communities these issues can be exacerbated by cultural and family expectations, especially when women are isolated from the wider community.
Centres providing women’s-only safe spaces also respond to the psychological needs and cultural preferences of female victims and survivors.
The question of how to effectively respond to the needs of CALD women goes beyond the training of individual frontline workers; it is a question of cultural stigmas, structural problems and limited resources.
I am mindful of these issues in my capacity as a member of the board at Bankstown Women’s Health Centre. We are one of only 20 government funded women’s health centres state-wide. The centre caters to one of Australia’s most culturally diverse communities in greater western Sydney. It is estimated that about 50 per cent of its clients are CALD women, almost all report past or current experiences of abuse.
There are several ways under-reporting in CALD communities can be tackled. At Bankstown we use ‘soft-entry’ options to attract clients who may prefer not to report to police or who are reluctant to disclose their experience of abuse for cultural reasons.
For instance, a community kitchen health and nutrition program run by the centre attracted 22 women, more than half of whom ended up accessing the other services offered at the centre and disclosing past or current abuse.
For many CALD women, such initiatives are a far more attractive way of accessing support because they do not carry the real or perceived threat of going directly to police and alleviate some of the pressure associated with legal proceedings. Centres providing women’s-only safe spaces also respond to the psychological needs and cultural preferences of female victims and survivors.
Work is already being done at the grassroots level to challenge harmful attitudes and to raise awareness about how they contribute to violence against women. However, more needs to be done on a legislative and policy level to make sure grassroots support is accessible and responsive to the needs of CALD women.
For all the worry about what we wear, how we marry and how we divorce, little concern is being converted into dollars and practical protections for CALD women.
The web of barriers and pressures faced by CALD women may not always be clear or obvious to people outside of their cultural context. This makes it all the more essential that policymakers and service providers strip back their assumptions about the needs of CALD women and focus, instead, on increasing access and providing adequate funding to the services on the ground that provide front line support.
For all the worry about what we wear, how we marry, how we divorce and our supposed lack of cultural and religious agency, little concern is being converted into dollars and practical protections for CALD women.
Front line workers and advocates want the conversation shifted towards a practical and intersectional response to domestic violence that includes better accommodation options, and legislative change so that women can access adequate protection, that is culturally sensitive.
For CALD women, it can literally mean the difference between life and death.
Amani Haydar will be speaking at the Feminist Writers Festival Writing Violence, Writing Change session on November 3. The festival runs from November 1 - 3. You can follow her on Twitter @amani_haydar_.