On Tuesday the 10th of October 2017, the Victorian Family Law Pathways Network (VFLPN) hosted the forum ‘Afghan Women and Family Law’. The forum aimed to place a spotlight on Afghan culture with the intention of assisting professionals to develop enhanced cultural understandings of Afghan women accessing the family law system, whilst simultaneously highlighting some of the key issues within the community. The event was facilitated by Laura Villemagne-Sánchez, Associate at Forte Family Lawyers and member of the VFLPN Steering Committee.
Keynote speaker, Gula Bezhan, a case worker for Catholicares’ Refugee and Settlement program and President of the Afghan Women’s Organisation Victoria, provided an overview of Afghan culture, the diverse meanings of relationships and family, as well as the experience of Afghan women and their families when settling in Australia. In outlining the experience of women in Afghanistan she explained that every 30 minutes a woman dies in childbirth, 87% of women are illiterate with only 30% of girls having access to education. Physical, psychological and sexual violence are common experiences for Afghan women. Marriage is considered an obligation with divorce being very rare and stigmatised, male dominant polygamy is also practised. Forced marriages, particularly those involving children is still common in Afghanistan with 70 to 80% of women facing forced marriages. The decisions relating to whom the woman will marry are made by male relatives. There has seen an increased rate of suicide especially in response to violence with the common form being to burn themselves.
Family life in Afghanistan is inclusive, with a strong community focus and support networks. Neighbours are obligated to visit each-others home and maintain close ties. Expectations are high on women to give birth within 12 months of marriage, sons are highly prized, as he will carry on the family name and tribal affiliation. In celebration of the birth women do not leave the home for 40 days. Birth control measures are not culturally or religiously acceptable. Elders are respected and listened to, often performing a role of family and social mediators. As such, Courts of law are considered the last resort.
With consideration to their current situation in Melbourne, Afghan parents are often facing challenges settling in to a new community and become more dependent on their children. Finding employment can be difficult (children may also become the main earner in the family), securing accommodation and barriers to using health services (lack of awareness of services and entitlements) are also relevant concerns. For females, social isolation is a concern as families do not allow their daughters to attend social activities for fear that their children will lose their traditional culture. Arranged marriage remain a big issue which is only confounded by the lack of understanding of Australian law. Woman who cover themselves in traditional clothing are also faced with significant abuse in public spaces and do not feel safe in public, which is causing them to loose trust in Australian society. In discussing access to services and referral pathways Gula also noted there are differrences between entry visas and the impact they can have on access to support services for refugee communities.
Roona Nida, an Afghan Barrister, discussed the experience of Afghan women and their common concerns and issues they are confronted by when engaging with the legal sector. Of note were concerns relating to understanding child discipline, the concept of the best interest of the child and the lack of education within immigrant communities when it came to the Australian Family Law System, especially as it relates to the judicial system and underpinning principles. In particular Roona noted that Intervention Orders were not necessarily understood by the community. An example she gave from a case was that a Father sought an Intervention Order (IVO) to try and stop the Mother from influencing children that were over the age of 18. In another example, the Father did not understand that under the IVO he was not allowed to call the Mother on the telephone, merely that he was forbidden from subjecting her to abusive behavior.
Roona advocated that agencies such as child protection and the judiciary have an obligation to understand multi-cultural communities. Roona suggested changes to section 60CC of the Family Law to give greater consideration to the culture and religions of multi-cultural Australians, indicating that the provisions relating to Aboriginal and Torres Trait Islanders should be replicated and applied to all diverse cultures. She indicated that community perceptions are that decisions can only be made by Judges and there needs to more education in terms of family dispute resolution and out of court settlements options.
In referencing Sharia law Roona indicated that there are in fact rights for women to divorce within the Quran but as the information is controlled by men and women are often unable to read, the reality is not necessarily the same. She referenced the need for women to seek not only legal divorce but also religious divorce to enable free participation in the community, which must be sought from an Imam. Religious divorce can be sought by a woman if the husband fails to look after the wife and children or if the husband breaches the marriage contract.
The final speaker Senior Constable Maha Sukkar, the Multicultural Liaison Officer for Victoria Police, begun her presentation by reciting her mantra that ‘nothing can be done about them, without them’ when attempting to facilitate change within a community. She discussed key barriers in relation to Afghan and multi-cultural communities seeking help, namely, a lack of education not only in English but often their own languages. She noted of her own experience immigrating to Australia that as an educated woman she often found the mountain of paperwork provided by Centrelink and similar agencies difficult. She reiterated a point made by Gula that, the change in family dynamics as the fathers lose their positon to the child who are often adapting to the new culture faster and therefore becomes the families guide within the broader community is a significant barrier. Fear of police is also a concern as the majority of Afghani immigrants are from the Hazara population who are persecuted within Afghanistan.
In relation to the local community there are concerns about ‘what the neighbours will think’ as the community in Australia is small and divorce and engaging police for family matters is taboo. Underreporting is a problem, especially as the perception has grown within the community that police break families. In the past, removing the victim from the home was seen as the appropriate action but recent practice have realized this approach only tends to isolate the victim more. Child Protection often becomes involved which may result in the removal of the children from the family. As such police have updated their procedures to now remove the perpetrator. However, financial concerns are still prevalent as the perpetrator remains the soul bread winner often leading to his return to the family home. Which in turn, can force the Police and Child Protection to have to consider removing the family. The threat of deportation has been utilized as a means to calm a situation day and as a means of forcing perpetrators to reconsider their behavior.
The forum concluded with a lively debate between the speakers during the audience questioning over how to best engage the issue of family violence. Education was held up as a necessary action to explain the laws of the land and expectations when it comes to violence. Family violence has become normalized and perpetrators need to be educated on what family violence is upon arrival and acceptable behaviour as well as informing the victims of their rights and the support systems available to them.