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Heightened vulnerability

What makes culturally and linguistically diverse mothers and children more vulnerable?

The experience of culturally and linguistically diverse mothers and children in Australia is often framed by social isolation, language barriers and a lack of culturally appropriate services.

Mothers often do not know what kinds of abuse fall under the domestic and family violence umbrella or that domestic and family violence is a crime. This can stop them from getting help. It also limits father’s ability to understand and take responsibility for their actions.

In the following sections we explore some of the main experiences that make culturally diverse mothers and children vulnerable to abuse.


‘I was abused not just by my husband but also by my mother-in-law and sister-in-law and my father-in-law. Initially they stopped me from getting out of the house. I wasn’t aware that I could apply for a bank account by myself. He said that because he was a resident and I was a ‘visitor’ … I wasn’t allowed and I believed him. I wasn’t allowed to talk to anyone. He wouldn’t let me use the phone and I didn’t know what I could do.’

Victorian Royal Commission into Family Violence (2016) report.

Social isolation

Both the Victorian Royal Commission and the Australian Government’s 2015 Hearing her voice report found social isolation is a major problem for culturally and linguistically diverse mothers and children. Isolation can happen when a mother moves to Australia knowing no one other than her partner.

If her partner is Australian or has been established in Australia for some time, she may rely on him for money, transport, language and an interpretation of Australian cultural norms. This can place mothers in a risky situation where the father has almost unlimited power over her.

Fathers may also deliberately isolate their partners or children from contacting their family and friends. A father may stop a mother from contacting family and friends in her country of origin, including children she may have had to leave behind. He may limit her access to phones, internet or transport.

Some mothers and children may also fear social isolation as a consequence of seeking help. The Hearing her voice report found mothers fear talking about family violence with anyone outside of the family as family members may think this is disloyal.

Mothers who decide to leave a father who uses violence may also be ostracised. The fear of being excluded by society, family and friends can be distressing and may lead to mothers reuniting with their partners.

If mothers do leave, complete relocation may be their only option. For culturally and linguistically diverse mothers and children, this can mean moving from an area where there are many people from the same cultural background to an area where they are the minority.

This relocation can have a significant impact on the life and support networks of mothers and children. Such a transition can make it difficult to access support, maintain friendships and attend worship. It also can also impact on some basic things, such as buying the foods they like to eat from local store holders and hearing their language spoken on the streets and at the school gate. Though these elements may seem small, they create safety through community, and to lose them can be isolating and stress-inducing.


‘X came to Australia … to live with her new husband. Since coming to Australia she has very rarely left the house. She knows very little English and doesn’t know how to drive or use public transport. After the birth of their son, her husband has become increasingly violent towards her. During the most recent incident, her husband punched her repeatedly in the head. A neighbour heard screaming and called the police. They attended and assisted X to take out an intervention order against her husband which excluded him from the property. X presented at [a legal service] seeking assistance to have the order removed. She was worried about having adequate financial support and was struggling to look after her son on her own. Her husband had always driven her to the supermarket, the doctor and other services and she did not know how to get to these services by herself. She felt isolated and alone as neighbours from her community had stopped speaking to her. She said it would just be easier if he could come home, even if it meant that she would be subjected to further violence.’

Victorian Royal Commission into Family Violence report (2016).

Attitudes to family violence

People from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds may have limited understanding of Australia’s laws about domestic violence. Much like the broader community, their attitudes towards the roles of mothers and children, and violence against mothers may be influenced by the belief that fathers are superior to mothers.

There may also be legal and cultural differences that leave people unaware of how domestic violence is defined and policed in Australia.

For example:

  • In some countries family violence is not considered a crime and sexual assault may not be recognised if it happens within a relationship.
  • The Hearing her voice report found some mothers were unaware they could consent to some sexual activities while still being able to refuse others.
  • In other countries, family violence may be against the law, but it is widely considered to be a private or personal matter.
  • In some countries, domestic violence is a crime but only when there is a physical assault. Rape, financial abuse, psychological abuse or isolation are not included.
  • In some communities, sexuality is not openly discussed and rape is a taboo topic.


‘We need to make it clear that, in Australia, domestic violence is not a private matter — it is a public matter and it is a crime.’

Hearing her voice report (2015).

Experiences of violence, poverty and discrimination

People coming to Australia on refugee visas are likely to have experienced and witnessed violence and trauma as a way of life. This may include torture, racism, hate crimes, war, political imprisonment and rape.

Experiences of torture, oppression and violence should not be seen as excuses for fathers’s violence towards mothers and children. An ANROWS Landscapes Review (Issue 12, 2015) of existing literature found that mothers in war and conflict situations experienced extreme violence, yet did not go on to be aggressors in their families. This study suggests that it is mainly the acceptance of abuse towards mothers and children that causes violence, not past experiences of trauma.

It is critical, however, to understand the father as a whole person. Do not limit your understanding to just his behaviour. Explore empathetically with him if he has suffered violence, oppression and adversity and how this suffering shapes his world.

The Queensland Program of Assistance to Survivors of Torture and Trauma (QPASTT)   has more information about the experiences of torture, violence and resistance of refugees and asylum seekers.

Gender roles

Families may have clearly defined gender roles and there may be responsibilities assigned to those roles—such as mothers being responsible for the family and home while the fathers are responsible for finances. Resettlement in a new country where there is less contrast between gender roles can disrupt established family gender roles. Sometimes this is welcomed and sometimes it is not.

In your assessment, it is important not to assume that clear gender roles in a family mean that there is violence. You need to assess whether power and control are misused and if this causes harm to the mother and her children.

Shifts in the financial and employment circumstances of new migrants can also have an impact on gender roles. Fathers may find themselves unemployed and mothers may need or want to start working. Shifts in finances and traditional roles can impact on fathers’s self-esteem and add tension to households, increasing the possibility that the father will assert their masculinity in violent ways.


‘Men who are violent against their spouses and children … often themselves use the cultural defence. It’s really typical for men who are violent to have excuses for their violence, anything else other than accepting responsibility. So it’s really important at that point that people are well versed in exactly what violence is about and that it’s not about culture.’

Ms Joumanah El Matrah, Executive Director of the Australian Muslim Women’s Centre for Human Rights in the Victorian Royal Commission into Family Violence.

Lack of familiarity with support services

Family violence can be particularly severe for culturally and linguistically diverse mothers and children who cannot find accessible support services or information. Mothers may not trust mainstream services or may feel services are unsafe.

The Australian support system is complex and difficult to navigate for many mothers and children. There is a general lack of information about what services are available to mothers that are accessible in different languages and for different faith groups. Sadly, this causes mothers and children of culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds to be overrepresented in crisis situations.

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