Families in conflict
Somali mothers, particularly single mothers, must cope daily with doing the household chores, disciplining and raising children and, as is the case for other women, they often they have to take low – paying unskilled jobs to help support family members, both in
Canada and in Somalia. Once they enter the system, however, they quickly learn that it was not designed for them.
There are several reasons why there are many single-mother heads of families. First, the Somalis who came as refugee claimants were predominantly women with many children and they chose to come to Canada because of its international image of helping and welcoming immigrants and refugees. For many, ‘Canada is the first exposure to Western culture for the vast majority of Somali women’. Second, many families were forced to separate because of the war, leaving the woman to care for the children alone. And third, marital breakdown and divorce among Somali couples in Canada is high and results in many women caring for their children alone.
The conflicts that lead to marital breakdown arise mainly over the redefinition of traditional roles between men and women and the stress of trying to cope in a foreign country. For example, in Somalia men did not help their wives with household chores or childcare but there were many relatives helping out. In Canada however, this kind of support from relatives does not exist, yet women have to raise a family without the help of their husbands. At the same time men expect to be treated with respect and exert authority as heads of households as they once had in Somalia. These men are expecting to be obeyed without contributing very much to the well-being of the family.
Several other factors contribute to marital conflict, which sometimes becomes abusive. First, political conflicts in Somalia are often transferred to Canada. The effects are magnified, especially if the husband and wife are from different clans. This manifests itself in the form of who to send money to: should it be her clan or his? Her family or his? Or should they spend it on their own needs?
Second, a large percentage of Somali men are unemployed because of recession and lack of recognition from employers of previous work experience and education. Somali women, on the other hand, are willing to take dead-end, low-paying jobs in order to support their family in Canada and abroad. This creates a role reversal as women become financially independent of their husbands. As a result men feel alienated, useless, angry and frustrated, eventually taking out their frustrations on their wives and children. Many Somali women look to the police for protection.
The result is an extremely high rate of marital conflict and divorce. There is an increasing incidence of violence within Somali families where stress may be high and where abused family members do not know their rights or sources of help. In Somalia by contrast domestic conflicts that might lead to divorce are often solved by one’s in-laws and extended family, thereby saving the marriage. (This is particularly the case in clan-exogamous marriages where there is more at stake than the relationship between two people.) In Canada social services and the police exist in place of the extended family but their intervention can unintentionally end up exacerbating a situation of domestic conflict. For example, one Somali woman who was angry with her husband called the police to teach him a lesson. Lacking knowledge of Canadian law she did not anticipate that the police would charge him, an outcome that made her situation far worse.
Because of the breakdown of the traditional support systems available in Somali, abusive relationships between parents and children, as well as among married couples, are increasing in the Somali community. Large numbers of children are growing up in Canada speaking either English or French and understanding how to use ‘the system’ to their benefit. In many cases they are abusing their mothers in the process. Somali refugee children in Canada tend to believe that they are deprived of the freedoms that Canadian children enjoy. This leads the children to threaten to call the police or the Children’s Aid Society (CAS) and report abuse unless they get their way. Police and CAS intervention is the nightmare of most Somali single mothers in Canada, as many who have had contact with such agencies have had their children taken away from them.