On any given day at VWT HQ, a steady stream of volunteers, staff, and social justice warriors (our favourite) can be seen heading into the office, busily working on a whole raft of projects that benefit women and girls. African Family Services is no different. Co-founded by social worker Kapambwe Mumba (left), and Lorraine Baloyi (right) who has a background in business law, African Family Services is a non-profit organisation that works with African-Australian women to provide mental health services, career development advice, improved safety outcomes and more.
African Family Services will be operating out of the VWT offices over a two-year incubation period, and we are delighted to welcome Kapambwe and Lorraine to the fold. VWT Project Officer, Esther Davies-Brown, had the chance to interview these exceptional young women and discuss their work in the African-Australian community.
Esther: What influenced you both to start African Family Services?
Kapambwe: African Family Services is a start-up, not-for-profit organisation, working with African women and their families in areas of family violence, mental health, social inclusion, community and career development.
Lorraine: I came here as an international student, when I was 18. I don’t have any family here, I just came on my own to study. All I thought was that I was just coming for school and that’s it, but then I experienced a lot of cultural shock getting here. I came straight from home so I didn’t know anything about budgeting or finance, so half of the time I would find myself so broke.
Sometimes I would feel really isolated and sometimes I would feel like I can’t really talk to my family about things because they wouldn’t understand. You’re basically supposed to be grateful that you’re overseas and you’re in a better place.
Once finishing school, I struggled a lot as well to get a job, because I had limitations around my visa status, so I couldn’t get a job in my field for 3 years because they would say “You don’t have permanent residency”. I couldn’t get placement, because I didn’t have permanent residency as well when I was at uni. So I had that disadvantage as an international student and trying to transition into the workplace. Over time I found myself doing a lot of volunteer work where I gained a lot experience and then I became overqualified. So you find there are a lot of African migrants who might be skilled, who have all this expertise, but they can’t find employment because there are gaps in services that actually don’t support or recognise active participants in the community that can do more than what they are doing. So that was my experience around that.
And then over time with working with Kapambwe, who’s done social work, we then started realising with a lot of social integration issues, people then go into depression, youths start abusing alcohol, other people start getting into illegal marriage status just to retain residency.
So with men, they can be really emasculated by coming here, trying to settle, not working in their field, or maybe their skills not being recognised. And sometimes it’s not even that, sometimes it’s not understanding the work culture in Australia because it is quite different. So you’d struggle with interviews, resume writing, not having that support. And that’s how we started.
What do you believe are the biggest issues that women are facing in the African community?
Lorraine: Women – they’re in different segments. I think for mothers it is family violence and not being able to leave their situation because they rely on the partner for finances. They want to be able to retain the family structure, they don’t want to shame the family, because there is the bride price in traditional marriage that puts the family affairs first before the woman’s needs. And also isolation, not knowing what to do, where to find access to support…or knowing where to find it but then having services demand you leave your situation before you get support. So I think that is the biggest issue for women, sometimes they know there is a problem, they want it to go away, but then there are no services available that are actually culturally sensitive to their needs.
With young women I think there are also social assimilation issues, there is a lot of education that needs to happen around sexual health. A lot of women come here, and we don’t really talk about sex that much at home, we don’t really get that education in school. And sometimes you come from very conservative families, so you come here and you’re exposed to a different world and you have no one to be the decider for what you do. You actually go out into the world and sometimes girls get pregnant, they become single mothers, they feel very isolated, they don’t have that support. A lot of single mothers, especially young girls, suffer from postpartum depression and don’t have that adequate support to really help them. So it becomes a cycle of events where you then get into depression and poor mental health. So it varies depending to the target group.
I think overall the biggest issue that women are facing is integration into the wider Australian community, acceptance into the wider Australian community and a lack of cultural awareness by service providers when working with African women.
How is the issue of family violence affecting the African-Australian community?
Lorraine: Family violence became one of the most common trends that we recognised within our own community, because it is an act that has always been accepted in different African countries. There is a role men play, and because of traditional culture, bride price, there is a certain ownership. Some, not all of them, but some men take that on, and women have always been taught to be resilient, have always been told to value family first and put the family first before anything else. So a lot of women, even if they do want to leave, they wouldn’t know where to start, because some of the services that are available here are not available back in Africa. Or if the services are available sometimes they are not culturally appropriate or sensitive to people’s difference and diversity.
Another challenge that we’ve found around family violence is mainstream support services want you to leave your situation. They will give you all the support in place, finances, linking you with legal services, as long as you leave. What the white Australian community doesn’t understand is that when it comes to working with culturally diverse communities, sometimes leaving is not the first option. Sometimes it takes a lot, there are so many factors that come in place, factors of isolation, factors of culture, am I shaming my family by exposing what’s going on? Will my kids be able to cope well? So a lot of women sometimes want help so that at least they can see the light at the end of the tunnel before they actually make the proper steps to leave.
We want to be in a position where we actually equip women with safety and tools, we equip women with knowledge, education, raise awareness, and make the community understand that you’re not alone when you are going through certain things. There are organisations such as us that you can reach out to, that are culturally appropriate and sensitive and willing to work with you in whatever capacity and stage that you are at in your life.
How does your work specially combat those issues that African-Australian women face?
Kapambwe: African Family Services has a rich, in-depth knowledge of these issues and bridges the gaps in services by providing women with services from a cultural lens in an appropriate cultural space taking a holistic approach. African Family Services gives these women a platform to be able to retain their culture whilst residing in Australia as it is an integral part of their health and wellbeing.
Lorraine: I think with the African-Australian community there is that strong sense of family structure that is very valuable, and sometimes people go through so much just to retain that. So how do we then channel that commitment and bond and educate not only the woman but also the man and also educate parents on the impact of family violence and strategies to have positive communication techniques. So African Family services is really not there to re-invent the wheel but just to add on to some of the support services to give everyone that opportunity to be able to access support that is relevant to them. The idea is just to empower our own community and socially integrate in a positive and effective way.
Contact African Family Services here.
Esther Davies Brown
Esther has her dream job. A graduate of Women’s Studies from Monash, Esther applies her knowledge to real life outcomes for women and girls, working with diverse community partners to make magic happen (and by magic, we mean #Breakthrough2016). On weekends, you can find her cooking feasts with her housemates or cycling across town, just because.