Demographic Characteristics and the Cultural Position of South Sudanese-Australian Families

Australia is the home of approximately 25,000 South Sudanese forced migrants (Lucas et al. 2013). Most of them arrived between 2003 and 2007 after being accepted for resettlement by the Australian Government in response to persistent requests from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to resettle some of the six million protracted refugees in Africa (UNHCR 2006). In addition, the 2011 Australian population Census counted a further 23,500 persons with Sudanese ancestry, most of whom are children born in Australia to recently resettled parents (Lucas et al. 2013).

The South Sudanese community in Australia has a very young age structure with 52 % under the age of 25, and the proportion of male and female unpartnered adults is considerably higher than in the rest of the Australian population.[1] This trend is partly related to the high prevalence of family separation in the community and partly to the substantial proportion of humanitarian visas issued by the Australian Government under the Woman at Risk subcategory, which assists widowed or separated mothers. It is important to note that a substantial proportion of the community (9 % of males and 24 % of females) either do not speak English well or not at all. The proportion is considerably higher among those age 35 and over (Lucas et al. 2013).

Another key characteristic of South Sudanese families is their cultural heritage. Although culture is a tenuous concept in both academic and everyday debate, disregarding it also is problematic. There is a growing recognition that cultural position, together with other key aspects of a person’s life, are critical to how refugees make sense of their resettlement experiences (Ryan et al. 2008). As will become clear, culture still has a “real” meaning for the participants of this study.[2] Discussion of the cultural position of the South Sudanese diaspora therefore provides a useful framework for the analysis presented in later sections of this chapter.

A central feature of all South Sudanese cultures[3] is the extended family unit—the principal focus of, and reason for, social cooperation and responsibility. It also acts as a form of social security for its members.

Resources are not the only thing shared within the extended family. A family member’s pride or shame, respect or disrespect, is also shared by all family members. Maintaining behavioral standards therefore is important and the functioning of families rests on strictly defined roles, respect for family hierarchy, and reverence for parents and other adults in the larger family (Deng 1972, 1990; Hutchinson 1996). Children’s conformity with these standards, hierarchies and roles is expected and highly valued. Discipline and respect are important elements of socialising children into the role of becoming responsible adults, and parents and other adults use an instructional approach together with physical punishment when teaching children (Hebbani et al. 2009).

The extended family and the community have an important role in supporting, as well as coercing, individuals within the family unit. For example, socialization of children is shared by the extended family or clan, and children and youth are often under their collective care and authority. What is expected of them is conveyed not only by words but also through cultural norms and their position in the hierarchical structures of families and society. Failure to comply with such expectations leads to rebukes or punishment from adult members of the family and the community. Family conflict and violence typically are mediated by the extended family with the overall aim of maintaining the social balance and protecting the interest of the extended family or the clan. Other forms of interventions, such as intervention from the state, to protect the interest or well-being of individuals (e.g., a child or a youth) over the interest or well-being of the family unit are considered implausible (Losoncz 2013).

Overwhelmingly, South Sudanese extended families are patrilineal, where the patriarch of the family has high status and clout by virtue of his constructed position in the family. His authority to maintain the social balance in his family is supported not only by various cultural norms and practices but also by customary law in South Sudan—the dominant legal framework and mechanism for resolving family conflict and violence. His status also comes with the responsibility of continuing the genealogy, reputation, and prosperity of his family. Interference from external actors, including government authorities, in the private family space is considered to be an attack on the patriarch’s role and authority (Losoncz 2013).

Although cultural positioning is an important consideration, understanding parenting in refugee families through this lens alone is simplistic. First, many elements of parenting goals and styles are consistent across cultures (Steinberg 2001), and parenting styles do not remain stagnant over time but evolve (Lambert 1987). Additionally, other factors, such as lack of economic resources, support networks, and social and institutional support for immigrant families, can all significantly impact parenting in immigrant families (Ochocka and Janzen 2008). Thus, a broad range of ecological and contextual factors also need to be considered when analyzing parenting in the resettlement context.

  • [1] The category includes unmarried, single, separated, divorced, and widowed (Lucas et al. 2013).
  • [2] Although, it needs to be acknowledged that as a consequence of colonization, civil wars, andsubsequent destruction, the transference of a nuanced conception of culture has suffered and oftenwhat has remained is a more one-dimensional interpretation of the original culture (Deng 1998).
  • [3] There are more than 200 ethnic groups in South Sudan. Although culturally diverse, nearly alltribes there are part of the Nilotic culture. Thus, the presentation of South Sudanese cultures in thischapter is the dominant shared understanding among the Nilotic people originating from SouthSudan.
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