2/2016
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Abdirashid A. Ismail

Somali children in Finland are raised by their mothers

According to Official Statistics of Finland, the proportion of single mothers with underage children among the Somali population is higher than among any other ethnic group in the country. In 2012, 38 per cent of the Somali speaking children were living with a single mother. The chart below, from year 2015, reconfirms the finding. Moreover, the number of single-mother families seems to be increasing.

A significant number of world’s children live in single parent families. According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, approximately 85 per cent of these children are raised in households headed by single mothers. In the West, there are a number of reasons that generate the rise of single motherhood families. An increase in births to unmarried women as well as the increased rate of divorce and family separation are two main demographic causes behind rising numbers of single mothers. Unlike in the past, the death of the father is a minor cause for the creation of single motherhood in the West.

Families in Finland with underage children by language of mother on December 31, 2015. Source: Official Statistics of Finland (2015).

The aim of this article is to shed light on some of the factors behind the rise of single motherhood among the Somali community in Finland. Finnish-Somalis are not exceptional, a similar phenomenon has been observed also among Somali communities in the USA, the UK, and Norway. I argue that the main factors behind the high proportion of single parenthood among the Somalis in the diaspora are related to cross-border marriages and the difficulty of migrating to Finland through family reunification as well as family fragility engendered by the new context.  

The article is based on my personal observations as a member of the Finnish-Somali community and the data (individual and focus group interviews) that were collected in two different research projects:  

First, an Academy of Finland funded study which investigates the experiences of Muslim, mainly Somali, women and men in Finland regarding the lived realities of marriage, impacted by state legislation and Muslim family laws as well as transnational family life. I have collected the data together with Dr. Mulki Al-Sharmani, who is also the leading researcher of this study. The study is part of a larger research project “Transnational Muslim Marriages: Wellbeing, Law and Gender” (2013-2017).

Second, another study, funded by the Open Society Foundations and concluded in 2013, aimed at identifying the challenges and successes with regards to integration of Somali immigrants in Finland, and understanding their experiences in major areas of their daily lives. The two main projects have been led by Dr. Marja Tiilikainen.

Strict family reunification laws and transnational marriages

One of the factors that plays an important role on the rise of single motherhood among the Somali community in Finland is family separation due to immigration (laws). In case of family separation, Somali children customarily live with their mother. Therefore, if spouses live in different countries and their children are in Finland, it usually means that also their mother lives in Finland.

Accordingly, if it is the father who happens to be in Finland, children are likely to stay with their mother in another country. Hence, it is mainly mothers, rather than fathers, who accompany the children in the migration process. A phenomenon that has not been paid much attention to so far, is the Somali fathers who live in Finland alone without their families. Recent restrictions on family reunification are expected to aggravate the situation.

Another factor is transnational marriage. Many Finnish Somalis tend to marry another Somali. According to our interviewees, because the availability of appropriate marriage partners among the community in Finland is limited, they often marry someone living outside Finland. Following a cross-border marriage, the spouses (and possibly children) may live separately for a long time, in some cases forever.

This might be by choice where parents, due to their circumstances, prefer to live separately. However, the most common reason for Somali families living apart is the family reunification process, which increasingly results in negative decisions. Thus, Finnish family reunification policies, particularly the recent restrictions in migration policies, play a significant role on the rise of single motherhood among the Finnish Somali community.

Furthermore, these restrictions sometimes lead to personal tragedies. For example, one of my interlocutors narrated how she had got married to a Somali man, who stayed as a migrant in another African country where they also met. After the marriage process she returned to Finland and submitted the family reunification application for her husband.

The process took a very long time. During this time, she used to visit him in Africa and they got a child. After the final negative decision, her husband decided to take the risk and cross the Mediterranean illegally to join his wife and child. Unfortunately, he was one of those numerous people who perished in the Mediterranean Sea and she became one of the Finnish-Somali single mothers.

Welfare state, unemployment and reversal of gender roles

Divorce rate among Somalis in the diaspora is believed to be high even though exact figures are lacking. Research has highlighted family conflicts generated by differences between traditional the Somali culture and the culture of Western societies regarding the roles of genders.

It has been argued that spousal tensions have become a main source of family disruption and the high rate of divorce among the Somali immigrant families. This is augmented by some other factors, such as the lack of traditional mechanisms for mediation and family conflict resolution that were available in Somalia.

In the diaspora many Somali (as well as non-Somali) mosques undertake family dispute resolution, though both its scope and the number of people who use it varies from one context to the other as well as within the same context. In the absence of habitual conflict solving mechanisms provided by, in particular, the extended family, the available intervention and support services are mostly social services and police. However, according to the research observations, these interventions often unintentionally make the situation even worse.

The above mentioned factors impact the increasing divorce rate also among the Finnish-Somali community. For instance, the role reversal, where mother gets economic support from the state and father, who should habitually provide for the family, is unemployed, may be difficult to handle and, thus, leads to a crisis. According to a female focus group participant:

“There is another problem with husbands, which is unemployment. He might be away for the whole day sitting in cafeterias without employment and the wife keeps all money (welfare benefits), and she asks him to help with children’s education and to give the family time. This might be a source of conflict between spouses.”

Some scholars have argued that the welfare policy in the country of resettlement may speed up the dissolution of Somali families. This argument has been explained by two reasons. First, a Somali mother with her cultural background that attaches a strong value to both motherhood and independence, finds herself in an environment where single parents are provided strong support and therefore, she may be encouraged to seek divorce.

Second, it has been argued, that general suspicion against Muslim men prevails in public service institutions, and as follows they are prepared to make sure that a divorced Somali mother will be supported. 

Many Finnish-Somalis believe that the tensions between the cultural values of the Somalis and the practices of the family institutions of the Finnish state affect the breakdown of the Somali family. However, it has also been highlighted that some couples are divorced only formally, but actually continue normal married life. This practice is motivated by welfare provisions that support a single parent.

However, in general Finnish-Somalis talked about this practice in harsh terms, probably not because of its prevalence but because of its immorality in both the Somali and Islamic culture and how it may reflect to the community in general.

Another factor that impacts the rise of single motherhood is the long-term absence of some fathers who travel abroad and leave their family behind in Finland. This has to do mainly with the lack of economic opportunities in the country. While some may leave in search for better opportunities for their family, some others, due to the humiliating situation as fathers and husbands generated by the lack of economic opportunities and the welfare policies supporting single parents, may choose to disappear to escape from the situation.

Tensions over resource management

A particular factor that is repeatedly mentioned by the interviewees as an important source of family conflict among Finnish-Somalis, is disagreement about how family resources, particularly money and time, are managed. Following is a conversation between the researcher and a 26-year old married woman that highlights the situation:

Researcher: Here (Finland), what are main challenges that (Somali) married couple is facing?

Interviewee: First of all, Somalis, I am not sure if this is a studied phenomenon, but the Islamic scholars say the main issue for conflict among the married couples are financial resources and that he (the husband) does not help me (husbands do not help wives with the domestic work) …

Researcher: Among your friends and the community in general, have you observed that? Is it true?

I: Yes, I have seen it, it is true!

Conflicts over financial issues in the family also extend to situations, where spouses disagree over how much and to whom they should remit money.

In this article I have discussed some of the factors that play a role in the rise of single motherhood among the Somali community in Finland. To better understand the relative impact of these factors on divorce and single parenthood, quantitative studies that would show actual numbers in the different categories of single motherhood, and further, enable analysing correlations and causalities of the relevant variables would be needed.

Abdirashid A. Ismail

The author is a post-doctoral researcher at the Department of Social Research, University of Helsinki, in the project “Transnational Muslim Marriages: Wellbeing, Law and Gender”. He is also an economics policy fellow with the Heritage Institute for Policy Studies (HIPS) in Somalia. He holds a doctorate degree from Hanken School of Economics, Helsinki, Finland. His research interests include immigration and diaspora, with particular focus on transnational migration and family well-being, as well as the political economy of conflict and state formation.

abdirashid.ismail(at)helsinki

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