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Ethnic minority children and divorce

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Both in Denmark and internationally, we have little knowledge about the experiences of children in ethnic minority families when their parents separate. Drawing on interviews with such children, a recent SFI project now sheds light on this issue. The results are disheartening, with such children often first experiencing for many years with high levels of parental conflict, before – after a divorce – they have to cope with poor relationships to their fathers and with over half coming to live in poverty.

The divorce rate in Denmark is high, with around 40% of all marriages ending in divorce. Research shows that parental break-up (as well as badly functioning marriages) can be hard for the children involved. To date, such studies have almost exclusively focused on children from the majority population. Now, however, a study drawing on interviews with 32 children (or young adults) and 31 parents, as well as on register data on broken families with a non-Western ethnic minority background, sheds light on the situation in minority families. The study has been carried out by SFI in collaboration with the Children’s Welfare organisation.

Poverty and vulnerable mothers

Documenting that a full 52% of such children come to live in poverty in an otherwise rich society, the study also shows that many children have experienced conflictual family lives for years before their parents finally separate. According to the interviews, it is not uncommon for this separation to entail that mothers leave the home due to fathers being violent or having problems with alcohol or mental illness, for example.

Two reasons for mothers not leaving such bad marriages earlier on are the strong norms against divorce which exist in many immigrant communities, and many women’s vulnerable positions in Danish society. A large percentage of mothers in such families have come to Denmark as adults – some arriving as refugees with their husbands and other marrying spouses already settled in Denmark – and such women often have a limited command of the Danish language, few close relatives nearby to support them, and they lack the skills sought for in the Danish labour market.

As children mostly come to live with their mothers after a divorce, they may at times have to shoulder a lot of responsibility, as they have better Danish skills than their mothers, who furthermore may become isolated in their own immigrant community. Despite these problems, many children and mothers experience divorce as a relief.

Poor relationships with fathers

Regarding the children’s relationships with their fathers, both the quantitative finds available and the interviews show that the children see their fathers less, and more often lose contact with them altogether, as compared to their majority Danish peers. While a few children were so fortunate as to have warm and strong relationships with their fathers, this was not the general picture.

Some fathers who seemed to struggle to forge meaningful post-divorce relationships with their offspring, also lacked the resources to do well themselves, for example living in squalid rooms and working long hours. Other fathers remarried quickly after the divorce and, after having more children, such fathers sometimes cut off contact with their offspring from their first, failed, marriage. Here we heard of some children (themselves referring to the “good divorced fathers” their Danish schoolmates had) insisting on seeing their fathers, thus themselves keeping a relationship going. As 14-year-old Gül put it:

I am the one who calls [our father]. He never calls – or very rarely… [My sister and I] don’t ask [if we can come over]. We say: “We are coming to eat with you”, and if he says “no”, we go there anyway. He has tried saying “no” to me twice but I came anyway…It is not only up to him to decide.”

Certainly, several children told about wanting to do things differently for their own children, if they, themselves, were ever to get divorced. As 14-year-old Ali put it:

[If I get divorced]… I wouldn’t say ‘fuck the kids’ like so many others do, and just hand it all over to the woman for, hell no, it is not only her children.”

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