Cultural awareness – advice for practitioners

Although some cultural practices are subjective as to whether they constitute abuse, there are a number which can be definitely classified as significant harm and should not be ignored by practitioners.

These include Female Genital Mutilation (FGM); Breast IroningForced Marriage; ‘Honour’ based violence and abuse; and abuse linked to a belief in witchcraft or spirit possession.

There are other cultural abuses that originate from traditional practices, including traditional medicines and rights of passage. Some of these may not always constitute ‘significant harm’ to a child or adult.

We have adopted the GMSP procedures for Culturally Appropriate Practice which can be found at

Bi-Cultural Parenting

Arriving in a new country, whether as a refugee or migrant, can be very daunting if the culture you have come from is very different. This is particularly true where parenting is concerned. Some countries lack the legal framework for protecting children that we have in the UK, so asylum seekers, refugees and migrants may not understand what they see as ‘state intervention’ in family life.

It is likely that asylum, refugee and migrant families will rely upon different ideas of how ‘family’ is organised, using their own beliefs and values based on culture and religion. This can impact on parenting styles, child rearing practices and the roles and expectations of different members of the family.

It is important for practitioners to develop cultural competency by familiarising themselves with a family’s make up and functioning. This enables a better understanding of the influences on the family and interactions between family members and together with how the family interacts with the local and wider community, will enable a more comprehensive and holistic assessment of family needs.

Some of the issues affecting asylum, refugee and migrant families may include:

  • language
  • beliefs, rituals and rights of passage around key life stages
  • gender roles and tensions
  • inter-generational roles and tensions
  • parenting styles and different approaches to parenting
  • children’s behaviour
  • children’s education
  • caring responsibilities
  • poverty and housing
  • isolation
  • stress due to uncertainty about the future
  • bullying/racism.

A cultural competency based approach to providing services should enable practitioners to assess how a family is structured, the roles played by various family members and the interactions within the family, as well as how the family engages with the outside world. Tension between family responsibilities and obligations and the differing relationships of individual family member with the outside world puts the family structure under varying amounts of strain and pressure. This in turn will affect how families interact with practitioners and cross-cultural factors should be taken into account when proposing or discussing interventions.

Cultural Awareness

Definitions of parenting and family are socially and culturally constructed, comprising racial, ethnic and religious elements. For example, the African/Asian concept of ‘extended’ family compared to the UK/Western ideas of the ‘nuclear’ family.

Whatever the context of ‘family’ it can be broadly defined as a collection of people who care for each other and any children in the family.

A family cares for children by building resilience and self-esteem through the provision of childcare, such as providing physical needs, emotional support, play and learning opportunities, moral guidance and a sense of identity and belonging.

Extended families not only care for their children, but also older generations who may be in need of care and support – there may be 3 or 4 generations of a family living together.

When asylum seekers, refugees and migrant families arrive and settle in the UK, there are sometimes tensions in culturally based perceptions of family attitudes and expectations regarding behaviour, care and parenting methods.

The independence and free expression experienced by western children and young people differs from the co-dependency and respect for adults expected in other cultures. Even within similar cultural and socio-economic groups there will be a range of different attitudes and values. It is therefore important to take account of an individual family’s frame of reference – diverging child rearing or caring practices should not be seen as requiring ‘westernisation’ simply because they are different.

Safeguarding should be viewed through the lens of adult or child welfare, rather than the norms of Western culture.

Further guidance

  • AFRUCA – provide an opportunity for mutual learning and support among African communities and faith organisations interested in the safeguarding of African children
    • contact AFRUCA on tele: 0844 660 8607
    • visit their website at
  • Coram Legal Centre – find out more on their website

Male circumcision

Male circumcision is the surgical removal of the foreskin of the penis. The procedure is usually requested for social, cultural or religious reasons (e.g. by families who practice Judaism or Islam). There are parents who request circumcision for assumed medical benefits.

There is no requirement in law for professionals undertaking male circumcision to be medically trained or to have proven expertise. Traditionally, religious leaders or respected elders may conduct this practice.

Male circumcision that is performed for any reason other than physical clinical need is termed non-therapeutic circumcision.

Doctors are under no obligation to comply with a request to circumcise a child and circumcision is not a service which is provided free of charge. Nevertheless, some doctors and hospitals are willing to provide circumcision without charge rather than risk the procedure being carried out in unhygienic conditions.

Poorly performed circumcisions have legal implications for the doctor responsible. In responding to requests to perform male circumcision, doctors should follow the guidance issued by the:

Further information can be found on the NHS website at

Traditional and Folk Practices

Where there are safeguarding concerns around traditional customs and practices it is a good idea understand them in the context of the family’s culture.

Talking to parents or carers to find out what it is they are doing and the reasons for it, can help practitioners to make a more accurate assessment of the situation and prevents misunderstandings.

If there are language difficulties, an interpreter should be brought in; children should never be asked to act as interpreters for their parents; likewise family members for adults.

It is also important to speak to the child or adult to ascertain their views on whether a practice is harmful. It can often be helpful to involve community leaders who will be familiar with individual families and their practices, especially where language may be an issue.

Where disciplinary, traditional or folk practices appear to be overly harsh or harmful, the practitioner should carefully explain the UK law regarding abuse, to the parents or carers and inform them of any course of action that may be taken, if there continues to be safeguarding concerns.


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