Cultural and spiritual abuse

Australian and international research indicates the need to recognise spiritual and cultural abuse as a form of domestic and family violence that may be part of a broader and complex pattern of behaviours experienced by a victim. While they may be interrelated with broader patterns of physical, psychological, sexual, economic and other forms of violence, spiritual and cultural abuse have unique dimensions where spirituality or cultural identity is central to the victim’s way of life, or their personal sense of meaning, purpose and wellbeing.

As with many forms of domestic and family violence, spiritual and cultural abuse are means by which a perpetrator can exercise dominance, control or coercion over a victim (sometimes identified as coercive control) who is especially vulnerable due to their spirituality or cultural identity. Behaviours may include any form of domestic and family violence and may involve the perpetrator:

  • belittling the victim’s spiritual or cultural worth, beliefs or practices
  • violating or preventing the victim’s spiritual or cultural practices
  • denying the victim access to their spiritual or cultural community
  • causing the victim to transgress spiritual or cultural obligations or prohibitions
  • forcing on the victim spiritual or cultural beliefs and practices that are in conflict with their own
  • manipulating spiritual readings and practices to justify abuse
  • misusing the traditions, practices and expectations of the spiritual or cultural community to which the victim belongs as a means of normalising or suppressing the abusive behaviours, silencing the victim, or preventing the victim from seeking support and help.

Some specific examples of these behaviours include the perpetrator:

  • denouncing the victim’s prayers as having no purpose or value
  • insisting that the victim honour the perpetrator rather than the victim’s cultural or spiritual beliefs
  • asserting his entitlement to a dowry from the victim’s family, or punishing the victim or her family for what he claims to be an insufficient dowry
  • forcing the victim to undergo partial or total removal of her external genitalia, or be subjected to any other injury to her genital organs for reasons that are not medically warranted (sometimes referred to as female genital mutilation or FGM)
  • publicly humiliating the victim during spiritual or cultural ceremonies
  • preventing the victim from wearing clothing prescribed by spiritual or cultural practices
  • preventing the victim from attending their chosen place of worship
  • causing the victim to transgress spiritual or cultural belief systems by forcing the victim to drink alcohol or to have intercourse during menstruation
  • citing biblical readings in claiming the eternal sanctity of marriage and God’s disapproval of divorce
  • compelling the victim to keep the abuse secret by threatening that disclosure will result in the victim being disbelieved, shunned and shamed by their spiritual or cultural community.

Cultural abuse may be one aspect of a complex pattern of behaviours engaged in by perpetrators in order to control another person, sometimes referred to as coercive control.