The route to real change

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Reality TV is an odd indulgence. How many of us have not sat with interest and awe as we watch people play out some aspect of their lives on film, facing an array of challenges, from the extreme to the banal? Reality TV brings us real life dilemmas from the kitchen or the jungle, and asks us to empathise, identify, judge, or simply laugh along with a shared experience.

In short, we are hearing and watching people tell their stories. Of course, not in their own words, but we allow ourselves to be taken on the emotional ride knowing that the reality is a trick, that the stories are a construction and that there is always a story behind the story. The question of representation, who speaks for whom, in other words, is up for grabs.

And while it may seem like a world away, in MCWH’s work promoting immigrant and refugee women’s wellbeing, this question of representation is at the centre of our practice. People often think they know a lot about us as immigrant and refugee women, our experiences of gendered inequality or our experiences of ‘Australian’ culture, but how real is that knowledge? How often have they listened to women tell their own stories from their own perspectives and in their own words? In reality, immigrant and refugee women rarely have the opportunity, in the public realm, to control the production of their own stories. As a result, the stories that do exist are often distorted because they are viewed through a lens of racist and sexist stereotypes.

We know there is a strong will from community workers and organisations to make a difference to immigrant and refugee women’s health, to promote gender equality and to prevent gendered violence in immigrant and refugee communities. But sometimes these well-meaning attempts to make a difference start with a particular view of reality, that is, that immigrant and refugee women don’t need to speak on their own behalf and that others can validly speak for them. This is a view that inadvertently excludes the very women who are intended to benefit. In effect, immigrant and refugee women get caught in the middle of two groups that are keen to speak on their behalf – immigrant and refugee men, and non-immigrant/refugee women.

Programs that make a real difference to immigrant and refugee women should be conducted in equal partnership with immigrant and refugee women. They start with the question of what women have already done in their communities to promote gender equality or women’s health and build from there. Successful and effective programs ensure immigrant and refugee women are fully resourced to actively lead the planning and decision making of those programs. They are also based on equal partnerships with immigrant and refugee women’s representative organisations, building on existing expertise and what has already been done.

If you are a part of a gender equality or violence prevention program that does not start with the leadership of immigrant and refugee women, you might need to question the gender justice foundations on which the program is based. Immigrant and refugee women need to tell their own stories, in their own way, so they are in control of their own narrative and their own realities. This is the route to transformative change.

Comparing complexities

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It’s not difficult to see why female genital cosmetic surgery (FGCS) is often drawn into comparisons with female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C). The World Health Organisation defines FGM/C as all procedures that intentionally alter or cause injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons. So a procedure such as labiaplasty, for example, which is designed to reduce the size of the inner lips (labia minora) of the vulva could theoretically be included in the WHO definition.

But like almost all things theoretical, the issue of both FGCS and FGM/C are far more complex in practice. Unlike FGCS, FGM/C is recognised internationally as a serious violation of the human rights of women and girls. However, this is not the same thing as saying that FGCS is not just as harmful. Rather, it highlights that FGM/C has proven harmful enough to women and girls to warrant an international and legal response.

The global efforts to combat FGM/C should give us all pause for reflection on all practices that aim to alter any part of a women’s body. While it’s important to focus on what’s being physically done to women’s genitals, it’s just as important to consider the context in which any procedure is being conducted. If we’re talking about labias especially, it’s not only a matter of the medical and cultural (and let’s not forget, Australians have a culture too), it’s also about what’s gendered.

What is driving the increasing number of women in Western countries, including Australia, to choose to have FCGS? If women are unhappy with how their vagina looks, we to need to examine the factors that have given rise to women not feeling ‘normal’. While pornography, fashion and the media have been cited as the main culprits, there has been little discussion about how to prevent women feeling anxious and abnormal about their genitals in the first place. This is where a comparison with FGM/C is helpful: there is already much we know about best practice in FGM/C education and prevention that can contribute to all women and girls feeling empowered.

As the evidence on FGM/C prevention programs have shown, educating women and girls about anatomy and genital diversity is a good place to begin. Health professionals also have a responsibility to educate themselves about the issues that may impact women and girls feeling anxious about their bodies, including issues affecting immigrant and refugee women and those who have undergone or at risk of FGM/C.

As we know from our work in women’s health, unhealthy, risky and harmful practices that primarily affect women can be prevented by acknowledging the diversity of women’s experiences. Any comparison of different ‘cultural’ practices should begin from this common understanding.

If you’d like to do your part in building and supporting women’s capacity to enact change, then you should register for our upcoming NETFA Forum: Sharing Our Strengths Symposium here.

60 seconds with Dr Kudzai Kanhutu

Kudzai Kanhutu

Doctor, stargazer and pop lover

What are you enjoying doing at the moment?
Brushing up on my tennis game and learning to stargaze with our brand new telescope.

If you were a super-heroine, what powers would you like to have?
I would like to have the ability to speak every language on the planet both current, ancient and extinct. Every part of my day would be easier and I would use the skill to communicate and better understand all those around me. I’d also like to be able to teleport in order to get myself to places faster.

What’s your favourite word  in any language? Why?
My favourite word is “Svutugadzike” which is the Shona word for tea. I love it because it speaks not only to the physical act of drinking tea but also of contemplation, mindfulness and reflection. Beautiful…

What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced as a woman from an immigrant or refugee background?
Learning to comfortably assert your value and worth in an environment where there is often very little acknowledgement of women let alone women from diverse cultural backgrounds.

For you, what’s the best thing about being a woman from an immigrant refugee/ background? 
Once you accept that so much is possible if you commit to it and persevere it allows you so much freedom. Culturally you have very much free reign because people often don’t know how to place you so you can fairly well do and be whatever you choose to be.

Tell me about an amazing woman you know.
Amazing women?! I know way too many! To name just one would seem a huge injustice!

What are you reading right now?
The washing instructions tag on a pair of new boxer shorts…. Do they REALLY have to tell you not to dry clean these?

Do you have a song/ music that inspires and motivates you?
Guilty pop pleasures here….. Beyonce’s “Run The World, Girls” always gets me fired up. The original sampled track Major Lazer’s “Pon de Floor” is astonishingly good.

If you could meet the Prime Minister tomorrow, what would you like to tell him?
Probably nothing he doesn’t already know…

The WRAP #50- Women’s Rights are Human Rights, Broadening our way of thinking, and 60 Seconds with Sarah Shakour

One month into 2017 and there is already so much to reflect on, discuss, lament, and debate.

Donald Trump’s transition into power saw an unprecedented uproar in the form of women-led rallies and protests around the world.

It seems Trump and his almost all-white, all-male Cabinet are determined to implement legislation that affects not just women’s health and reproductive rights in the USA, but across the globe. This month we explain why we all need to continue to use intersectional feminism to make sure each and every woman’s voice is heard on the matter.

We also take a look through the intersectional lens at the recent Australia Day billboard fiasco and what it means to recognise all forms of racism and discrimination.

Lastly, our 60 seconds with Sarah Shakour, a self-confessed Harry Potter nerd and mental health worker.

We are also happy to announce our upcoming NETFA forum. As part of the National Education Toolkit for FGM/C Awareness (NETFA) Project, MCWH will be hosting the third National Forum ‘Foundations for Change’ on 24th March 2017 at the Woodward Conference Centre in Melbourne. It will feature international guest speaker Ms Amina Warsame from Network Against FGM/C in Somaliland and will look at ways we can use international learnings and translate them into local solutions. You can register your interest on the Facebook events page and we will keep you posted once tickets go on sale.

Until next time,
The WRAP Team

Women’s Rights are Human Rights

Image: Women's March Toronto via: Now Magazine

Image: Women’s March Toronto via: Now Magazine

Those of us who support women’s reproductive rights watched with horror this month as the clock was suddenly turned back on women’s access to health care. Several days into Donald Trump’s presidency the ‘Global Gag Rule’ was reinstated, a signature on a dotted line on a document in the US, which in effect prevents non US-based organisations and health care workers in a range of different countries around the world from providing information to women about abortion services.

There is now a real concern that the health of women will be seriously compromised due to this limitation on their access to information, knowledge and services. Indeed, any barrier placed in the way of women knowing more about their bodies, rights and health takes us right back to a time when knowledge was feared and women’s empowerment was seen as a sign of witchcraft.

Fortunately, there are other signs that we are not still living in those days with respect to women’s rights: on 21 January, 673 Women’s Marches took place in a world-wide protest involving an estimated 4.78 million people. The marches in our own cities of Melbourne, Canberra and Sydney all shared in the collective call to restore our minds and reproductive parts back to the present day.

The marches were inclusive and intersectional; they united around a common goal of creating a society in which all women, without exception, are free to live their lives in safe and healthy environments. Perhaps, as always, Angela Davis most eloquently summed up the meaning of the marches when she said that the women’s marches represented the promise of feminism.

The ticking clock, so often associated with a woman’s reproductive system, takes on a new meaning in the context of the times we live in. There are forces pushing the political clock on women’s reproductive rights backwards, whether it be through new legislation, by limiting resources and funding to women’s health, or by progressively shifting responsibility for women’s health care from the community to the individual. Now, more than ever, let’s hold on to the fact that women’s reproductive health is, literally, what keeps the world ticking over. It needs to be valued.

Broadening our frame of thinking

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It might just be another public holiday for some but for many more, Australia Day is becoming a topic of growing debate. The question being, why should it continue to be a national day of celebration when it more accurately signifies the colonisation and subsequent massacre of the Aboriginal people?

The Australia Day promotional billboard of the two young girls wearing hijabs, which were taken down following death threats has highlighted what is at stake when we see an issue from within a limited vantage point, and lacking an overarching framework.

The problem, supposedly, was that the billboard didn’t accurately reflect ‘Australia Day’. For the vocal minority, it was a case of political correctness gone mad and that Muslims (especially those wearing hijabs) do not, cannot and should not represent what it is to be Australian. The backlash immediately elicited a counter response about Australia’s diversity and the benefits of multiculturalism.

Yet, as the Change the Date protests have shown, the subsequent crowd funding raised to reinstate the billboard (however well-intentioned), ignored the facts of Australia Day and the reality of Indigenous lives since the arrival of the First Fleet. It’s a case of recognising one form of racism and discrimination at the expense of another: in speaking out against Islamaphobia we’ve failed to see that there’s also another group of people who are affected by other forms of racism. In effect, Aboriginal people fell through the cracks of the counter-protest and became invisible.

Kimberlé Crenshaw refers to this inability to recognise who might be implicated and affected by a problem as a ‘trickle-down approach to social justice’ because the frame for understanding injustice is limited. The frame, as Crenshaw urges, needs to be an intersectional frame so that it will allow us to think about how every social problem impacts all members of a group. Especially those made vulnerable by various power dynamics and processes such as racism and sexism.

As for Australia Day, intersectional thinking will allow us to broaden our understanding of not only what it means for all Australians but also how Aboriginal Australians have been and continue to be impacted by racism, sexism, and colonisation in all its multiple and overlapping forms.

So whatever you decide to do on Australia Day next year, whether it be celebrating, protesting or advocating, it’s important to think about who you’re doing it for and who needs to be doing it with you.