The WRAP #37: Contraception, self-reflection and 60 seconds with Maria Osman

What a busy and exciting month October has been!

We’re drawing closer to the sticky end of the year and can feel the business and momentum building! Our highlight this month was holding our annual Strategic Planning Summit to look ahead to what 2016-2020 has in store for MCWH. The two-day summit was an inspiring, creative and positive experience, and we’re so excited about what we can achieve in the future.

Inspired by Back To The Future Day, we also look back-to-the-future this month and reflect on how we can tap into the power of our 13 year old selves to make changes for the better.

Next month we’re also hosting a panel discussion presented by a selection of key critical thinkers, including writer Ruby Hamad, Executive Director of the Australian Muslim Women’s Centre for Human Rights, Joumanah El Matrah, and others. The panel will address the connections between men’s violence against women, culture and migrant/refugee communities and will suggest the ways that thinking more critically about cultural, structural and gendered systems will lead to more effective pathways to eliminate violence against women. We invite you all to join us.

Until next time,
The WRAP Team

Complexity and contraception


Image: Grab a Condom Embroidery Hoop/ Hey Paul Studios on flickr

People educated in Australia of  ‘a certain vintage’ have the pleasure of recalling the days when school sex education entailed a perky film about the family life of ducks and geese, followed by an obtuse talk from teachers about love and suddenly, babies. How things have changed: now children come home from school teaching their parents the proper (and not so proper) words for all things sexual and reproductive.

But we can’t take for granted that everyone in the Australian community has what they need to live informed and enjoyable sexual and reproductive lives. First, knowing where everything is and how to use it is only a small piece of the puzzle: this knowledge must be complemented by a solid grounding in respect and equality within relationships, and taught in the context of a broad, non-judgemental sexuality education. And what of migrants and refugees, the majority of whom arrive in Australia after secondary education is completed?

Recently we explored this question by conducting some research, together with researchers from Monash University, into immigrant and refugee women’s experiences of contraception in Australia. The findings, based on interviews with 84 women, were a little surprising in terms of what women know and what they choose to do with that knowledge.

Awareness of the range of contraceptives available to women was relatively high, with some variation depending on the availability of sexual and reproductive education and information in women’s country of origin. In some cases, state-funded education was available in country of origin, but only to the ‘about to be married’, which meant that many sexually active people missed out. In other cases, education was hard to come by through formal channels, and women relied on more informal means such as talking to family and friends, or Dr Google.

In many cases, awareness accorded with the likelihood that women would use that method: we noted a high awareness of non-hormonal methods (91%), such as male condoms, withdrawal, and natural family planning methods, which combined made up 76% of the women’s choices. Surprisingly, however, only 5% of women chose the pill even though 95% reported being aware of it.

A complex range of factors influenced women’s choices, including the cost and availability of, and access to, certain types and brands of contraception in Australia. Of the women who were using hormonal methods, such as Depo Provera, implants or the pill (total 15%), some obtained their supplies from practitioners overseas, in order to negotiate factors such as continuity of care, the difficulties of translating medical records, and the lack of interpreting services in Australia. A group of women reported waiting until their regular visits overseas to book in their gynecological appointments at which they would also arrange their contraception for the period until the next visit.

These findings indicate that for many immigrant and migrant women, contraception remains difficult to negotiate. Information is lacking, and structural barriers such as cost, language and lack of access prevent many women from making free and informed choices about what suits them best. What is needed is a broad and comprehensive program of sexual and reproductive education suitable for women from diverse communities. We also need to consider how access can be improved. If sex education at schools has progressed from the days of the duck family, we now need to extend that wisdom to ensure that informed choice is the order of the day for immigrant and refugee women.

Power to our future selves

girls laughing

Image: Justine Reyes via

Imagine being a 13 year old migrant girl for the day. Imagine how your 13 year old self might make sense of the 24/7 world of social media, schoolyard banter and popular culture, before the onset of adult cynicism and weariness. If you’ve been told you can’t be what you can’t see, imagine trying to work out why there aren’t more girls like you in the media, or why female soccer players are paid less than male soccer players, or why two women who love each other still can’t marry. It would put just enough fire in your belly to make changes for the better. How might you capture and bottle the power of that adolescent girl?

‘The Power of the Adolescent Girl’ is the theme of this year’s International Day of the Girl (11th October), a day set aside by the UN to recognise girls’ rights and the unique challenges girls face around the world. The concept of power is an interesting thing in itself and it’s not generally something associated with young girls. But, as the sage saying goes, knowledge is power and in this sense young girls should be seen as powerful agents of change in acquiring and producing new forms of knowledge.

Young women and girls from refugee and migrant backgrounds bring with them insights that have been gleaned through their own and their family’s experiences of migration, settlement and of being ‘different’ to other ‘Aussies’. These experiences are more likely to make a young migrant or refugee girl question ideas about belonging and where and how she fits in the world. This process of self-reflection can be particularly challenging if, for example, you’re also figuring out your attraction to another girl, while at the same time trying to communicate with your parents in another language why it’s not fair that your brothers get out of doing the housework.

This year, the global community is called upon to invest in improvements to girls’ health and well-being and to promote and implement gender-responsive policies. Improving girls’ lives is generally couched in terms of ‘investment’, but we should also focus on this notion of girls’ ‘power’ and the ways in which we might be able to support them with the knowledge to make decisions for and about themselves. This might mean working with specialist organisations that can help you support young women in culturally responsive ways  or it could also mean simply listening to what young women and girls imagine their future to be. Young girls already have considerable skills and talents to produce the momentum for positive change, we just need to recognise and harness this potential. After all, wouldn’t you have wanted to make the world a more conquerable place for your 13 year old self?

60 seconds with Maria Osman

Maria Osman

UN delegate and national living treasure

What are you enjoying doing at the moment?
Since leaving my role as a senior public servant last year  I’ve been spending time reconnecting with grass roots women’s groups especially in remote communities as part of my role as a delegate to the 59th Session of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women.  It is inspiring talking to so many women’s groups about Australia’s role at the UN, about how the world is tracking in implementing the Beijing Platform of Action, and what lessons and ideas can be learnt especially in dealing with family and domestic violence.

What is the best thing that happened to you today?
Today is a warm beautiful day and I took time out to sit in my garden in silence.

If you were a super-heroine, what powers would you like to have?
To remove racism, bigotry and release all the asylum seekers from detention into the community.

What is your best quality or attribute?
I’m an ideas person who enjoys challenges and finding creative, sustainable, inclusive ways of bringing about change in partnership with communities.

What do you most value in your friends?
I feel so lucky that throughout my life I’ve been guided by generous and compassionate friends and mentors who have a shared commitment to human rights and gender equality.

If you could give one piece of advice to someone new to Australia, what would it be?
To learn as much as possible about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who are part of the oldest culture in the world, healing the past benefits all of us.

Can you describe a time when you felt discriminated against as a woman or as someone with an immigrant or refugee background?
There have been so many times that I’ve experienced both direct and subtle forms of discrimination and racism, too many to specifically talk about one occasion and I make a choice about those I challenge and those I ignore.  Becoming empowered to deal with discrimination, especially subtle forms of racism has been a lifelong journey of learning. I’m now at a stage in my life where I feel very confident about challenging both personal and systemic forms of discrimination.

For you, what’s the best thing about being a woman from an immigrant/refugee background?
The solidarity with other women who share similar and different experiences of being marginalised because of our colour, ethnicity or language. [In 2012, Maria was given the National Living Legends Aware, awarded to the 100 most influential African Australians].

If you could invite any woman (dead or living) to dinner tonight, who would it be?
My paternal grandmother, who I never met but she was a very strong woman, raising her family who were nomadic camel herders in northern Somaliland.

Name a book or film that changed your life.
This is  hard one to answer because Maya Angelou, bell hooks, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison and Audre Lorde have provided me with such strength and helped shape my identity, but one of the most influential writers in my life is Martin Luther King, whose ‘I have a dream speech’  I heard when I was about 11 years old.  His wisdom, words, actions, commitment and dream spoke to the heart of my own experiences and identity. It taught me so much about being human, about just and unjust laws and that people united could achieve so much. His words gave me a desire to know and understand the ways that human rights laws could protect us from discrimination in all its forms. Martin Luther King also instilled in me the belief that I could do anything and that the colour of my skin would not prevent me achieving in life.

What are you reading right now?
‘People of the Book’ by Geraldine Brooks.

“We need feminism because…
…we need to change the systems, structures and cultures that hold inequities in place and because it gives women choices. We must also consider the multiple disadvantages migrant and refugee women experience such as racial discrimination and ensure that feminism is inclusive of all women. Audre Lorde put it this way: ‘I am a Black Feminist. I mean I recognise that my power as well as my primary oppressions come as a result of my blackness as well as my womaness, and therefore my struggles on both of these fronts are inseparable.’

Supporting women’s right to choose


MCWH is one of forty organisations that has signed on to an open letter to the Premier regarding abortion laws. Immigrant and refugee already face significant barriers to accessing sexual and reproductive health services and MCWH welcomes the government’s commitment to reject any changes to the Abortion Law Reform Act that would reduce women’s access

to appropriate, safe and legal abortion. MCWH also supports the government’s commitment to create safe access zones for women, as it will further ensure that immigrant and refugee receive timely and safe health care.

Read the letter here