The WRAP #42 – Personal politics, accessing services  and 60 seconds with Yassmin Abdel-Magied

Hello Wrappers!

As May flew right by, most of us would have had the privilege to spend Mothers Day with the special women in our lives. At MCWH, all of us have mothers or are ourselves mothers who are from immigrant or refugee backgrounds. We have all heard first-hand the stories, the struggles, the sacrifice and the uncertainty that comes with migrating to a new home, or being forced to leave one. This month we look at how the stereotypes that portray immigrant and refugee women (particularly in the media) as naive, vulnerable and as not contributing to society, strips women of the opportunity to tell their personal stories of strength, resilience and determination.

We also examine how immigrant and refugee women access services and recognise that there are huge gaps and barriers in providing women with services that are already strained.

We chat to Yassmin Abdel-Magied, and her reflections on migrating to Australia and working in the refugee health sector.

Lastly but certainly not least, White Ribbon commissioned MCWH to write a research report titled, ‘Key issues in working with men from immigrant and refugee communities in preventing violence against women’.

It is our absolute pleasure to present it here.

Until next time,
The WRAP Team

Keeping the personal political



Personal stories are powerful. As well as bringing issues alive, storytelling can create empathy and understanding. It’s no wonder the media seek out personal accounts, not only do they help capture public attention, they also provide evidence of a problem. But there’s always a flipside: personal stories and experiences reported on their own can oversimplify complex situations and perpetuate stereotypes, particularly when they relate to groups who are marginalised or stigmatised. When stories about individuals are written up devoid of any social or political context and critique, they can obscure other relevant and specific issues and distort priorities about what needs to be done.

Just as concerning are the ways in which ill-informed and sensationalist media reportage can hinder, and in some cases undo, the work of creating positive dialogue about immigrants and refugees, and in particular, immigrant women. Whether she’s an international student, a prospective bride, or a sponsored worker, the triple jeopardy of being an immigrant, woman and non-white looms large. While the earnest desire to garner attention and sympathy may come from the best of intentions, there’s always the risk of immigrant women being portrayed as helpless victims who are innately naïve and stupid (an implicit inference being that immigrant women are somehow inferior to their English-speaking, anglo-Australian counterparts and a burden to the nation).

When it comes to sexual and reproductive health, for example, we often read about immigrant women’s ‘lack’: lack of English language skills, lack of sex education, lack of knowledge about consent, lack of social connections. These challenges do exist for immigrant and refugee women, but our focus should be on highlighting why these personal ‘deficits’ become barriers to immigrant women’s access to safe and affordable healthcare. Immigrant and refugee women aren’t deficient or vulnerable, they’re made vulnerable by systems, structures, policies and practices.

This is where the reporting of personal accounts, including those of service providers and other experts, can play a complementary role in the evidentiary mix. By linking individual stories to the need for systemic solutions, media reportage can highlight the specific issues faced by immigrant women and promote the role governments can play in the solutions.

This is how stories can help mobilise public opinion and build community solidarity by convincing people of the need for change. Rather than reinforcing bias and prejudices, respectful and ethical reporting becomes part of the solution it is reporting on.

The more things change

Image: Mila Robles

MCWH Bilingual Health Educators (Image: Mila Robles)

Much has changed since the immediate post war period when Australia first opened its doors to a mass migration program. However, there is much that remains the same. The policy imperative to ‘populate or perish’ established a still-relevant practice of looking to our immigrant brothers and sisters to boost Australia’s capacity for both production and consumption. In 2016 immigrants and refugees continue to provide a much-needed workforce and a consumption base, even if today, the base tends to rely more on temporary immigrants than permanent.

Immigrant and refugee women remain at the centre of the success of the immigration program, providing their productive and reproductive labour, keeping the service industries like aged care, child care and cleaning chugging along, while bearing and raising Australia’s next generation. Immigrant and refugee women have always played multiple roles on arrival in Australia – roles which have meant that there is a great deal of responsibility to be met and a great deal of work to be done, none of it particularly well-paid. It makes sense that women with so much to do, with so many relying on them, and so little reward, don’t have a great deal of time or resources to focus on themselves.

We salute immigrant and refugee women, and the contribution they make. But as others have asked before us: who cares for the carers? We are well aware that immigrant and refugee women tend not to access the health and welfare services they need in a timely way. Pregnancy care is regularly delayed. Medical assistance for illness or injury, especially when there is a cost involved, such as when tests or prescriptions are required, is carefully rationed. Meaningful preventative health information, in a language that makes sense, is hard to come by. Welfare services, especially those that are stretched for resources, aren’t able to reach out to new clients – they are already struggling to meet the demand on their waiting lists. Women miss out.

When it comes to family violence services, we know that the trend is similar. Immigrant and refugee women tend to access services at a much later point: the violence has escalated, the ‘case’ has become ‘complex’, the woman and children are in danger and in need of a crisis response.

In the late 1970s, in recognition of immigrant and refugee women’s central roles in production and reproduction, an outreach model for health promotion was developed at the Multicultural Centre for Women’s Health, then called ‘Action for Family Planning’. This evidence-based model, which reaches out to immigrant and refugee women in Victoria wherever they work, live, learn, or gather is one which continues to provide an in-language connecting point for thousands of women each year.

As the Royal Commission into Family Violence moves us into a future family violence system that responds to women’s needs in an innovative and effective way, we must include outreach models in our approaches to immigrant and refugee women. We must replace that missing link between women’s experiences of violence and the service system. Reaching out to immigrant and refugee women, rather than waiting for them to come to us, is definitely the way to do it.

60 seconds with Yassmin Abdel-Magied

Yassmin Abdel-Magied

Mechanical engineer, social advocate, and writer

What are you enjoying doing at the moment?
Working on the script for a motorsport podcast and catching up on a lot of cycling with friends.

What is the best thing that happened to you today?
I had a great singalong with some of my friends to some 90s R&B hits impromptu in the hallway while getting coffee

If you were a super-heroine, what powers would you like to have?
The ability to give people self-confidence and belief in themselves.

If you could have any job in the world, what would it be?
What I do now.

What do you most value in your friends?

What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced as a woman from an immigrant or refugee background?
The assumptions people make when I meet them and the fact that there is often an unconscious bias that I have to work against.

For you, what’s the best thing about being a woman from an immigrant/refugee background?
I have a richness in culture and a strength borne of generations of strong women of colour and faith struggling and succeeding DESPITE their circumstances. I am so proud of the heritage that I inherit.

If you could invite any woman (dead or living) to dinner tonight, who would it be?
Khadija AS, the first wife of the Prophet Mohammed SAW. What a woman! She was a business woman, strong and his truest love. I could learn so much.

Tell me about an amazing woman you know.
My mother. Honestly, a woman who gave up everything for her family, who challenges norms without question, who supports me and pushes me to achieve everything I can and more.

Name a  film that changed your life.
‘Catch that Kid’ It’s how I fell in love with cars!

What are you reading right now?
The 51st edition of the Griffith Review called ‘Fixing the System’, and a book on Sudan.

Do you have a song/music that inspires and motivates you?
‘Work’ by Bluejuice

What is your favourite possession?
My bicycle – I love the freedom it represents

If you could convince the world of one thing, what would it be?
That we should care for one another and that hedonism won’t serve us.  That our collective well-being is important.

If you could meet the Prime Minister tomorrow, what would like to tell him?
Sort yourself out mate. Stop being so rude to the asylum seekers who are asking for our help.

Finish this sentence: “We need feminism because …”
…the world has a long way to go to reach true equality.