The WRAP#53- The complexity of culture, what’s normal anyway?, and 60 Seconds with Resika KC.

As the days are getting shorter, and the nights are getting colder, we thought it was a good time of year to start bringing people together.

We are thrilled to announce the inaugural networking night (the first of many we hope) at our office in Collingwood. The Multicultural Women’s Network is a platform for women to socialise, share research, knowledge, and information about their work across different areas concerning migrant and refugee women’s health and wellbeing, such as the prevention of violence against women, women’s health, gender equity, and asylum seeker and refugee issues. We are pleased to invite you to join us!

We are also looking forward to our upcoming conference: Evidence for Equity, in partnership with True Relationships and Reproductive Health. The conference aims to create a platform for health practitioners and consumers to improve migrant and refugee women’s reproductive and sexual health outcomes, so if you’re interested in attending you can now register.

In this month’s WRAP we take a close look at the cultural and social complexities that come with being a migrant, question what it is to be “normal”, and last but not least, we have 60 Seconds with Resika KC, who gives her own reflections on culture and diversity.

Until next time,
The WRAP Team

The complexity of culture



Migrants and refugees are all so different from each other that it can be quite difficult sometimes to find a common experience among us. However, one thing that we often say and hear from the women we work with is that, for each of us, our cultures ground us and support us.

As migrants, we often build a sense of belonging and historical continuity through our links to our cultures or our communities. We belong, not only by sharing culture in the narrow sense of the word, but by sharing everyday experiences, which can include sharing history, routines, political challenges, events, economic hardship and in some cases, life-threatening experiences and recovery.

Migrants’ sense of belonging to our communities and cultures is sometimes juxtaposed with belonging to a nationalised ‘Australian’ identity. We are told we have to choose one or the other, and dual citizenship is increasingly described as a risk to the nation. Yet, given the opportunity, we create and enjoy hybrid identities that bring together all our experiences, and that don’t require a separation of allegiances at all.

Without this opportunity, the cultures and communities we hold dear, and the complex identities we have forged, are too often reduced to stereotypes. Migrant cultures are framed as being more ‘traditional’, particularly when it comes to gender equality, women’s rights and violence against women. This framing goes along with the assumption that migrant men are more violent and patriarchal, and migrant women more compliant and accepting of violations of their rights. Stereotypes like these are sometimes used as cultural excuses for violence against women. They also fail to explain the violence perpetrated against migrant women by Anglo-Australian men.

Culture is not fixed or unchanging, traditional gendered practices are not essentially backward, and ‘modern’ gendered practices are not automatically liberating to women. Without pointing at the ‘cultural’ issues of migrants, there are many modern ‘Australian’ cultural practices, policy and legislation, that require dramatic change for women to achieve gender equality.

Men are changing beings too, including migrant and refugee men, who are well placed to stand alongside and support their migrant and refugee sisters to lead Australia towards greater gender equality. Women’s status is changing and evolving across the world. We need to work together, not by leaving culture behind, but by bringing it along. The more we understand culture as a complex, changing and powerful force in all of our lives, the further we will get.

What’s normal anyway?


Image: Adam Jones//Flickr

Amid all the recent talk about what it means to be Australian, you might have heard that the typical Australian is now a woman, according to the 2016 census data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

Australia’s “new normal” is a 38-year-old married mother of two who has completed Year 12, lives in a house with three bedrooms and two cars, does five to 14 hours of housework each week, and is the daughter of Australian-born parents with English heritage. The typical immigrant’s country of birth is different depending on where you live in Australia, but she is also a woman.

While those who know stats have assured us that the way they calculate what is typical is not a particularly meaningful way of describing the majority of Australians, it got us thinking about what counts as normal.

At our NETFA conference last month, the issue of what’s normal arose in the context of women’s body image, particularly in relation to women’s genitalia. As Dr Amy Webster explained, the desire to feel ‘normal’ or ‘attractive’ were two of the key reasons women reported they had visited the wonderful online labia library: an important resource which presents a range of photos of women’s unaltered labia and gentialia. Designed by Women’s Health Victoria, the purpose of the labia library is to show women the natural diversity of women’s genitalia, in response to the demands we often feel to conform to Australia’s cultural beliefs and expectations of beauty.

As Sasha Sarago, editor of Ascension lifestyle magazine, noted, clearly the media has a hand in shaping these attitudes. Increased demand for labioplasty and other forms of cosmetic surgery reflect the pressure on women to see unrealistic ideals about our bodies as the ‘norm’ instead of the exception (or fabrication). This cultural pressure is not the only reason a woman might choose to undertake surgery (and we definitely think it’s her right to do so). However, as Dr Odette Kelada pointed out, by internalising these ideals women and men can become desensitised to the influence that culture and media has on our choices.

For many women from cultural backgrounds that are not represented or celebrated in mainstream Australian culture, the ‘norm’ is not only unattainable, but hurtful and harmful. Skin lighteners and hair straighteners take on different meaning for women whose natural beauty is framed as being ‘not normal’. Because of our visible difference to the invisible ‘norm’, some women’s bodies or beauty practices are seen as exotic or oppressed. As a recent case at a Victorian secondary school showed, immigrant women’s ‘non-conformity’ to mainstream beauty ‘norms’ can even be taken as bad behaviour.

What is normal anyway when it comes to gender? In a recent article about intersex people, author Alice Dreger wrote that “People tend to assume that everyone is born simply male or female. But nature shows us otherwise.” As Dreger notes, while each baby is assigned one of two genders at birth, there is much more genital and other sex-development variation that occurs naturally. Male and female standard genitalia are but two points on a varied continuum. By taking natural beauty as the standard, perhaps we can start to move away from some of the rigid gender norms that stop us from appreciating women’s diversity.

60 seconds with Resika KC


Mental health worker and global citizen

What are you enjoying doing at the moment?
I am enjoying working in community mental health and being able to support people in their recovery. One of the good things about my work is being able to work with people from diverse cultures and different spheres of life. I get to learn many new things everyday about my work and myself which is what I value the most in the sector.

What do you most value in your friends?
I value honesty, support, care and fun in my friendships. I like being there for friends in good and bad times and I value friends who do the same for me.

If you could give one piece of advice to someone new to Australia, what would it be? 
To be open and learn about life and culture in Australia, to be confident and willing to share your culture and experiences, and to seek support from friends, family or an external organisation if you feel stuck or alone.

What’s your favourite word in the English language? Why?
I think “welcome” is my favourite word in English as it builds a bridges between two people and provides an opportunity to get to know each other and build a connection.

What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced as a woman from an immigrant or refugee background?
I think the biggest challenge for me was to overcome my own assumptions, and what others in my community fed me, about having limited opportunities in Australia- just because you are an immigrant from a different country and culture. However, as I have opened myself to knowing the culture and people better, I have felt that people have accepted me as I am and have valued the knowledge and skills I bring from my background and culture.

For you, what’s the best thing about being a woman from an immigrant background?
I have challenged a lot of stereotypes in my life whether it be of gender, race or class. This has made me more confident to keep going and I don’t take any opportunities or support for granted due to this experience. I believe that who I am today is because of all the experiences I’ve had being a woman from the CALD community.

What does multiculturalism mean to you?
Multiculturalism is where different cultures, different faces, different perspectives and experiences meet at one place and flourish by learning about each other, valuing the importance of the diversity and respecting each other.

If you could convince the world of one thing, what would it be?
Though people in different parts of world have different values and perspectives, we all are equal and deserve equal opportunities and respect from each other.

If you could change one thing about the world, what would it be?
I would love to remove all the geographical boundaries so that people could travel everywhere freely and not be restricted by belonging to one country or another.

The WRAP#52- Five things we learnt about preventing FGM/C, The path towards excellent sexual and reproductive health & 60 Seconds with Shegofa Hazara

MCWH held our third NETFA Forum, Foundations for Change, on the 24th March and we are still buzzing with the conversations, ideas and strategies that were presented and discussed when we talk about how to end the practice of female genital mutilation/ circumcision (FGM/C). We thank all our special guests and audience members for their contribution and we hope the key messages that we took away from the event help to inform your work in the area.

We are also pleased with the recent release of Victoria’s first ever sexual and reproductive health strategy and priority action plan, which shows that we are on the right path to recognising the importance of sexual and reproductive health rights for all Australian women and also pleasing to see recognition of the barriers to healthcare that need to be further broken down for our culturally and linguistically diverse female population.

Last but not least, we chat to Shegofa Hazara about the importance of education and grabbing opportunities where you see them!

Until next time,
The WRAP Team

Five things we learnt about preventing FGM/C

From left-right: Maria Osman, Juliana Nikrumah AM, Amina Mohamud Warsame, Wudad Salim, Sasha Sarago

From left-right: Maria Osman, Juliana Nikrumah AM, Amina Mohamud Warsame, Wudad Salim, Sasha Sarago

The third NETFA Forum, Foundations for Change in Melbourne gathered together a group of amazing women to discuss women’s rights, health and prevention of female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C). For those of you who couldn’t make it, we’ve put together a list of five key messages that we took away from the event:

1. It’s about gender equality
FGM/C is a challenging issue to talk about because it varies across cultures, countries and migration contexts. The reasons for practising it are diverse. Despite this, we can see some common underlying factors, in particular gender discrimination and gender stereotypes. Any response or attempt to address FGM/C must focus on these underlying issues. Panellists spoke about how FGM/C is often ‘siloed’ as an ‘African women’s issue’, preventing us from seeing it as an issue of gender inequality. Speakers advocated for working within a human rights framework when doing prevention work – this can highlight the lived, everyday injustices experienced by women affected by FGM/C, including forms of gendered health inequality. When addressing FGM/C, all agreed that having an intersectional understanding of gender equality was critical and acknowledging that racism informs the debate.

2. It’s about strengthening our health systems
Immigrant women and girls affected by FGM/C are often referred to as ‘at risk’ or ‘vulnerable’, when it is often more accurate to say that they are made vulnerable or have been placed at risk by policies, systems and institutions. Many strategies often point to the need to build the capacity of health professionals with less attention paid to the need to strengthen the health system itself. The forum devoted a lot of time to discussing the structural and social factors that impact on immigrant women’s and girls’ unequal access to sexual and  reproductive health services and how services can better respond to these inequities. A key factor to achieving equity is the work being carried out by bilingual workers. Forum participants highlighted the need to value the skilled and complex work of the bilingual educators in the Family and Reproductive Rights Education Program (FARREP) in Victoria. Ultimately, strengthening our health systems will help women and girls exercise more control in, as well as be more informed about, the type of care they receive.

3. It’s not simply a ‘cultural’ issue.
There is now widespread agreement that FGM/C cannot be justified by cultural or religious reasons. However, when FGM/C is compared to female genital cosmetic surgery (FGCS) such as labiaplasty it is often labelled a ‘cultural’ issue whereas the latter is considered to be a medical one. As a result, FCGS is not nearly as scrutinised. Panellists spoke about the similarities and differences between both procedures, arguing that both involve socialisation and shame relating to women’s bodies. Both become accepted as ‘normal’ in different contexts. To be able to view both practices as such gave us a more nuanced understanding of ‘culture’.  At the same time, it was noted that there are some important differences, with much discussion on how FGCS and comparisons with FGM/C can depoliticise advocacy work being conducted to prevent FGM/C. For children who are subjected to FGM/C there is little to no choice and therefore cannot be viewed in the same way as women choosing to have either procedure later in life. The idea of ‘choice’ here is a complex one. Despite this, there is merit in understanding both practices as not simply or only cultural, but as gendered practices that impact on women’s mental health and wellbeing.

4. It’s important that women and girls from FGM/C affected communities have an equal voice
‘Nothing about us without us’ was the idea carried on from our last forum with the idea following on that  all work relating to FGM/C prevention should be carried out with the full and direct participation of women and girls from FGM/C affected communities. An effective multisectoral response needs to ensure that affected communities are at the forefront of efforts. The speakers discussed the many ways that law enforcers, educators and advocates can work together with communities to prevent FGM/C. This included creating a space where knowledge can be shared, again strengthening our existing networks.

5. It’s a human rights issue
FGM/C is internationally recognised as a violation of human rights of women and girls. Human rights are a precondition for social justice and as a party to both the CEDAW and Beijing Platform for Action, Australia has committed itself to being a society that supports equal rights for all women and men. However, in a migration country such as Australia, human rights particularly in relation to FGM/C can be poorly understood. There was much discussion on how we, as workers, can better engage with international human rights standards for more effective advocacy. While acknowledging ‘humanity as the common denominator’, international keynote speaker Amina Mohamed Warsame invited us to understand human rights as ‘a question of opportunities’ and that immigrant women need to be given both the rights and resources to achieve transformational change.