The route to real change

Image via: www.aaww.org

Image via: www.aaww.org

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.

Breaking with tradition

image via eatnorth.com

image via eatnorth.com

This time of the year our minds often turn to tradition. We start to see the overt trappings of a Western Christian tradition and culture all around us, in the snow-capped Christmas trees, the bright red of Santa’s wintery woollens contrasted by his flash of white beard, along with the tinny carols on a repeat loop in shopping centres across Australia.

We might stop a moment to think how odd these traditions are in the heat of an Australian multicultural summer, but generally we go with the flow, take the opportunity to celebrate the end of the year in our own ways, and wish our neighbours well.

But in this WRAP we’d like to take the opportunity of good cheer to reflect for a moment longer on tradition and culture, and how these terms tend to take on a different meaning when we are talking about migrants and refugees in Australia. We’ve noticed that when the terms culture and migrants are used together, in media representations in particular, they are often used to link immigrant and refugee communities with a negative understanding of tradition and culture, as something  unchanging and fixed, which is contrasted against a more ‘modern’ way of thinking and being.

And this is never more the case than when the topic under discussion is gender and cultural norms about women’s roles or women’s rights. Stereotypes of migrant men as holding more traditionally gendered views, and representations of migrant women as more compliant because of their cultural beliefs, circulate prolifically in the Australian press and elsewhere.

The pairing of traditional migrant culture and the oppression of women becomes even more acute in representations of violence against women. One recent article, quoting a Coroner’s finding relating to a domestic murder, described a violent migrant man as having ‘culturally entrenched, patriarchal’ attitudes, and his victim as having ‘cultural factors against her’. It is rare to see violence perpetrated by non-migrant men attributed to ‘cultural factors’. More commonly, the reasons given for Anglo-Australian men’s violence relate to individual pathology. Culture does not enter into the story.

Equally absent in accounts of violence against immigrant and refugee women is a recognition that systems and structures play an important role in facilitating violence against women. A second case reported this month based its defence on the premise that a migrant woman who reported violence by her husband invented the story so that she could secure a visa to stay in Australia. In this case, the legal system is using the immigration visa system, along with stereotypes of migrant women as duplicitous and tricky, to invalidate a woman’s allegation of domestic violence.

Research has shown that factors such as immigration policy, temporary and dependant visa status, along with social isolation and economic insecurity flowing from the settlement process, all play a role in making women more vulnerable to violence. While some aspects of culture and tradition can be harmful to women, this is not limited to migrant cultures. As we know too well, the culture of men’s violence is alive and well in modern day, Christmas-celebrating Australia. While patriarchal attitudes clearly play an important role in the perpetration of violence against all women, we need to balance that knowledge with an understanding of the role of structural and systemic factors.

That means thinking outside of the tradition versus modernity square, to better understand how ‘modern’ systems and structures can harm women as much as ‘culture’ (traditional or otherwise).

To find out more about the intersections of systems and culture, register for our panel event. 

Common Threads Report and Best Practice Guide Launched by Maria Vamvakinou

Member for Calwell Maria Vamvakinou with author Maria Hach, MCWH Chairperson, Repa Patel and Executive Director Adele Murdolo at the Common Threads Launch

Member for Calwell Maria Vamvakinou with author Maria Hach, MCWH Chairperson, Repa Patel and Executive Director Adele Murdolo at the Common Threads Launch

On 4 December the Federal Member for Calwell, Maria Vamvakinou MP, launched the MCWH Common Threads Report and Best Practice Guide in Melbourne. Vamvakinou launched the publications on behalf of the Minister for Health Tanya Plibersek, and spoke passionately about her own experience and years of work with immigrant and refugee communities in her electorate.

The report is the culmination of a national and cross-cultural initiative to understand and articulate the issues, needs, values and experiences of immigrant and refugee women in relation to their sexual and reproductive health.

By focusing on the stories and experiences of women from four different cultural and linguistic groups (Chinese, Indian, Sudanese and Middle Eastern) alongside consultations with key health providers in the field, the Common Threads report is a compelling illustration of why definitions of health must incorporate the social determinants which affect wellbeing: factors such as gender, culture, language, and socio-economic situation. It is equally, a testament to the voices of immigrant and refugee women, and why these voices need to be heard and shared in a national forum.

Because of stories such as those in Common Threads, our new vision for MCWH is to be the national voice for immigrant and refugee women’s wellbeing in Australia.

The Common Threads Report and Best Practice Guide are essential reading for health practitioners working with migrants and refugees.

You can read the full report here …
and you can access the Best Practice Guide here …