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.

Family violence in Victoria: a mainstreamed multicultural response

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This month family violence prevention came a long way here in Victoria. Not only were the 2000+ pages of the Royal Commission into Family Violence findings handed down, the government took immediate action by allocating half a billion dollars to address 65 of the 227 recommendations. Many of us have sighed with relief. Many of us have celebrated. The decisive cultural shift that brought us to this watershed moment is going to be translated into practical strategies.

We can now see a future in which women and children are valued enough that they can find redress and safety if they are subjected to violence. We can even look forward to a future in which family violence is eliminated altogether.

The most urgent actions that flow from the Commission’s report are in the area of crisis response for women and children in danger and in need of emergency and transitional housing. There will be a more effective and immediate response in the area of support, police and housing, as well as a coordinated approach to information sharing across services.

Less immediately, but equally importantly, women will have better access to information about family violence through an expanded website, and a new support system through support and safety hubs across Victoria. These hubs will provide single-entry points into all of the services that women and children need, from specialist family violence support to perpetrator programs.

The myriad initiatives (and so far in this little summary we’re only up to recommendation 37) will transform the policing and service landscape over the coming years of implementation. Longer term, the Commission requires a significant investment and focus in the area of gender equality and violence prevention.

How will all of this imminent change impact on immigrant and refugee communities in Victoria? The Royal Commission found that immigrant and refugee women are disproportionately affected by family violence and that there exist serious barriers to family violence service access. Drawing heavily on our ASPIRE research, the Commission report identified that family violence is facilitated and exacerbated in the lives of women and children from immigrant and refugee communities by factors such as immigration policy, social exclusion and isolation, poor interpreting services and a lack of culturally appropriate support.

It is incumbent on us now to join the dots between the process of transforming the family violence system and knowing what will work well for immigrant and refugee women. In multicultural Victoria – with 46.8% of the community either born overseas or with one or both parents born overseas – we clearly must see the needs of immigrant and refugee communities as being a central part of a mainstream response. In fact, it should be the mainstream response.

A new web site, for example, must be multilingual and culturally meaningful if it hopes to meet the needs of all women. We should recognise too that for many women and for many reasons, a website can be as difficult to access as a real life service: complementary ways of providing information must also be developed if we hope to reach all Victorian women, regardless of their education, financial position, age and ability.

Similarly, we must ensure that safety and support hubs are accessible and equitable for every woman. This is more than the hubs being open to all: women need to know what and where a safety hub is, and need to trust that they will find cultural, as well as physical, safety. To ensure this, we must harness the expertise of Victoria’s multicultural women’s specialist services and the vital linking work of the bicultural and bilingual workforce. This is not only key for response, but will pave the way for wins in the area of gender equality and primary prevention in the near future.

At this amazing juncture we are proud to be a part of the positive change happening in Victoria. The community has expressed a recognition of the value of women and children’s health and safety, and the importance of gender equality. It is our profound hope that this point in time is inclusive and intersectional – a point in time that transforms lives for all women and children in Victoria.

What does the Royal Commission into Family Violence mean for multicultural communities?

Media Release: Reflecting Victoria’s diverse population: what the Royal Commission into Family Violence Recommendations need to ensure

The Multicultural Centre for Women’s Health (MCWH) commends the work of the Royal Commission into Family Violence and is pleased to hear there will be increased capacity for organisations to prevent and respond to family violence.
Violence occurs across all communities and cultures, but it’s important to remember that family violence can also manifest differently and can have different effects in specific cultural settings.

‘Immigrant and refugee women’s social and economic marginalisation certainly adds another layer of complexity to their experience of family violence and this includes ways they seek assistance’, said Dr Adele Murdolo, MCWH Executive Director.

‘Prevention and early intervention programs, for example, are rarely accessible or appropriate to women from immigrant and refugee communities, and as a result, we often see these women over-represented in the crisis system,’ Dr Murdolo said. ‘But it’s also the case that women don’t know what support services are available in the first place.’

Of the 227 recommendations outlined in the Report, 48 refer to ‘family violence and diversity’, with 7 recommendations relating to ‘people from culturally and linguistically diverse communities’ (with 4 of these relating to use of interpreters). According to Dr Murdolo, it’s too early to know whether the majority of the other recommendations could potentially address the service needs of immigrant and refugee women.

‘There are some excellent and much-needed recommendations that recognise the gaps and challenges. However, there’s a danger of undermining everyone’s hard work if the recommendations aren’t given the proper context and detail. ‘Cultural and linguistic diversity’ isn’t simply a matter of speaking another language, it’s also about recognising differences in people’s experiences. Immigrant and refugee women’s experiences of seeking support are affected by a whole range of factors including social isolation, stigma, and stereotyping.’

MCWH urges the Government to commit to resourcing a skilled bicultural and bilingual workforce across Victoria that matches the demographic make-up of the community in order to meet the needs of specific communities.

‘Given Australia’s diverse population, it is essential that the report be read and understood within the context of ethnic and cultural diversity’, said Dr Murdolo. ‘What we need to ensure now is that the recommendations are truly universal in their reach and can make improvements across the whole community.’