Promoting positive media

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Throughout the history of Australian mass media, migrants have provided sensational opportunities for exciting news. Migrants have played the reliable fall guys, the ones that could be hauled out to boost newspaper circulation, or encourage widespread and divided debate about the troubled state of the nation.

Headlines about migrant thugs and crooks who are getting “shipped” back to their countries make great copy, and fit easily with well-known migrant stereotypes, particularly those of migrant men as aggressive and violent. When it comes to migrant women, the common stereotype that media reaches for is almost the complete opposite. Migrant women are depicted as passive, hyper-oppressed and in need of protection… mostly from migrant men.

Of course, these two corresponding stereotypes of migrant men and women feed into and reinforce the belief that migrant cultures are more traditional and backward. And of course this picture fits neatly into our favourite Australian narratives, including those that celebrate our egalitarian approach to life and our superior level of respect and equality for women.

Once you start to read between the lines, it’s clear that the tabloid kit bag is full of migrant stereotypes. And like all stereotypes, messages that rely on fixed narratives are limiting and ultimately do harm to those who are described in this way. If migrant women are represented as inherently passive and oppressed by their virulently patriarchal cultures, we overlook immigrant and refugee women’s active agency in their lives. Migrant women who identify positively with their cultures and migrant communities are sometimes wrongly represented  as promoting violence against women. None of these stereotypical narratives treat immigrant and refugee women with respect or individuality, nor do they promote immigrant women’s strength and resilience in determining the course of  their own lives.

Let’s create some new narratives and images of migrants and our diverse and valuable cultures and communities. Most importantly, let’s encourage the Australian media to elevate the visibility and voices of immigrant and refugee women as an important strategy to promote gender equality and to prevent violence against women. That would make sensational reading.

The route to real change

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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.

What the World Cup can teach us about teamwork

Even if you’re not keen on soccer, or sport for that matter, it’s difficult not to ignore the spectacle that is World Cup Soccer.  Try not to be swept up in the infectious beat of the official FIFA World Cup anthem ‘We are one (Ole Ola)’: “…show the world where you’re from, show the world we are one.”

The use of sport as a metaphor for teamwork is, of course, not new, but the lyrics did make us question the dynamics of coming together as one, while still maintaining a sense of ‘where we’re from’.  The work being done with and for immigrant and refugee women’s health is an excellent example how this ‘we are one’ anthem works in reality.  Women who immigrate to Australia, as with all individuals and groups, are culturally and linguistically diverse and differ from one another according to a whole range of other factors.  As an organisation that is committed to achieving health and wellbeing for and by immigrant and refugee women, the MCWH team (and this includes our partner organisations across Australia) is a representative blend of different cultures, ethnicities and life experiences. The importance of representation can never be underestimated when you are working towards improving your standing on the league ladder. If you’re from a ‘team’ that has been held back by virtue of your gender, ethnicity, religion, sexuality, age and/or ability it makes sense to have someone who is not only willing to play for you, but who can also show the world where you’re from.

Where we come from is just as important as where we’re coming from. Of course, improvements to immigrant and refugee women’s health require teamwork, but it’s very often solidarity and how everyone works towards our goals that count. In order to kick those goals, you need a game plan. Immigrant and refugee women’s health and wellbeing, in particular, needs a strategy that covers a wide field.  Health inequities are exactly that, the lack of fairness and justice in health. This lack is never simply a result of biology, but more about the lack of opportunities to prevent ill health and promote wellbeing. The plan is most likely to be most effective when immigrant and refugee women are controlling the play in the areas that impact on their health and wellbeing: affordable housing, stable employment, financial security, social inclusion, and healthy relationships. Violence prevention is a good start because for far too long it has been given the proverbial yellow card, while crisis response has continued to run the field. We need a game plan that will allow the teams of immigrant and refugee women (and men) to change the state of play and allow us to understand how violence can be prevented in the first place. This will require various players with various skills and talents, but it’s essential that immigrant and refugee women have the chance to show that they too can bend it better than Beckham.

As with soccer, not all of us can be a striker or a goal keeper, yet we each play a part in the team and we have an implicit understanding that we all need to do our bit to aim for the ultimate goal: health equity for immigrant and refugee women. Our eyes are firmly on the ball.

Our Voices: Filling the Gaps FGM Spokesperson Project


African Women Australia’s Melbourne-based FGM Spokespeople from left, Maria Ibrahim, Shadia Mohamed Aly, Nigisti Mulholland, Intesar Homed, Chamut Abebe Kifetew, Mariam Issa, with trainers Paula Abood and Juliana Nkrumah. (Wudad Salim present but not pictured).


This week MCWH was honoured to welcome African Women Australia (AWAU) to our Melbourne training room to conduct a component of their national FGM Spokesperson Project. Juliana Nkrumah and Paula Abood worked together with 7 Melbourne-based African women to frame and develop their own digital  stories, which will then be presented at the ‘Our Bodies, Our Voices, Our Lives’ national conference to be held in Sydney on 30 May. The women’s digital stories are a part of the larger Human Rights and FGM accredited course offered by AWAU, in partnership with NSW Tafe, South Western Sydney.

The Our Voices: Filling the Gaps FGM Spokesperson Project is funded by the Commonwealth Department of Health.