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.

Gender and elder abuse: what’s the connection?

The Multicultural Centre for Women’s Health and the University of Melbourne made a submission to the Australian Law Reform Commission Inquiry on Elder Abuse. The submission draws on recent research that shows that elder abuse is gendered and that immigrant and refugee older women are at particularly risk of physical and sexual abuse due to language barriers, social isolation and dependence on others to access social services. Solutions include providing multilingual education and information for immigrant and refugee women, delivered by female bilingual educators, using a variety of formats and media.


Simplifying Complexity


Violence against women has been getting the attention it deserves lately. It is heartening to see that government, media, community organisations and the general public are getting behind the movement to eliminate violence against women and to create a more equitable world for women and girls. For immigrant and refugee women, this movement is particularly important. It is by now generally acknowledged that women marginalised by structural discrimination based on age, culture, race, ethnicity, disability, sexual identity and visa status are more vulnerable to violence and are less likely to have the resources to act to report it.

Immigrant and refugee women, especially those who are newly-arrived in Australia, and without extended family, often experience a lack of support networks and knowledge about their rights. Settlement in a new country brings socio-economic pressure on women, as they struggle to establish appropriate employment, education for themselves and children, housing and community networks. Many women on temporary and spousal visas become newly dependent on their partners for an income or for access to health care, and some are not eligible for key government services such as housing.

All of these structural factors mean that immigrant and refugee women are significantly more vulnerable to violence, less likely to report it to police or to access mainstream services. It is perhaps not surprising that immigrant and refugee women are over-represented as users of family violence crisis services, and that they are much less likely to seek assistance or intervention at an early point in the violence. Similarly, if and when they do access the legal or justice system, they also face various barriers in progressing through it. We often hear the family violence experiences of immigrant and refugee women being described as ‘complex cases’. Translated, this usually means that an appropriate early intervention was not accessible and the woman’s experience and the situation has escalated and intensified.

It is clear that the system needs to change. Women’s experiences of violence are complex, but we should do our best to avoid these experiences from becoming ‘complex cases’ that can only be addressed at the acute end of our system. Immigrant and refugee women need access to support and assistance at a much earlier point. In-language information and education about family violence in their own cultural and structural context, delivered in appropriate and meaningful ways would ensure that immigrant and refugee women have the resources they need to act early. Outreach education by bilingual, bicultural educators is an effective, evidence-based intervention that reaches isolated and unconnected women in particular. Perhaps more importantly, structural and policy change is needed. A women’s visa category should not make her more vulnerable to the violence of her partner, or more likely to put up with the violence.

Structural, policy and organisational change will transform immigrant and refugee women’s experiences of the current system, making all the difference in their lives, helping them forge a path of safety, freedom from violence and self-empowerment. It’s quite simple really

Immigrant and Refugee Women’s Experiences of Violence: Pathways to Change

Violence against women occurs in all Victorian communities and across all cultures. There are clear differences in the way that violence is enacted across cultures and social contexts, but no one immigrant/refugee community or culture is any more violent than another.

However, due to structural inequalities, immigrant and refugee women are more vulnerable to violence, and have a lower level of access to family violence services. They face a range of barriers when they act on family violence, and as a result are under-represented in early intervention programs and over-represented as crisis service users.

The MCWH Submission to the Royal Commission into Family Violence scopes the range of issues impacting on immigrant and refugee women, addressing policy, prevention and early intervention programs, and access to appropriate family violence response services. The submission charts the pathways to change to improve immigrant and refugee women’s safety and wellbeing, and decrease their vulnerability to family violence.

MCWH would like to see stronger links between policy, resource allocation and program implementation taking a comprehensive intersectional approach so that ‘diversity statements’ in policy follow through to action. We advocate for a broader definition of violence, and a greater focus and investment in primary prevention and early intervention programs so that women are enabled to link with appropriate services at an earlier point in their experience of family violence.

MCWH would like to see a greater valuing of bilingual and bilingual workers in the family violence system through workforce diversification strategies across all types of programs, fostering in particular, the leadership of immigrant and refugee women. Importantly, the family violence response sector needs a significant boost, to ensure that women who do access the system are assisted in the most effective and meaningful ways. Cultural and structural change is required, as are fundamental improvements to on-the-ground practice.

Engaging men in violence prevention: gender equity in practice

As many of us know, the way to eliminate violence against women is to achieve gender equality. We also know that in order to end violence against women, all of us—women and men—need to work together. What is often less clear is precisely why engaging and involving men in prevention activities is so important to achieving this outcome.

There has been a definite and positive shift in thinking about men’s involvement—the focus is now less on men as perpetrator and more as partners in primary prevention. However, there continues to be confusion and uncertainty about what this looks like in practice. But is this any surprise? If we all agree that gender-based violence affects women disproportionately, and is a result of the unequal power relationships between women and men, simply involving men in a cause so entwined with their privileged gender role, without challenging this role, is going to have its difficulties. Don’t forget the goal is gender equality. But for that to happen, it’s not possible to split the prevention pie in two equal shares. We need to involve men in violence prevention in ways that address the inequality in gender relations and lift away the invisible cloak of gender privilege.

Perhaps it is these concepts of equality (or formal equality in ‘human rights speak’) and equity (or substantive equality) are the real cause of confusion. As we strive towards achieving equal treatment of women and men and equal access to resources and services for all, we also need to recognise that achieving equality involves fairness and justice in the distribution of resources between men and women (equity). More women-specific and culturally-specific programs and policies are required, precisely because there are inequalities that need fixing. Our efforts to prevent violence follows this feminist line of thinking: men need to work with women as partners to advance the work already being carried out by women. In order to do this, they will need to actively contribute to changing and challenging gender expectations themselves.

So, as a first step, let’s always ask ourselves: will men’s involvement here help to transform the structures and processes supporting the violence we are challenging? If the answer is ‘no’ or, even worse, if their involvement will reinforce men’s privilege and interests, then we need to go back to the drawing board. But if the answer is ‘yes’ we can proceed to asking how we can make that happen. Perhaps that’s another issue for another WRAP.

Australian Human Rights Commission Roundtable in Melbourne on increasing CALD women’s voices

Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick with representatives across Victoria.

Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick with representatives from immigrant and refugee women’s organisations.

In 2011 the Australian Human Rights Commission hosted a successful study tour undertaken by the UN Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women in Australia. You can read about the some of the outcomes of that tour, including the AHRC Report, in a previous WRAP. Following on from that study tour, MCWH was extremely pleased to host the AHRC Melbourne Roundtable on ‘Working together to address issues affecting women from CALD backgrounds’, led by Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick and attended by many wonderful women representing organisations that support immigrant and refugee women across Melbourne and nationally including the National Ethnic Disability Alliance, Australian Muslim Women’s Centre for Human Rights, Spectrum Migrant Resource Centre and Small Giants (pictured above).

The roundtable was a wonderful opportunity for women working in the field to share their expertise and experience and to identify existing opportunities to raise the national profile of migrant women’s concerns. MCWH would like to thank the Commissioner and her team for their initiative and looks forward to continued discussion about many of the issues raised, and further opportunities for migrant and refugee women’s increased visibility at a policy level.