Self-care during the silly season

angel-cemetery-sculpture-rock-carving-160765It’s that time of year when we wish many of our friends, family and colleagues a safe and happy summer break. Often the safety risks we have in mind are about taking care travelling or not running around the swimming pool. But the silly season can also throw other sorts of health risks our way.

Whether or not you celebrate Christmas, it can be difficult to escape the social pressures to give more time, more money and more cheer at this time of year. For some of us, the financial expectations of the season can be a source of stress. For others, the lack of social networks or family relationships can be equally challenging. According to mental health experts, the festive and holiday season can be a high-risk time for some individuals and communities, especially those who are socially and economically disadvantaged.

Regardless of cultural and religious background, women usually bear the brunt of the shopping, the cooking, the preparing, the wrapping and the overall labour of the festive season. For women from immigrant and refugee backgrounds, these tasks are made even more difficult if family members are overseas and there is a lack of other social and economic support. The irony is not lost on us – at a time when we are told to “take care” and “enjoy our break”, we are negotiating incredible social pressures to contact family members, give unconditionally to others, and make the holidays special and magical for our children.

How then can we take care of ourselves through the chaos? In today’s world, women are often told that the answer is self-care. Yet unfortunately, this idea is also highly gendered. For example, relaxing on the couch in front of the television after a long day of work is often framed as self-care or time-out for women. While for men, often the same behaviour is just called ‘watching TV’.

The problem here is that the expectation on women to be responsible for taking care of ourselves becomes yet another item on our ever-expanding ‘to do’ list taking care of others. Rather than addressing the inequality of work, self-care becomes ‘spoiling yourself’, whether that be an expensive manicure, a block of chocolate or even five minutes alone. At its heart, this idea of self-care for women as ‘indulgence’ is too individualistic to give us any real relief. It doesn’t do many favours for men either, who aren’t given a language to address their own need to take time-out for their emotional and mental well-being.

Let’s challenge and change the gendered expectations we have about caring and being cared for in our homes and communities. At this time of year, we are told about the joys of giving and caring for others. However, women shouldn’t bear the sole burden of caring for ourselves or anyone else. Instead, let’s think about caring as something we share. Let’s work towards making sure that everyone – especially those made vulnerable and discriminated by our systems and structures – has the opportunity to take care of ourselves and give ourselves a well-deserved break!

Who cares for our carers?

Nurse, doctor, teacher, lawyer: professions many of us and, no doubt, our parents would have typically cited as the things ‘to be’ as a grown-up.  But aged care worker? For many immigrant and refugee families, caring for the elderly isn’t something you aspire to be let alone be paid for.

If you’re from a migrant background (and especially if you’re also a woman), caring for an elderly family member is part of family life, it’s something you just do. What must it be like then, for the many overseas born workers (34% in 2012) who make up Australia’s aged care workforce? Does the cultural imperative of caring for the aged necessarily make the job easier for them? These were some of the questions arising from research MCWH recently conducted in partnership with the University of Adelaide’s WISeR research centre and Southern Cross Care Victoria (SCCV) into supporting the professional development needs of SCCV’s culturally diverse workforce.

We’ve mentioned before that caring isn’t any easier just because you’re paid to do it and our research certainly confirmed this. The majority of migrant aged care workers who participated in the research cited workload pressures and lack of teamwork and miscommunication as the things that made their jobs more difficult. Not surprisingly, the factors that made work easier were not only the exact opposite of whatever made things difficult, but also individual factors such as enjoyment of their work, a positive disposition and good health. Over half of the workers interviewed cited the residents as the main reason for what they like most about their work: being appreciated and feeling that a difference is being made to the quality of their lives.

These findings suggest that despite the stereotypes, migrant women workers don’t possess an innate quality that makes them want to do aged care work or that they’re naturally skilled for it because of their ‘culture’. Rather the findings highlight the important role played by personal values in care work and how these come into play when they intersect with the work-day reality of many immigrant and refugee women.

The majority (74%) of the workers interviewed cited one or more systemic issues relating to gender, migration, settlement and employment, which led them to pursue a job in the aged care sector because of their limited employment opportunities. This reason alone points to the need for immigrant and refugee women to be supported in all aspects of their professional development so that their jobs aren’t seen as an opportunity born solely of luck, but as a profession and an opportunity for advancement.

For further information about the research project, please contact Dr Regina Quiazon, Senior Research and Policy Advocate, email or call 03 9418 0912

From labour market to supermarket

We often hear about immigration being good for the labour market. But as with most economic ‘facts’ and arguments, the benefits often obscure the human cost. A recent survey showed that 80% of Australians view immigrants as being good for the economy, which reinforces ideas about immigrant labourers being viewed as ‘factory fodder’ and temporary migrants such as international students as ‘cash cows’. At a time when short-term and precarious employment are becoming a key feature of our labour market, the costs are often at the expense of workers’ health and wellbeing. Immigrant workers are more likely to be made even more vulnerable (and therefore exploited) than Australian-born employees in the workplace precisely because of their migrant status (and there is research evidence which supports this).

It’s also often the dirty, dangerous and difficult jobs immigrant workers take up, especially if they are also on a temporary visa and/or if they happen to arrive in the country as a low-skilled worker. Take the case of the other market: our large grocery chains, where most of our agricultural produce is made readily available for us courtesy of immigrant workers.  Not only are temporary migrants over-represented in the agricultural sector, it’s generally the case that its immigrant workers who are relied upon to pick, pack and produce food for our consumption (about 90% of seasonal farm workers in developed countries were born abroad).

A recent investigative report looked into the slave-like conditions of temporary migrant workers in the fresh food sector and in doing so, highlighted the particular vulnerabilities immigrant women workers face. Sexual harassment in the workplace is illegal, yet most immigrant women aren’t aware of their rights, or if they are, are reluctant to claim their rights because of fear of repercussions such as deportation. In such cases, immigrant women are not only abused by their employer, they’ve also been made more vulnerable by the systems and structures that place them there.

How can we prevent such exploitation occurring in the first place and ensure that immigrant workers are supported to be safe and healthy? For a start, we need to shift the way we view ‘migrant workers’: healthy workers are the key to healthy economy, not the other way around.  Making our workplaces ‘healthier’ for immigrant workers needs to cover a whole variety of actions including occupational health and safety support and training, and labour regulation and enforcement.  Above all, programs and policies that will empower immigrant women workers should be a central focus of a healthy workplace.

‘Dealing with it myself’: A new project to support working carers

MCWH has been funded by the Commonwealth Department of Social Services for an important new initiative focusing on people from an immigrant or refugee background who are in paid employment at the same time as informally caring for a family member or family members at home.

The project is called ‘Dealing with it myself’ and aims to raise awareness about the health impacts of being a working carer and to support working carers to manage their multiple responsibilities and maintain their health and well-being.

Regardless of their cultural backgrounds, many people prefer to receive care in the comfort of their home. However recent research suggests that immigrant and refugee Australians probably rely more heavily on family members to provide care services, such as housework, transport and cooking, than Anglo-Australian groups, who show a greater dependence on formal service providers.

While responsibility for family members can sometimes be shared, in many ageing Culturally and Linguistically Diverse (CALD) communities, due to cultural and gendered expectations, family circumstances and language barriers, the burden of informal caring often falls on the women of the family, many of whom have multiple caring responsibilities including caring for children, grandchildren, children with disability, elderly parents, spouses with chronic illness and paid employment.

In the future, working carers are expected to become even more prevalent in CALD communities, as women increasingly continue in paid employment for longer, workforce opportunities for older women grow, economies tighten and superannuation opportunities narrow.

There is strong evidence that combining paid employment and unpaid caring has a substantial impact on working carers’ health and well-being. Managing multiple responsibilities arising from paid employment and unpaid caring is challenging and confronting. While there are resources available for carers, none are specifically tailored for the needs of working carers from CALD communities.

Dealing with it myself will aim to improve the physical health, psychological well-being and social connectedness of CALD working carers through the development and broad dissemination of tailored resource kits, the delivery of peer education sessions, and the establishment of ongoing Working Carer Support networks.

Southern Cross Care puts their worker’s wellbeing first


Yesterday MCWH met with Ian Barton, Deputy CEO of Southern Cross Care Vic, which provides Aged Care services across Victoria. We celebrated the start of a wonderful collaborative program to develop women’s health mentors among the Southern Cross Care aged care staff.

A select group of 12 staff members from migrant background will be supported by Southern Cross Care to participate in the MCWH accredited Multicultural Women’s Health Course. The course runs for 12 days and covers many aspects of facilitation, effective communication and women’s health. By mid-April the group, who already make a significant contribution to people’s lives through their work in aged care, will also have the skills and knowledge to act as women’s health mentors in their workplace, communities and families.

MCWH looks forward to providing ongoing support to the mentors after they complete their course, and will continue to offer updates to training over the next few years.

This is an exciting program and we would like to acknowledge Southern Cross Care Vic for their progressive approach to workplace wellbeing.


WRAP #16: Turning 35, rethinking pink and 60 seconds with Anna Moo

MCWH is turning 35!

That’s right, we’ve been talking to women about their health and their rights for 35 years. You have to agree, it’s impressive.Like many women, we’ve had our ups and downs, a few makeovers, changed our name and our address, but from the very beginning, it’s always been about empowering women by sharing information, supporting women to find their voice on matters of health and wellbeing and building relationships between women within their community so they can make changes for the better, for their families and for themselves.Sadly, there are other things that seem to have stayed the same. 35 years is a long time but many of the issues that were relevant in 1978 are still relevant now – immigrant and refugee women still struggle to access health information, to navigate the health system and to recognise themselves in mainstream representations of what women should be.We are honoured to have been working with and for immigrant and refugee women for so many years, we are proud of where we are now and we are taking a big breath in – not just to blow out the candles, but to get ready for the work still to be done.On that note, this Wednesday 4 December we’ll be marking our birthday officially with the Victorian Minister for Health, the Hon. David Davis, and acclaimed writer Alice Pung, followed by our AGM. You are most warmly invited to come along.

Now without further ado, we’re talking about 1978, rethinking pink and then spending 60 seconds with MCWH board member Anna Moo.

he first MCWH education session conducted in October 1977

The first MCWH education session conducted in October 1977 – only 3 months before the best year of our lives.


35 years ago, 35 years later

It’s official: scientists have discovered that there is, indeed, such a thing as the good old days. In fact, University of Canberra researchers have even pinpointed a year: 1978. According to the research, 1978 was the year the world’s quality of life peaked, and it has gradually deteriorated ever since.

Such a provocative conclusion naturally led us to think about the quality of life of immigrant and refugee women in Australia.

If you’re old enough to remember, 1978 was the year that had most people bopping along to the ‘Grease’ soundtrack (‘…you’re the one that I want…oo, oo, oo, honey…the one that I want…’). It was also the year MCWH first opened its doors to immigrant and refugee women. In that year, the newly-established Action for Family Planning (as MCWH was known then) took multilingual family planning information and education to women in Victoria’s factories.

Did AFP reach the peak of cultural responsiveness for immigrant and refugee women? Will there ever be a peak for immigrant and refugee women’s health?

Current evidence suggests that immigrant and refugee women have, and are at a greater risk of suffering, poorer health outcomes than Australian-born women. However research has also shown that they are well-placed to improve their own health through preventative health education. Here are a few other factors we might need to consider before we can say we’re living in the ‘1978’ of immigrant and refugee women’s health:

  1. Contrary to opinion, migrants create jobs by increasing demand for goods and services, yet overseas-born women have a higher unemployment rate (5.1%) than both Australian-born women (4.2%) and Australian-born men (3.4%).
  2. Despite their valuable civic contributions, not all immigrant and refugee women have the same rights as permanent residents and Australian citizens: some cannot vote, while others have to wait for public health and social welfare entitlements, often to the detriment of their health and wellbeing.
  3. Whenever you stay at a hotel, walk into a clean office, or choose the packaged nuts from the grocery aisle, it’s probably an immigrant woman who has laboured to make it possible, often in insecure and low-paid conditions.
  4. During migration and settlement, immigrant and refugee women negotiate upheavals, setbacks and obstacles with perseverance, resourcefulness and organisation. These are skills possessed by the greatest of leaders and should be used and recognised to our advantage.

These are the compass points for the type of work that needs to be done with immigrant and refugee women in order to stem the gradual deterioration. Now, how to bring back the good old days?

Taxi courtesy of pragism on flickr

Rethinking pink

Pink—the colour, not the singer—has been in the spotlight again.

It seems pink has been hijacked  by consumer market forces in that ‘Pink-Ribbon-Barbie-Doll-Disney-Princess’ kind of way, at the expense of feminist action. Instead of tackling issues head on, pink detractors argue, it only reinforces gender stereotypes and dilutes advocacy to the level of awareness-raising.

Take for example, the idea of introducing women-only taxis to Victoria (pink taxis, of course) in response to concerns about women’s safety, which has led some to suggest that the proposed scheme is a ‘mediaeval’ form of segregation that disempowers women to speak out against violence.

Given that colour is loaded with cultural meanings (remember, former Prime Minister Gillard’s comments about women being sidelined by men in blue ties?) it’s difficult to pin point whether the criticism is aimed at ‘pink’ or at ‘women-only’, but it’s safe to say that the relationship between the two is like chewing gum to hair.

However, by focusing on the pink/women-only aspect, we could inadvertently be advocating for a form of mainstreaming that runs counter to many feminist principles. ‘Specialist’ services, whether multicultural, Indigenous, women’s and/or ethno-specific services, serve a need in the community. The provision of gender specific and culturally responsiveness services doesn’t and shouldn’t equate to a form of gender or cultural segregation. In fact, the reverse logic is true: by making available specific services, we are acknowledging that there is no such thing as a level playing field. The Pink Taxi recognises that while men’s violence against women is prevalent in our community, women have the right to travel safely.

Inequity and violence exist and at the same time as we work to change that fact, there is a need for a service response.

Similarly, by providing services such as bilingual health education to women, we are in fact acknowledging immigrant and refugee women’s right to choose, to access appropriate informationand to feel safe on their own terms. The very existence of a multicultural women ‘s health service signals a long-term commitment to also eliminating the barriers underpinning women’s needs and not just serving them.

If people are blind to gender or race, then colour should be viewed as a visual aid. We need to see pink—or the co-opting of any other colour for advocacy purposes for that matter—not as the cure, but as a symptom of what needs to be fixed in our world.

Pink taxis are one option, but what action do you most want to see in the community that would help end violence against women? Listen and learn from women for 16 Days of Activism led by Women’s Health East.

60 seconds with Anna Moo

Anna Moo

Feminist and social justice activist

What are you enjoying doing at the moment?
I’m reading ‘To Each His Own’, a book set in the South of Italy. The author Leonardo Sciascia uses storytelling as a way to demonstrate and attack the ethos of the insidious mafia culture that prevailed in Sicily in the 1960’s. Sadly that culture still endures today.

If you had a magic wand, what would you use it for?
I would use it to gather all nations to reach a unanimous agreement to resettle all refugees languishing in camps all over the world in countries of their choice.

What talent would you most like to possess?
I would love to be able to draw and create beautiful pictures. I do appreciate visual arts particularly paintings produced in the Renaissance period in Italy.

If you could give one piece of advice to someone new to Australian culture, what would it be?
It’s always very difficult for people new to a country to settle. It takes time to adapt and to get to know and understand the new cultural environment. It’s important to make connections, to be informed, to learn the language as quickly as possible and to participate in the community as much as one can. Above all it is critical to establish support systems and networks.

What’s your favourite word in the English language? Why?
‘Welcome’. It’s a word that says a lot of things and it’s always said on a positive note, there isn’t any negativity around it.

If you could invite anyone to dinner tonight, who would it be?
It would be a group of friends – strong, opinionated feminist women. Our gatherings are always exciting, challenging and above all totally enjoyable. Issues would be debated at length over a glass of wine or two and a cigarette.

Your most cherished memory?
When I had my children, there’s some sort of magic in having a child. It’s difficult to describe. It stays with you forever.

Is there a favourite cultural tradition that you like to follow?
The Italians are big on family events, my mother held a family lunch every Sunday. Family and friends would be invited and she had no difficulty in preparing a feast. I don’t know how she did it! I can’t possibly follow that, but in honouring the family’s tradition, we do gather for an occasional Sunday family lunch and reminiscence about the feasts of the past!

Do you think Australia is multicultural?
Australia is indeed a multicultural society. While it is true that overall diversity of cultures and ethnicities are tolerated there is still a lack of acceptance by the general population of particular groups. While we have achieved a great deal, there is still an underlying level of racism that operates against groups who may look different due to religion, race or other characteristics.

Finish this sentence: “We need feminism because…”
Women’s equality is still to be achieved.

You can hear Anna chat about her work with immigrant and refugee women here.