By now, most of us have heard about or seen the Department of Education’s controversial milkshake consent video. The video, which was part of the federal government’s “Respect Matters” campaign, has been criticised by some educators as confusing and trivialising what is a serious issue. While the video was quickly pulled, it’s a blaring reminder that we have a long way to go to progress the national conversation on consent. It’s also an important reminder that like all social issues, we need to look at consent through a gendered, intersectional lens. This means that alongside conversations about interpersonal consent, we should understand how discriminatory policies in the migration and health system can impact on people’s ability to consent.
We have written about how the concept of choice only works when you have the freedom and ability to act on every option available to you. The same can be said about consent. For migrant and refugee women, the dynamics of power and control in intimate and interpersonal relationships can be directly shaped by government policies related to migration and healthcare. These dynamics limit migrant and refugee women’s ability to consent.
Take the issue of reproductive coercion, for example. Reproductive coercion is behaviour that interferes with the autonomy of a person to make decisions about their reproductive health. While the data on reproductive coercion in Australia is scarce, reports from service providers show that women from migrant and refugee backgrounds are more at risk.
There are intersecting interpersonal and structural factors that allow reproductive coercion to occur. As outlined in a recent report by Marie Stopes, there may be different understandings about what constitutes controlling behaviour and abuse in relationships. Pre-migration experiences and trauma, combined with patriarchal power structures, can also contribute to perpetrators’ coercive behaviour. Visa restrictions prevent women from readily accessing government support services such as contraception, or maternal and abortion services. For women on visas, the out of pocket costs can be prohibitive.
The issue of consent is complex. One aspect of consent is about being informed and being able to act autonomously, without fear. It is also about having the financial means and economic security to make free decisions about one’s own body and health. Everyone has the right to be safe and supported to make informed choices about their lives and their bodies. If we want to make sure that the concept of consent is meaningful for all women, we should always consider the context in which consent exists and thus advocate for changes in all settings, including our healthcare system.