Australia is a popular destination for international students, with over 600,000 individuals studying in tertiary settings in 2022, and roughly half of them women. Recent research indicates that international students have high rates of sexual and intimate partner violence committed against them. At the same time, they have a relatively lower rate of formal reporting, disclosure and help-seeking. So what is preventing international student victims from seeking support?
Victim-survivors have told us that the intersecting systemic barriers associated with migration, visa-status and cost, often leave women and gender diverse international students to deal with the consequences of sexual and intimate partner violence alone or with limited support.
The complexities of navigating an unfamiliar healthcare system often prevent victim-survivors from connecting with local services, which are often inaccessible with long wait times, high costs, and unknown gap fees. These are all daunting factors for a young person to navigate in a new country, and it is not hard to see how such systemic barriers compound the stress and negative mental health impacts caused by sexual and intimate partner violence.
Universities and other tertiary education institutions also need to improve the support they offer. They benefit greatly from the financial contributions of international students, whilst offering very limited university support arrangements. Very few support services are tailored to the unique needs of women and gender diverse international students.
We have a collective responsibility to ensure that international students coming to Australia can access timely care and support when they experience sexual and intimate partner violence. This cohort were most impacted by the restrictions and border closures during the early years of the pandemic, yet their work in essential frontline roles remains critical to supporting our health and economic recovery. It is time to truly commit to reproductive justice for international students and other temporary visa-holders.
We can promote reproductive justice in three ways. First, we need to ensure service providers and tertiary education institutions tailor and strengthen their support, by ensuring their services are trauma-informed, and that their workforce truly represents the communities they serve.
Second, we need to improve access to services by addressing the needs of specific cohorts of migrant women, as MCWH is currently doing with our Making the Links project in regional Victoria.
Third, we need to focus on preventing violence before it occurs, by promoting gender, racial and health equity, championing universal healthcare, and addressing the intersecting forms of violence and discrimination experienced by migrant and refugee women, gender diverse and non-binary people.
The recommendations contained in the Ending the Postcode Lottery report of the Senate Inquiry into Universal Access to Reproductive Healthcare is an important step in the right direction. We look forward to the day when international students have universal access to the healthcare services that they need while studying in Australia.
First published in edition #121 of The WRAP on 31 May 2023.