The answers we seek are often limited by the questions we ask. No, we’re not talking about spiritual enlightenment. We are talking about the challenges of research when issues of race, gender and culture are involved.
For example, research on immigrant and refugee women’s sexual and reproductive health needs is frequently framed either in terms of vulnerabilities, risks and barriers to accessing services, or in terms of differences in immigrant and refugee women’s attitudes or habits as compared with what is considered the ‘norm’ in Australia.
Don’t get us wrong, these questions are important. But framing research about immigrant and refugee women solely in these ways runs the risk of painting immigrant and refugee women (and their cultural differences) as the problem that needs researching. Immigrant and refugee women, their attitudes and behaviour become the scapegoats for other questions we could be asking about inequity in our health system.
This is why we think an intersectional approach to research is so valuable. As we’ve mentioned before, immigrant and refugee women aren’t naturally more vulnerable (or deficient) than other women. They are made vulnerable by the systems and structures in which their lives and experiences are embedded. An intersectional approach that looks at the impact of structures on individuals can shift the focus on immigrant and refugee women’s health from pointing at ‘cultural difference’ to addressing the problem of inequality in our health systems. Going even further, intersectionality can expose the processes that create categories such as race and culture, and how they are used to categorise people.
This month at the Evidence for Equity: Multicultural Women’s Reproductive and Sexual Health National Conference, we heard in so many different ways that how we approach research about immigrant and women has real implications for women’s lives. Researchers need to recognise that their mode of inquiry will, to some extent, determine how their questions are answered. Research can only be socially transformative if the cultural, social, political, and economic contexts of immigrant and refugee women’s experiences are equally examined. By framing our questions in this way, we can expect to hear answers that more accurately reflect the lives and needs of immigrant woman in Australia today.