The more things change

Image: Mila Robles
MCWH Bilingual Health Educators (Image: Mila Robles)

Much has changed since the immediate post war period when Australia first opened its doors to a mass migration program. However, there is much that remains the same. The policy imperative to ‘populate or perish’ established a still-relevant practice of looking to our immigrant brothers and sisters to boost Australia’s capacity for both production and consumption. In 2016 immigrants and refugees continue to provide a much-needed workforce and a consumption base, even if today, the base tends to rely more on temporary immigrants than permanent.

Immigrant and refugee women remain at the centre of the success of the immigration program, providing their productive and reproductive labour, keeping the service industries like aged care, child care and cleaning chugging along, while bearing and raising Australia’s next generation. Immigrant and refugee women have always played multiple roles on arrival in Australia – roles which have meant that there is a great deal of responsibility to be met and a great deal of work to be done, none of it particularly well-paid. It makes sense that women with so much to do, with so many relying on them, and so little reward, don’t have a great deal of time or resources to focus on themselves.

We salute immigrant and refugee women, and the contribution they make. But as others have asked before us: who cares for the carers? We are well aware that immigrant and refugee women tend not to access the health and welfare services they need in a timely way. Pregnancy care is regularly delayed. Medical assistance for illness or injury, especially when there is a cost involved, such as when tests or prescriptions are required, is carefully rationed. Meaningful preventative health information, in a language that makes sense, is hard to come by. Welfare services, especially those that are stretched for resources, aren’t able to reach out to new clients – they are already struggling to meet the demand on their waiting lists. Women miss out.

When it comes to family violence services, we know that the trend is similar. Immigrant and refugee women tend to access services at a much later point: the violence has escalated, the ‘case’ has become ‘complex’, the woman and children are in danger and in need of a crisis response.

In the late 1970s, in recognition of immigrant and refugee women’s central roles in production and reproduction, an outreach model for health promotion was developed at the Multicultural Centre for Women’s Health, then called ‘Action for Family Planning’. This evidence-based model, which reaches out to immigrant and refugee women in Victoria wherever they work, live, learn, or gather is one which continues to provide an in-language connecting point for thousands of women each year.

As the Royal Commission into Family Violence moves us into a future family violence system that responds to women’s needs in an innovative and effective way, we must include outreach models in our approaches to immigrant and refugee women. We must replace that missing link between women’s experiences of violence and the service system. Reaching out to immigrant and refugee women, rather than waiting for them to come to us, is definitely the way to do it.