We often see Australia being described as a multicultural country, but this rarely translates into recognition of Australia as a truly multilingual country. The dominant myth of a monolingual, English-speaking Australia persists despite the fact that we speak over 200 different languages, including more than 60 different languages spoken by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. This myth is evident in the assumption that mainstream service-delivery is synonymous with English-language service-delivery. As a result, we relegate translation and languages services as a ‘specialist’ (read: marginalised) field that is peripheral rather than integral to delivering high quality health services that meet the needs of our entire population.
Evidence indicates that immigrant and refugee women’s health and safety is seriously compromised by the current lack of appropriate language services in the health and civic sectors. As highlighted by recent submissions to the Royal Commission into Family Violence, women face profound barriers in accessing mainstream services if they speak a language other than English. Such experiences are also reflected in the stories and anecdotal evidence collected by MCWH through nearly four decades of bilingual community health education. We continue to hear about the substandard health care received by women who have to rely on young sons to translate personal health information with medical staff, or by women who accidentally fall pregnant because they’ve misunderstood the advice of their English-only-speaking doctor.
To improve health outcomes for immigrant and refugee women it is vital to offer quality language services, including the option of interpreters for all in-person consultations and the provision of multilingual health and safety information that is meaningfully and accurately translated. We emphasise the word quality because language services are not simply about the presence of an interpreter or the provision of translated material. Consider reported cases of family violence survivors being offered interpreters who are verbally critical of their decision to take legal action, or sexual assault survivors being offered interpreters who feel uncomfortable directly translating words such as ‘vagina’. Such experiences not only lower the quality of justice, safety and health services offered to immigrant and refugee women, they actively prevent women from seeking further support and entrench access barriers.
How then can we provide culturally appropriate and high quality language services that improve equity of access to services? Our experience in community health education indicates that bilingual and bicultural workers who are specifically trained in women’s health have a critical role to play in improving health and wellbeing outcomes for immigrant and refugee women.
As we have argued before, women’s right to exercise control over their own bodies also extends to the right to control how health information is received. Quality language services enable immigrant and refugee women to receive and communicate information in their preferred language and to take control of where, when and how the information is provided. Quality language services go well beyond direct interpretation and translation: they engage and empower women in culturally meaningful ways so they can take charge of their bodies, their health and their wellbeing.