There’s no way to overstate the importance of tackling family and domestic violence, a worldwide social epidemic which has been on the top of the federal and state governments’ list of urgent issues for quite some time now. In fact, one of the major policies about the issue is well under way: the Council of Australian Governments’ National Plan to Reduce Violence Against Women and their Children 2010–2022 has seen a series of initiatives and programs taking place throughout Australia designed to assist, inform, educate and empower women who suffer or are under threat – or simply those who want to never be in a position to experience domestic or family violence.
Despite good intentions and detailed execution, not all programs succeed. For one, tackling the issue is more of a marathon than a speed race; but what’s more important is that Australia’s diverse communities don’t seem to respond to the same programs in a universal manner. Hence the need for programs specifically designed for Cultural and Linguistically Diverse (CALD) communities.
“We need to make clear that family and domestic violence isn’t more prevalent in ethnic communities,” says Georgia Prattis, diversity specialist and senior partner at MyriaD Consultants.
“The data tells us it’s the same,” she explains. Domestic and family violence “affects all women, all walks of life, all socio-economic backgrounds; it’s everywhere.”
So what makes the needs of CALD communities different?
“Women from mainstream communities are more likely to seek help early, while when it comes to women from ethnic communities and particularly new arrivals in Australia – we see them when things are really bad.”
This is due to a number of factors, notably language barriers and lack of familiarity with services available, but also cultural particularities and sensitivities that prevent women from seeking help.
“The whole concept of speaking to people you don’t know about private matters is difficult to overcome,” she says, explaining how often women from CALD backgrounds end up keeping quiet and unaware of their legal rights.
“That’s what we are trying to change; to help them build their independence and resilience.”
Ms Prattis had the opportunity to do just that. For the past three years she has been involved in a program developed by MyriaD International for the Australian Migrant Resource Centre (AMRC) in South Australia. There are quite a significant number of humanitarian-background communities settling in SA, and AMRC have been doing a lot of settlement work, through which they started to recognise that family violence was an issue within some of the communities.
“AMRC is run by an amazing woman, Eugenia Tsoulis, who was really interested in developing their organisational capacity to be able to respond effectively and also to work with building their resilience as a community and address this issue. We trained all of their staff and built their capability to respond appropriately and properly. Because what they realised as an organisation is that it was not about giving women information and telling them that domestic violence is wrong and against the law. If you want to to create change and build resilience you need to work across all paths of the community. We worked with men, women and young people separately but also with the community as a whole,” she explains.
Their work is outlined in a document called Working with New and Emerging Communities to Prevent Family and Domestic Violence Good Practice, an invaluable resource paper for any community organisation aiming to go into this issue and understand the holistic approach applied.
“We are hoping to get as many organisations as possible to adopt this model and this is why it is important to stress the AMRC’s generosity to share the model,” she says. “The more people doing work in this area, the more we do in eliminating gender violence.”
Looking back over three years of relentless planning, organising, and pursuit of a goal, Ms Prattis emphasises the importance of the first step.
“The first thing we did was bring community leaders together and discuss the issues they think affect their community, and what sort of activities they wanted to see. Without bringing them aboard we wouldn’t be able to work with the community.
“The community had ownership of this program, they led the sorts of activities they knew people would come to, and this is why we had good attendance rates and participation; because it was not something that was done ‘at them’ or ‘for them’ but they were involved right from the beginning.
The main challenge was, of course, to get these women to become involved.
“We knew they were not going to show up at an event talking about family violence,” she says.
“So we run leadership-building activities for women, we set up groups in different areas, we trained women to run community groups, we did all sorts of activities, to create settings in different areas in South Australia where women could help other women. This was a really important part of the program to make sure that they would have access to information and available services, to learn what entitlements they have in Australia that help effective settlement. We ended up with a program called Women Circles of Strength where we had speakers from the justice system speak about the court systems in Australia and the representatives from the police explaining what child-safe environments look like and what family violence looks like in this country. In other cases we ran workshops explaining what a healthy family looks like. In other circumstances we explained all the available services. These were language-specific groups, designed for different cultural and linguistic background groups, that are now taking place regularly. Through this program, the women became leaders in the community.”
Importantly, men were also made an integral part of the program.
“When it comes to family and domestic violence, it’s mostly men that are doing it and it is important to work with men. Again, through our expertise working across cultural diversity, we couldn’t take the mainstream approach and say that this behaviour is wrong and not acceptable; we had to work within their culture and explain certain concepts, such as the concept of ‘rape in marriage’. In some cultures they don’t understand it, they think that once a man is married, he has ‘access to his wife’ whenever he wants.”
In order to tackle this and other misconceptions often based on prejudice and ignorance, the project targeted the men’s soft spot: their children.
“In all migrant communities, one of the things that reflects your success is how well your children do. It’s the same if you look at the Greek migrants, our parents. The success of their settlement relies on their children being able to get an education. This is the indicator of successful settlement. So what we did is, we brought in White Ribbon Australia (an organisation which brings together men and boys working to end male violence against women and girls); they have a program that prepares men to become ambassadors which we adapted to create a program more responsive to men from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, which reflected basic family values that we all have.
“We started talking about strong families. When we addressed the impact of an unhealthy, unsafe environment on children and their education, that was a big turning point for men; they began to realise that if the children don’t feel safe and secure in their home this will affect their education and future. Through this, they got to understand the importance of gender equality and respectful relationships and started asking what to do to make things better. Over 100 men participated and now they are doing a lot of work within the communities – a lot of them have become or are in the process of becoming White Ribbon ambassadors. This is an incredible outcome,” she says proudly.
“Young men are the future”.
As satisfied as she may sound, and while statistics may come and go, there’s one thing she knows.
“It is impossible to measure the impact of this program. Because how do you measure that you’ve changed the attitude of young people for the rest of their lives?”