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Establishing a Voice for Migrant and Refugee Women: Zita Antonios (1997)

Race Race Discrimination

Establishing a Voice for
Migrant and Refugee Women

Speech by Zita
Antonios, Race Discrimination Commissioner, Ethnic Communities Council
Victoria, 19 March 1997

Non-English speaking
background women have played a key role in the development and operation
of the migrant and refugee rights movement in Australia over the last
three decades. They have marched to support migrant and refugee rights,
established organisations, organised meetings, developed the ethnic voluntary
sector policies, provided direct services, written the submissions, serviced
the committees, organised fundraising and much much more.

But where are our
voices in the key decision making bodies of not only mainstream Anglo-
Australian organisations including women’s organisations but especially
within our own "mainstream" migrant organisations? What are
the barriers that operate to exclude us so persistently from participation
at these levels? There are always of course, in all these organisations
token representation of migrant and refugee women. This is not what we
are talking about - we want and demand equal participation of migrant
and refugee women in all decision making structures in society including
our own migrant and refugee organisations.

Women of non-English
speaking background have a right to a voice (not a token one) and to equal
participation in decision-making at all levels.

legislation in this country over the last two decades has recognised that
Australians face barriers relating to a number of different types of discrimination.
The major forms of discrimination have been seen to be on the grounds
of race or ethnicity; sex or sexual preference; and disability. Recognition
has also been given in some quarters to discrimination on the basis of
age, religious beliefs and other grounds.

Despite legislation
and the standards that legislation set, there remains a deplorable lack
of participation of non-English speaking background women in the decision
making mechanisms of mainstream organisations including "mainstream"
migrant and refugee organisations. What we know is that despite the ongoing
battles of migrant women since the 1970's to have a voice and to participate
in decision making, still they are faced with discrimination on the basis
of their race in the case of mainstream women’s organisations or
Anglo-Australian organisations and sexism in relation to their participation
at decision making levels in mainstream migrant and refugee organisations.
This double discrimination for women of non-English speaking background
occurs too in relation to access to services and to employment.

Some migrant women
face a third discrimination around their sexuality - an issue that the
community, including migrant and refugee community tend to shun and not
address or even acknowledge.

For many migrant
and refugee women their low socio-economic status (or in another ‘speak’
their class status), also presents barriers to their participation given
the problems of long working hours, child care, low income levels and
so on. The operation of the decision making mechanisms within organisations
do not take account of women’s particular organisational needs with
respect to child care and domestic responsibilities given they still take
major responsibility for the domestic sphere.

Sexism in mainstream
migrant organisations manifests itself in a number of ways. The above
mentioned operational mode is an obvious way of excluding migrant and
refugee women from equal and meaningful participation. However other factors
also operate such as constitutional impediments where constitutions favour
membership from organisations whose representatives will inevitably be
men and in some instances can only be men. Constitutions however can be
developed to ensure equal participation for women if in the process of
developing or changing the constitution there is the political will and
a genuine desire to include women and others who might be excluded as
equal members in all facets of the organisation. What is most needed is
the political will. Given that the migrant rights movement fought so hard
against discrimination, the continual failure of our mainstream organisations
to now redress the discrimination against migrant and refugee women’s
equal participation in their ranks is incomprehensible.

Racial discrimination
and sex discrimination are two areas recognised in federal legislation
in 1975 and 1984 respectively. Both were landmark pieces of legislation,
putting into effect here the substance of international declarations carried
by the United Nations. Under these Acts, which I will refer to in brief
as the RDA and the SDA, some great strides have been made.
The RDA was the springboard from which the Mabo case was
fought and won. The SDA was the means by which women won equality
in the workplace.

The discrimination
faced by migrant and refugee women is very often located at the intersection
of sex and race and sometimes disability and sexuality. For example, a
Somali woman might be critical of the inability of a picture theatre to
accommodate her child who happens to use a wheelchair. We might ask are
the difficulties she faces due to the disability of her child or the fact
that she is black, or both? Take the case of Ekaterina Djokic a couple
of years ago: did she have such a battle with the men at the Rockhampton
Meatworks because she was a woman or because she was Macedonian, or, as
the hearing commissioner found, it was impossible to sort out the grounds
on which the men made her life so difficult - they hated her sex and her
ethnicity, as well as the fact that she worked twice as hard as any of

Discrimination based
on race and gender is complex and even more so if economic status and
sexuality are part of the complexity. It is incontrovertible however,
that women of non-English speaking background have a more difficult time
realising their potential and participating fully in Australian society
than either Anglo-Australian women or men of non-English speaking background.

I think it is important
to place the struggle of migrant and refugee women for a voice and equal
participation in a historical and political context in order that we can
together devise strategies that take account of that history and the political
realities in which we are currently operating.

In the late 1960's
and early 1970's along with the civil rights and feminist movements, migrants
began to organise together to demand recognition of their rights and the
issues facing them. These included the right to: a migrant and refugee
voice; free interpreters; ethnic schools; ethno-specific services; English
language classes; occupational health and safety; the recognition of tenosynovitis
as a an occupational disease largely affecting migrant process workers;
health care that recognised language and cultural issues as well as endemic
racism by service providers; multi-lingual voting procedures; maintain
their cultures and languages; bring their families to Australia and so

By the mid 1970's,
most importantly we had won many of these battles including the right
to our own migrant/refugee voice - our right to represent ourselves and
to be consulted on all matters affecting us. The manifestation of this
right was in the establishment of the ethnic communities councils. We
achieved these gains through a united struggle - that is the left and
the right, men and women, migrants and refugees - all of us - united at
a particular point in history to achieve common goals. Without unity at
that point little would have been gained.

We had won too, the
battle to have the "good neighbour councils" dismantled. These
were run by white Anglo well-meaning but very often patronising people
specifically to speak on behalf of migrants and refugees and to ‘help’
them settle and assimilate. The resources that were earmarked for this
organisation were redistributed to ECC’s.

By the end of the
second half of the 1970's, having won some basic rights, divisions based
on the inevitable differences between ethnic groups, within ethnic groups
and between men and women within the migrant rights movement were beginning
to surface. We are after all not a homogenous group. Recognition and expression
was sought for these differences. For example an attempt was made to set
up the Federation of Migrant Organisations (FOMO) as a progressive alternative
to what was perceived to be a right wing NSW based ECC. Migrant and refugee
women were tired of not having our voice heard within the ranks of mainstream
migrant organisations and accordingly our concerns addressed. We were
relegated to women’s committees and direct service provision but
did not have an equal say in the general running and strategic direction
of these organisations.

Migrant women began
to separately organise. We met in small groups such as the Migrant Women’s
Issues Group in Sydney who made contact with what was then the Italian
Women’s Refuge in Melbourne and the Migrant Women Workers’ Caucus
of the Migrant Workers’ Conference and then to migrant and refugee
women in other states. With the support of the Australian Council of Churches
- ironically an Anglo-based organisation, a national Migrant Women’s
Speak Out
was held in Sydney in March 1982. Hundreds of women attended
from all over Australian including migrant women factory workers, grant-in-aid
workers, migrant women refuge workers, migrant women from ECC Women’s
Committees, women from ethno-specific migrant women’s groups, and
so on. They spoke out loud raising their concerns about the issues that
most affected them at the time - child care, occupational health and safety,
health care, education for their children, immigration issues, etc.

From there, separate
migrant and refugee women’s organisations began to develop more robustly.
The Immigrant Women’s Speak Out was established in 1985 in
NSW with funding from that state government and five years later a national
association of non-English speaking background women was established.
Ethno-specific women’s groups have sprung up every where as well
as the immigrant women’s domestic violence services , immigrant women’s
refuges etc.

This form of separate
gender specific, migrant and refugee specific organisation was necessary
and remains absolutely necessary to progress the concerns we have about
issues that affect us as women and to project our women’s perspective
on issues that affect all of us - men and women.

I need here to make
the distinction between separate organising and separatist organising.

Separate organisation
for migrant and refugee women occurs because we recognise our disadvantage
in being able to participate equally in mainstream structures. We need
a space to develop our voice, our confidence, our strategies and to advocate
our concerns as migrant and refugee women.

In the so-called
"mainstream" women’s movement we also fought very hard
for women’s caucuses and organisations as necessary to support women’s
participation, develop our agendas and advocate on our own behalf as women.
Many migrant and refugee women felt excluded from this process because
of endemic racism.

Separate organising
did not mean that we didn’t participate in the wider political and
social structures of society. We did and we continue to do so.

In the migrant rights
movement of the 70's and 80's we fought very hard for separate migrant
workers’ caucuses within trade unions and political parties to support
the equal participation of migrants in these structures. Political parties
and trade unions at the time opposed this not seeing the parallels with
the organisation of women’s caucuses which they more readily accepted.
This was a manifestation of endemic racism.

This form of separate
organising does not mean that we as migrants and refugees did not participate
or want to participate in all the social and political structures of society.
We did and we do. Separate organisation I believe is a necessary form
of organisation, it is a strategy to progress specific interests in a
particular political moment - that moment can extend for a very long time
as is necessary - I think it is still necessary since we have not achieved
equal participation almost 30 years after the beginning of the migrant
rights and women’s movement.

Separatist organising
I see as different. It is a choice that some women may make because they
believe that the primary source of women’s inequality is men or the
patriarchy and thus will not engage at all with men or their organisations.

I believe, however,
as I suspect most of you do too, that racism and economic status are equally
powerful forms of oppression and inequality and that strategically it
is critical for migrant and refugee women to participate in both mainstream
and separate structures to fight sexism, racism, economic and other forms
of discrimination. It is especially important given the current threats
to so much of what had been earlier achieved through the struggle of many
migrants and refugees both men and women.

A strategy that allows
us to work on all fronts does not mean that all of us have to work in
all of the organisations. That is simply humanly impossible. It simply
means we need to decide how we will use our individual energies and stay
connected to each as migrant and refugee women so that information, resources
and support can be given wherever it is needed (probably through our separate
migrant and refugee women’s organisations).

All of this is done
however within an overall migrant and refugee women’s strategy. I
do believe we have to work in the mainstream migrant organisations in
the current political climate but also in separate migrant and refugee
women’s organisations and for some it will include being involved
in Anglo-based mainstream and Anglo-women organisations.

I certainly do not
have answers but am eager to talk with you about how we can effectively
progress migrant and refugees women’s participation at this critical
point in our history.

I wish to congratulate
the organisers and the participants for your work so far on these issues
and for you constructive willingness to dialogue with each other and others.
Good luck.

updated 1 December 2001