Intimate partner violence in Australian refugee and immigrant communities: Culturally safe strategies for practice

Content type
Event date

27 March 2019, 1:00 pm to 2:00 pm (AEST)


Alissar El-Murr, Adele Murdolo, Cecilia Barassi-Rubio




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This webinar was held on Wednesday, 27 March 2019. 

Intimate partner violence is the most commonly experienced form of family and domestic violence used against women in Australia. It takes place across all cultures and faith groups, including in refugee and immigrant communities. There is an emerging body of research investigating how services can better meet the needs of these culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) communities.

This webinar discussed the emerging research on how service providers can ensure appropriate support is available to this client group. It included an outline of practical strategies to support community involvement and leadership, cultural safety and trauma-informed care. The webinar also discussed what works to help implement these strategies, with a focus on current examples of practical strategies to address challenges to service delivery in rural and regional settings. 

This webinar is of interest for those working with CALD communities, particularly refugee communities, and practitioners seeking a greater understanding of the intersecting systemic and social issues affecting service engagement. 

This webinar built upon findings of a recent CFCA paper that brought together research and practice-based strategies to support women from refugee backgrounds.

Audio transcript (edited)


Good afternoon, everyone and welcome to today's webinar.  My name is Alissar and I'm a researcher here at the Australian Institute of Family Studies.  It's good be back here again presenting today's webinar on Intimate Partner Violence in Australian Refugee and Immigrant Communities.

Before we begin, I'd like to acknowledge the traditional custodians of the lands on which we are meeting.  In Melbourne the traditional custodians of the land are the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin Nation.  I pay my respects to their elders, past and present, and to the elders from other communities and any emerging leaders who are also with us today.

Today's webinar will discuss what works to meet the needs of women from refugee and immigrant backgrounds who experience intimate partner violence.  Joining me to discuss this important topic are Dr Adele Murdolo and Cecilia Barassi Rubio.  Dr Adele Murdolo is from an Italian migrant background and has led the Multicultural Centre for Women's Health in Victoria as its executive director for 17 years.  She has a PhD in History and Women's Studies and her research and publication areas include women's health, violence against women and feminist history and activism in Australia.  Adele is a passionate speaker and advocate for building the status of immigrant and refugee women through research, practice and policy.

Cecilia Barassi-Rubio is the director of the Immigrant Women's Support Service which is a specialist domestic violence and sexual assault support service for migrant and refugee women in Queensland.  The Immigrant Women's Support Service has a long history of providing specialist services to women since 1986.  I'm absolutely thrilled to have Adele and Cecilia taking part today.

The format of today's webinar will be slightly different to usual.  I am going to start us off by talking a bit about my research project with CFCA about intimate partner violence in Australian refugee communities and then we'll bring in our guests for a less formal discussion about how strategies for engaging woman from immigrant and refugee backgrounds play out in different settings.  Normally we'd encourage you to send us your questions, however, we may not have a lot of time for questions in today's webinar hour.  That said, do still send them through and we will answer them in the forum following our discussion.  Remember please let us know if you do not want your question published on the online forum. 

As always our webinars are recorded and the audio, transcript and slides will be available on our website and YouTube channel in the coming week. 

So today I'm going to share a piece of research that was recently finalised for CFCA as part of the work it does to support practitioners working in the child, family and community welfare sector.  There's an emerging research interest in the experiences of women from refugee backgrounds and some service providers face challenges in developing culturally safe programming and in involving refugee communities in violence reduction strategies.  We also know that family violence is an issue of concern for diverse communities more broadly.

However, while intimate partner violence or IPV is a key issue for diverse and refugee communities we also know that it's the main form of violence used against women in Australia.  I'm sure we're all really familiar with the ABS statistic that one in four or 2.2 million women have experience at least one incident of IPV in their lifetime and this takes place across all cultures and faith groups.  So in this research I don't focus on IPV in refugee communities because it occurs more than in other cohorts but because we no less about it as an issue.

One of the first things that struck me while scoping out this topic can be summed up in the question, "How do we define refugees?".  So a good place for us to start today is by asking, "Who are we actually talking about in this project?".  So here our focus is on individuals who have permanent residence in Australia through the humanitarian program.  These people have greater eligibility for services and are more likely to seek support for experiences of IPV than those with more precarious immigration status and this fact is reflected in the available literature about refugees and service engagement.

I'm also talking about refugees in what's called a post settlement context.  So generally the agreed definition of settlement refers to the first five years of permanent residence in Australia after a visa has been granted.  The term post settlement then refers to the period of time following that initial five year period.  So in this project I do note the experiences of women on temporary visas, particularly spousal visas, but they're not the main focus of this research.

Also before I go on I really want to point out that settlement in itself is an ambiguous term and it can mean different things to different people.  Not to muddy the waters too much for our listeners but acknowledging the amorphic quality of terms like refugee and settlement and reflecting on what these mean to you and what they mean to your clients is really important.

So this research consisted of two phases.  A scoping review of the literature took place in the first instance and this went on to inform state consultations with services in Western Australia, Queensland and Victoria.  The findings of those formed a diverse set of case studies that included strategies for promising practice when working with women from refugee backgrounds about family violence.

The key findings from the scoping review include the main types of violence experienced by women from refugee backgrounds and these were physical and sexual violence, financial abuse and reproductive coercion.  Like many people in Australia women from refugee backgrounds may not recognise forms of IPV outside of physical violence that causes injury, especially financial abuse and reproductive coercion.

For those of you unfamiliar with those terms financial abuse is characterised by the perpetrator's use of finances to increase dependency, assert control and limit the physical activity of their partner.  Reproductive coercion is the term used to refer to any behaviour that interferes with or obstructs women's autonomous decision making about reproductive issues and this could include interference with birth control and controlling pregnancy outcomes.

So while there is no definitive driver of IPV there are complex underlying intersecting factors that can assist in our understanding of how contexts conducive to violent behaviour could arise including factors like traumatic pre-arrival experiences and acculturation stress.  So prior to settlement individuals from refugee backgrounds may have experienced torture, sexual assault, threats to themselves and their families, food shortages and been witness to the destruction of their communities and their homes, all of which constitute traumatic experiences.  On top of this acculturation stress is another factor that has been shown to worsen trauma and can affect mental health and lead to social isolation, both of which are relevant to IPV.

So settlement acculturation is a normal part of adapting to a new culture.  It can be described as a two-dimensional process of concurrent involvement in a new culture while maintaining aspects of one's original cultural identity.  So this occurs in every post migratory context.  However, acculturation stress can be linked to attitudes regarding gender equality and this can give rise to conditions for IPV.  It's been found that a major shift in widely held values on gender equality from the country of origin can affect an individual's adjustment to Australia during settlement acculturation and these shifts in gender roles and expectations can have significant impact on intimate lives and family relationships.

Okay.  So there are several overlapping factors that affect women's choices to report or seek help for IPV.  So at this stage, if you haven't already, I'd encourage you to put on your intersectional goggles and avoid viewing this from a single issue lens.  Seeking help for experiences of violence needs to be seen as a social act and as a social act it can be influenced by cultural values along with a range of other factors. 

Immigration status is a major barrier to help seeking but again, this lies outside the scope of our research.  For more on this I'd point you to Marie Segrave at Monash University and Lanis Andantino at Flinders Uni who do really important work in this area.

Limited knowledge of rights and available services is another factor and we can see how this links to limited English language skills as a barrier to help seeking.  For example, misunderstanding the role of police and fear of consequences of reporting can be mitigated by the provision of culturally appropriate and language appropriate information.  Other barriers to help seeking include a lack of cultural safety.  Here I differentiate between cultural safety and cultural competency.  So while cultural competency is usually spoken about as the development of knowledge, awareness and skills in staff, cultural safety adds to this by providing a broader understanding of empowerment, identity and the value of cultural beliefs and it also encourages staff to be reflective about their own cultural beliefs and values because we all have them and we need to be aware of what we're bringing to the table in order to build trust and respect.

Fear and distrust of authorities is another factor which can be influenced by traumatic pre-arrival experiences, particularly if an individual has experienced systemic violence or violence used by the state in their country of origin.  Family and community factors can be a barrier to help seeking in that the fear of social isolation, as a consequence of seeking help for IPV, is a very real deterrent to many women experiencing violence.  We know from a number of family law cases involving refugee communities in Victoria that many women withdraw from the legal process because of significant community pressure.

Jatinder Kaur recently presented an excellent webinar about IPV in cult communities and she has noted religion as a major factor acting as a barrier to help seeking in many of the cases she encounters.  I believe that webinar was recorded and is available online, so I'd really encourage you to listen to that for more information.

In this research we identified three strategies that underpin promising practice to support service access and engagement and these were community involvement and leadership, cultural safety and integrated trauma informed programming and practice.

So let's now move on to some of those findings from the stakeholder consultations about those strategies.  The first one we'll start with is the involvement of community.  So staff at one of the services I consulted with delivered training to cult community leaders on how to recognise and respond to family violence and then in turn receive training from those same community leaders about cultural values and specific community issues.  Staff also supported wider cult women's empowerment activities and used these forums to provide information about how to self-refer to family violence services if needed.

Another consulted service was really engaged with community in co-designed practice and one of their strategies was to employ bicultural workers to assist in program development, implementation and evaluation and they found that bicultural workers can really act as a bridge between service providers and clients and ensure that the needs and wants of a community are taken into account.

We found that some services faced difficulties in translating theories on cultural safety into practice and again creating cultural safety is really important for service providers working with refugee victim survivors who often report feelings of shame and fear in disclosing their experiences.  In talking to services we learned that sometimes creating cultural safety aligns with the broader discretionary strategies generally used by family violence support services to ensure client anonymity.  For example, ensuring the service is not advertised and is located outside of a particular community can ensure that a woman seeking help feels safe to do so.

Creating the culturally safe environment and providing clients with staff and programs that are culturally safe also includes understanding the different needs and contexts of women from refugee backgrounds and the services I spoke to have really thought about what this means for things like risk assessment and safety planning and it's important for women seeking help for IPV that they don't feel that a service agenda is being imposed on them.

So violence affects many aspects of life such as housing, health and financial stability and victim survivors may need to engage with a range of services for this reason.  So again it helps us to use an intersectional framework to not only view the issues underlying violence and underlying help seeking behaviour but also how they can be applied in service delivery.

Integrated care requires multiple services to work together.  For example, specialist family violence support services that are responsible for the initial engagement and case management of victim survivors and other services that address their health and social needs.  One of the services I consulted with is a group pregnancy care program for refugee women which is intended to address gaps in service engagement and meet the needs of women and families through community consultations.  The program offers a coordinated team of clinicians, including maternity hospital staff as well as bicultural workers and settlement service providers, in order to provide women with wrap around service.

So the program staff receive training on how to respond to women's trauma and this is especially important during pregnancy and childbirth which can be physically and emotionally triggering and in a postpartum context where other issues can affect health and wellbeing.

All of the services we consulted noted that trauma informed care is part of their training in working with women experiencing violence.  These services provide training and support to workers on how to avoid re-triggering women from refugee backgrounds who might also have had traumatic pre‑arrival experiences.

In talking to services in this research and since this project concluded I found that while difference services use different operational frameworks, trauma informed care is a flexible enough practice model that it can be shared across different services and it underpins most, if not all, good practice strategies.

All right.  I think that's enough from me for now.  The paper that resulted from this research contains much more information than I was able to go through today, so please follow the links on the webinar page to access that.

It's my great pleasure now to bring in some other voices to talk about work with diverse communities in the family violence space.  I'm really looking forward to this because as a small research project we did face quite a few limitations and while every piece of research faces constraints and not everyone can do everything, we don't always get the opportunity to build on and expand our findings in discussion with others.  So this is a fantastic opportunity and we are so lucky to have such experienced and knowledgeable speakers joining us today. 

Our first speaker is Dr Adele Murdolo, the CEO of the Multicultural Centre for Women's Health in Victoria.  Thank you so much for coming in today, Adele.


It's a pleasure to be here, Alissar.


Could you start by giving us a general overview of the Multicultural Centre for Women's Health?  Like what kind of services do you offer and who makes up your client group?


Sure. The Multicultural Centre for Women's Health is an immigrant and refugee women's health organisation.  We've actually been operating for 40 years.  So we set up in 1978 as a very small program that utilised peer bilingual education to reach migrant women in factories with information about contraception.  

So the idea was to go out to where the migrant women were, which at the time was in factories and provide them with the education and information that they require in their language to be able to take control of their health and wellbeing.

So that was the original idea.  That idea remains.  So we still go out to women, wherever they are, in their workplaces or other community settings, educational settings, to provide education about a whole range of issues, including domestic violence and intimate partner violence as well and gender equality to restore to them the education and information they need to take control of their health and wellbeing.

Okay and what are the kind of issues that face migrant and refugee women in Victoria?  Are different kinds of services offered in different regions or to people from different backgrounds?


Sure. We cover the whole gamut of health issues from sexual reproductive health to mental health.  Occupational health and safety's a big one as well.  But beyond those issues which face all migrant women I guess the barriers to service access is a really big one and what we find is a trend to having limited access to the early intervention and prevention programs in the health system and in the family violence system and then we see them overrepresented in the acute and crisis care sectors.

Late presentation is a big issue, so antenatal care.  It was interesting, you were talking about pregnancy care programs earlier, that's a really important intervention because only 56 per cent of migrant women access antenatal care in the first trimester and they also tend to access it less often, even if they do access it.  It's the same with family violence services.  They tend not to use family violence services until a much later point and often at a crises point.

The other thing that we find is that there are poorer health outcomes.  So I guess this access to services has an implication and an impact on women's health.  So we see, for example, higher rates of birth intervention.  So migrant women are more likely to have caesareans.  There's a higher still birth rate very sadly and it's particularly high amongst some groups and high risk of some chronic conditions, poorer mental health, especially perinatal mental health.

One statistic which is quite interesting and disturbing too is that there tends to be a deterioration of migrant women's health.  So they come to Australia quite healthy.  It's called the healthy migrant effect, which would be a little bit different for refugees, of course, because of the different experiences leading to their migration.  But generally speaking migrant women arrive in quite good health but there is a deterioration in their health over the first five years of settlement.

That's to do with the kinds of jobs.  It's to do with the stress, acculturation stress that you were talking about earlier and because they don't have very good access to services and preventative and early intervention health and welfare services.


Yeah, thank you. 


I think in terms of the question you asked before about different regions, I think we have very similar issues but what we found in the rural areas is that there tends to be a lot more isolation because there are fewer numbers of migrant communities and the services that support migrant communities in rural and regional areas.  So there's less choice.  There's less – fewer opportunities for, you know, specific services and multicultural services to provide support.  Women often don't have access to independent transport.  So they're reliant on their families and partners to take them places and of course, many rural services have not yet adapted their programs to cater for the migrant communities in their regions.

This is a really important issue because the population of migrants in rural areas has grown over the last ten years and it will continue to grow and that's been really both federal and state government policies that have encouraged growth in rural areas.


Okay.  So why is it so important to support communities to come up with their own solutions to violence against women?


I think it's really we can't take a top down approach because well that's patronising, isn't it?




But also that one size top down approach just doesn't work.  It's not effective for all communities.  There's a real need both to make mainstream programs and services appropriate for the broader group of communities and particularly those communities that have a need but there's a real need to also, at the same time, tailor programs so that they're meaningful and so that they actually have an impact on the communities that are being engaged.  So I suppose I'm talking more here about prevention as well.




The work that we do is very much in the area of primary prevention.  So it's at the level of changing culture, changing systems, policies, legislation, structures so that changing can occur, positive change can occur that builds gender equality within communities and prevents violence against women.  And I guess, just to think about the cultural change that's needed, that really needs buy in and engagement from communities.  We can't just, you know, kind of go into communities and change things without people actually coming along for the ride.

And really when we're talking about gender equality and preventing violence against women as well, we believe that women in particular really need to be at the centre of developing those solutions.  Their leadership is crucial.  So if we're aiming to build gender equality we really need to build women's leadership and build acceptance of women's leadership within the community.  But I think the main thing to keep in mind is that it's women who are the victims of violence in most of the cases that we're talking about, especially interpersonal violence and they're the ones who really are affected by the violence, they're the ones who would be the beneficiaries of any violence prevention programs in the communities.  They really need to be at the centre of the whole program that's being conducted in communities.


So the Multicultural Centre for Women's Health is engaged in a number of innovative programs at the moment like the Safer and Stronger Communities pilot that supports Victorian organisations to engage in primary prevention with migrant and refugee communities.  Can you give us an overview of the what, why and how of that program?


Sure.  I mean that is a fairly new and innovative program.  It's funded through the Multicultural Affairs and Social Cohesion Division in Victoria and we're working very closely with that division of government to run this program and it's being evaluated as we go.  So I guess one of the things that we're faced with is a real lack of evidence of what works in migrant and refugee communities in relation to prevention.  So at the same time as we're delivering this program we're also collecting the evidence to contribute to the evidence base of what works.

So that program provides resources and support to five settlement and multicultural services across Victoria.  There are two in rural and regional areas and three in metropolitan areas and we're working with them over a two year period and it's roughly divided into two phases.  So the first year is working with their organisations to get their organisations gender equity ready, for want of a better term.  So it's really getting them and helping them think about what changes they need to make to their organisations to build in gender equitable policies, practices both internally and externally facing.

And then the second phase of the project is where they then engage migrant communities in gender equality and the reason we're doing it in that way is because it's very hard for an organisation to go out to a community to say, look, you really need to a build gender equality if they don't have their own house in order, so called.  So it's a really interesting project.  We've already found lots of hurdles and barriers that will contribute very well to the evidence base but we're also finding lots of successes.  So that's been really good so far.  We're still in the organisational development phase so we haven't actually gone out to communities yet but that's the next phase that we're working on.

I think one of the things that is important to say is that we take an intersectional and feminist approach to the work that we do.  What that means, I guess that's what has informed this two phase project, that we understand that culture is a really important factor in violence prevention and in gender inequality but intersectional feminist approaches require us to look not only at culture but also at the ways that systems and structures intersect with culture so that we can better understand the fullness and the holistic experiences of people in communities and better understand what the barriers that holding migrant women back are.

So in part, yes, the barriers are really about, can be about culture but equally there's lots of discrimination in the employment area, education.  So many migrant women come to Australia with qualifications that – you know, they might come as a overseas qualified doctor and then they come to Australia and find many barriers to having their qualifications recognised.  Add to that mix childbearing.  Add to that mix a partner who might have low wage because he's also struggling in the workforce with discrimination.

So you have to really look at the whole gamut of factors and the ways that all the different forms of discrimination intersect in order to understand what's causing gender inequality for a woman in a community and therefore also to understand the solution to that problem.


Fantastic. So there's also the Making the Links program which is described as another innovative and collaborative project to link migrant women living in regional Victoria to the mainstream family and domestic violence and sexual assault services by building capacity on both sides.  So I was wondering if you could speak to how you build capacity in mainstream services.  What kind of activities are applied in that project?


Working with the mainstream services we really have to work with where they're at.  So what we've found in different regional areas is that some are really very acutely aware of the changing demographics in their region and they've already started engaging with communities and they've come quite a long way, whereas others perhaps haven't yet developed that awareness of the change in demographic and they're still really delivering services in a way that only reaches a certain cohort.

So working with those – we're working with those service providers where they're at.  For some service providers we deliver training so that they can better understand the demographic and what changes they need to make to their services in order to become more accessible and provide a more appropriate service to their potential service users.  So it could be training, other capacity building.  Sometimes they need to understand the research that's been done about the specific issues facing migrant and refugee women in their areas as well.


Yeah, great.  So if you could give one piece of advice right now to mainstream services that could help them better address the needs of migrant and refugee women what could that be and is it something more than just employing a worker specifically to address cult communities?


It's absolutely a lot more than that.  So I think one of the things that we, like a go to strategy can sometimes be to build the diversity of our workforce to try and (indistinct words) and I think that's a really important strategy and one that many services actually haven't gotten around to yet.  So I think that's a really important one but it doesn't really go far enough.  So diversity is important but we also really need to build equity into our workforces and workplaces through policies and procedures. 

So you know, some of the workplaces we work with, for example, have quite a large number of migrant women employed but none of them are in a management role, for example.  So there's quite a hierarchically organised organisation.  What I would suggest to mainstream services is to have a look at that.  I think that's a really important factor because it's an indicator that there's discrimination present in that workplace and if there's a discrimination present internally then there's most likely discrimination present externally and in the services that are provided.  So I guess it would be, you know, diversity's good but go further than that.  Build equity in and remove the discrimination that's in our organisation, mainstream organisations to become more accessible and appropriate.


Okay.  I think that's all we have time for now.  Thank you so much, Adele.  We'll now talk to Cecilia Barassi-Rubio, the CEO of the Immigrant Women's Support Service who is going us via phone link in Queensland.  Hi Cecilia?


Hello, good morning.


Hi, how are you going?  It's morning there, isn't it?


It is morning here.  Oh no, it's midday, sorry.


Oh there you go.  Could you start by giving us a general overview of the Immigrant Women's Support Service?  So maybe tell us what kind of services you offer and who makes up your client group?


Okay.  So the Immigrant Women's Support Service provides support to women from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds and the children who are affected by domestic violence and all sexual violence.  I guess I need to unpack a little bit the client group.  We support who may be permanent residents, they may be Australian citizens but they come from a migrant background.  Women on spouse or partner visas, refugees, asylum seekers, international students, women on tourist visas, migrant workers and women on protection visas.

So we're funded by state government for sexual assault and state and federal government for domestic violence.  We are a feminist organisation and our practice is trauma informed strengths based.  We also apply solution focus approach.  We use a counselling advocacy model.  We work with interpreters and we currently have all the staff, we are ten, are bilingual.


Wow.  Okay.  So you're based in metropolitan Queensland but provide services to different areas.  So could you tell us whereabouts do you provide outreach services and why is that so important?


Okay, yes.  We are based in Brisbane and our catchment is Brisbane City Council boundaries but Queensland is geographically extensive and isolation is a big issue in many locations there and you have already addressed that issue and that mainly meant safety and access to support.  However, many women even within our catchment make contact with us via email which means that we can apply different means of communication with them. 

So technically for domestic violence we're funded to provide centre based support but we understand that and it is widely understood that for women to access domestic violence support we need to ensure that the service is provided when needed.  Okay.  So we value and understand the courage that it takes to seek support therefore if the only way of providing the support is by going to a hospital, government department or another community organisation we do so to ensure the woman receives the response in a timely and safe manner.

We don't have specific areas where we provide outreach because we consider resources – because we have to consider, you know, resources and limitations but we try to provide support by using alternative options when this cannot be done face to face.  We might communicate with the women or their supporters via email and we do a lot of work over the phone.

Because we're from a feminist and social justice framework we try to respond as much as possible and try to also resource other service providers.  So they, in their practice, remove any barriers to access and develop competencies and self‑awareness in assisting women from diverse linguist and cultural backgrounds.

Although we are the only service of its kind, that is we're specialists, we're multicultural service, we provide domestic violence and sexual violence support there are some new services in Queensland that provide domestic violence support to families.  So we do work with them as well but where the demand and the need is greater than the resources available.  So we try to provide support as required regardless of catchment area.

Yes, so the fact that we don't see women, all women face to face doesn't mean that we don't assist them.  We basically get the referrals, they still can access legal support and any other pathways that other women in Brisbane can access.


Yes, okay.  So it sounds like a lot of the outreach you do involves some form of collaboration with other organisations.  Can you tell me a bit about how this has come about and how the Immigrant Women Support Service has used this as a strategy to reach a greater number of women?  I'm thinking particularly of the collaboration between your organisation and Brisbane South West Support.


The Brisbane South West Support is a sexual violence prevention service.  It's based in a place called Richlands and it covers Inala and surrounding suburbs.  This is service is a collaboration of four services with different targets.  For instance, we have Murrigunyah which is that service that provides sexual assault support and other support to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women.  Zig Zag, that is a service for young women that provides sexual assault response, housing and other responses.  The Brisbane Rape and Incest Survivors Service which is support for other women and ask, you know, where specialist call women.

Together we provide support services, you know, for women from different ages and backgrounds.  We provide lots of options for support and the one especially is Sexual Violence Prevention and Support Service.  We are close to, you know – in Queensland overall I would say that access and the issue that I was mentioning about transport, it is an issue regardless of where you live.  The distances are quite long and the public transport system is not great.

So although we go to Inala, you know, to Richlands to provide that service often we have to pick up the women as well for them to get to the service.  So and they - that area is very rich in terms of cultural diversity.  Not as rich as other areas like Logan but there is a big representation of a range of cultural backgrounds.

The other advantage other than, you know, being close to them and to close TAFE and close to other services, courts, is that if a woman comes to the service and you know, she feels that she wants to work with one of the other services that's a possibility as well because you know, a woman might feel more comfortable working with the Aboriginal service and that opportunity's provided as well.  So that service is also very  
– and that prevents waiting times which is a big issue when you have limited resources as well.  So if anyone doesn't have time to see a client we make sure that the others will pick up.

The service is also very proactive in connecting with the community because we started as a collaboration.   Brisbane Zig Zag and BRISSC are fairly to close each other whilst Murrigunyah is in Logan.  So we needed to – you know, we didn't just go to that community to here we come with this wonderful service.  It was – we did do a lot of work with the community, with the elders in the community to discuss, you know, the purpose of the service, how we were going to work together.  So we also have abilities together.  For instance, for NAIDOC week, for sexual violence awareness week, we get together with other service providers and other people who are prominent and really liked in the community and obviously the women who come to the service to ensure that the service is totally relevant to that particular area.


Great.  Okay.


That's in a nutshell.


Yes. No, that was very comprehensive.  Thank you so much.  So much like the Multicultural Centre for Women's Health in Victoria, your service the Immigrant Women's Support Service is asked to deliver training in a couple of areas as well.  So what kind of organisations approach you and request training and what is it they want to know?


Okay.  With the training it's quite interesting because we usually ask for the training or community education because we do both.  So we might get request, for instance, from TAFE, TAFE teachers who teach ESL, English as second language.  We have trained service provider from Red Cross.  We have trained child safety service providers.  We have done activities with police, Magistrates' Court, universities as well because a lot of the universities have some components of domestic violence.  So we also provide, like I guess, lecture from time to time and we also get request from service providers, similar to us but don't have the same target group.

We also get lots of invitations to attend activities for specific groups including religious and social groups.  So we invited to provide information about domestic violence or sexual violence or sometimes information about, you know, conversations about relationships.  I also have participated with the Multicultural Development Association.  They are one of the settlement services in Queensland.  So we have participated with them in supporting community leaders in developing responses, community responses to domestic and family violence and I guess, the considerations for those responses and conversations, that they match in line whatever it was talking about.

You know, when we talk with community leaders, honouring and acknowledging the women because, you know, in Queensland a lot of migrant and refugee woman have done a lot of work for the past 40 years or so.  So it's so important we acknowledge the women who have started this work.  The women who have encouraged other women to seek support.  The women who have encouraged men to stop the violence.  That's extremely important together with, you know, giving a place to the men in those communities as well because they also have a responsibility in terms of informing service providers about their cultural practices and how they deal with these issues and then we can have a conversation about how those practices fit with what we do, what we need to adapt, what other things that are really great from the community because we should talk about issues.  Communities have a lot of positive, you know, practices that are really helpful in terms of dealing with these issues.


Definitely.  All right.  So what would you tell other service providers about how to apply cultural safety when they're meeting with multicultural clients?


I guess, you know, some the – cultural safety is a way of working and for cultural safety to be achieved they study to have cultural awareness and to be culturally safety.  So I think there is a range of things that need to be considered.  For instance, minimising power differentials is very important between the service provider and the person receiving the service.  At the end of the day domestic violence can happen to anyone in the community.  I wouldn't – you know, it wouldn't be hard to say that it – you know, this is an issue that happens in only some families.  Most families have someone who has experience.  So we experience the domestic violence or sexual violence for that matter. 

Learning about the person and the culture from the person, I think that is extremely important because culture is dynamic and although we may share the same culture according to our own groups the way we live that culture may be different to each other and there may be aspects of our own cultures that we don't like or don't agree with, like that's in my own particular culture.  I don't agree with everything in that culture and I don't practice everything relevant to that culture.

The other consideration would be to provide a safer space because that also contributes to cultural safety.  For instance, in our service we provide a women's only space to really honour the women who come to the service and the feedback from the women is that they really – they find it positive to have a space where they feel totally free and you know, there is no fear, there is no concern about having to live with men.  It doesn't mean – this doesn't mean that we don't live with men.  You know, we have migration lawyers.  We have family lawyers who are men.  Other service providers but it's just that particular space where the women come to talk about their issues.

We also consider the person's faith, religion or spirituality as they might find a strength and an understanding if these elements are respected and acknowledged in the engagement.  I would also ensure that I have an understanding of the person's world view from what they tell me and my own research.  For instance, in some countries separation or divorce may mean that the children remain with their mother.  Okay.  So if the woman doesn't have an understanding of how systems and legislation operate in Australia they may not ask important and relevant information about the children if they are planning to separate or divorce and they might make an assumption that, you know, the children will remain with her.  In other cultures, you know, the women look after the children therefore if the children are abducted or if the woman has to leave without the children sometimes the women assume that the perpetrator with guidance will return the children.




But that's a dynamic that change once people come to Australia and often women face, you know, long family court processes trying to bring the children back with them.  So having an awareness of my own biases as well because even, you know, you can come from another culture and you can be quite racist.  Racism is so important.  I think we all have the potential or we are racist.  Having that awareness and being very careful about the way we talk to people, the way we talk about other groups, the expectations we have from them.  For instance, as a community, as a society in Australia every time there is a terrorist incident there's an expectation that community leaders from certain groups have to come and explain.  However, when other things happens and just recently we know what's been happening with certain church, I didn't see anyone from that particular group being asked to explain the behaviour of one particular person.


Yes, okay.  I think that's all we have time for today.  Thank you so much for chatting with me, Cecilia.


No problem.  Thank you for the invite.  Can I just say before I finish that - - -



MS BARRASI-RUBIO:  - - - that I would like to acknowledge the women and children who seek support from our service and also to honour their resilience and determination because the process in which they embark is not an easy process.  We try to instil how – why they do face huge systemic barriers, structural barriers that we need to work towards eliminating.


Yeah.  Thanks, Cecilia.  I think we have time for a couple of questions.  Yep, we might have a look at some of those right now.  All right.  The first question is, "Does Victoria have a service comparable to what Cecilia spoke about?".  That might be one for you, Adele?


Yes, it is.  There is a service in Victoria called inTouch Multicultural Service Against Family Violence.




Sorry if I got that last part right – wrong – wrong but yes, they provide the kind of service that Immigrant Support Service does.  It's a shame that not more states and territories around Australia have those kinds of services because they're invaluable really in both providing support to the mainstream service system to change the way that it responds to migrant and refugee women as well as to provide a direct service.


Okay.  All right.  We have a second question here.  "Adele and Cecilia, how do you think migrant or refugee men can understand or misunderstand that women are not taking over their roles and their homes especially by being assertive and standing up against IPV?".


Would you like to answer that one Cecilia or - - -


Okay.  I'm not sure whether I have an answer because I'm not a man and I don't think that I can answer for them but I do know that not all men, migrants and refugee men, are abusive or violent or have negative views about women.  I believe that when we migrate and obviously I'm saying this within an understanding that we all come – we have a pre-migration experience and a post-migration experience.  Sometimes the pre-migration experience can be quite terrible and sometimes the post-migration experience can be quite bad as well or you have a okay pre-migration experience but the post-migration might not be fantastic because, you know, they have lost all identity.  There is a lot of decision within the community.  So there are a range of things that people need to deal with that justify their views.  I believe that change is possible and it's a personal responsibility and we always need to sit with – ensuring that the perpetrator is accountable for their behaviour.  It cannot be justified because of the stresses or other reasons but I think that's a question more for men to answer.




I completely agree with what you've said there, Cecilia.  I think the other thing to say is that in the prevention space I think no one really wants men or women to give up or you know, takeover other people's roles.  I think it's about equity and no matter what the role is that a person chooses to undertake I think that it's great if it's not prescribed by whatever your gender identity is and also that they're equally valued and we all have equal opportunity to undertake them as well as, you know, equity in all the other areas that are important to a person's, you know, progression in life and happiness and advancement.


All right.  Maybe just one more question today and this one's about engaging with children and whole families.  What advice can you give to services who want to engage with children about family violence and with whole family systems about family violence?  Who wants to go first?


I could say how important children are to the whole service system.  We know that children are also victims of family violence and in relation to interpersonal violence.  We know that they're affected as well by what's happening to the adult women in their family.  So such an important component of the picture and we really need children, child responsive services to make sure that, you know, they're supported.  To make sure that their trauma is – also that we take that into account with the service that's provided and that they're provided with all the supports they need to deal with the violence that they're experiencing as well.


From, I guess, a government service perspective we have a strong commitment to hearing the children's voices and resource their mothers to ensure they are protected from any violence of any kind.  We just recently – well last year we developed a resource which is on our website.  It's called Children Helping Children Heal and it was a resource developed with children for children.  So all – if you have time to have a look and watch the video clip, it's only five minutes.  We send messages from children to other children who had to leave their homes because of domestic violence.  So it talks to them about to expect, what to take with them and how they might feel.  We also developed some postcards to show service providers who are working with the children and their mothers. 

Even if you are not a specialist child worker you can work with the mother and this is about the reliance and strength and talking about domestic violence because we found that usually children, in trying to support their mother, sometimes we don't stop to explain to the children what's happening and why things are happening.  So age appropriate responses and information.  So that's important and just recently we hosted a workshop with – with the police and Centre for Domestic and Violence Family Research which we presented to children because some of the – we discussed some of the issues of – affecting - impacting children affected by domestic violence and how to help families to, you know, to support the children and to ensure that they're not – they're not further traumatised because we don't understand, you know, what they're going through.


Yes.  If I could just very quickly add, some of the – when we did some research called the Aspire Research a couple of years ago and one of the things that we found was that children were quite central to women in terms of their decisions to leave the violence.  In some cases they were central in the women's decisions to stay, they would stay for the children and in other cases they felt that their children were at risk and that was an incentive and motivation to leave.  So I think we probably could do a little bit more research in that space to better understand that dynamic between women and children and how the whole family's affected really.


Yes, thank you both and we will add links to the Children Helping Children Heal and the Aspire Research to the CFCA website after this webinar.  I think that's all we have time for today.  Thank you again, Adele and Cecilia, for taking time out of your busy schedules to join us and a big thank you to everyone who listened is.  Please follow the link on your screen to our website to continue the conversation.  I'll also let you know that as you leave the webinar a short survey will open in a new window.  If you have time for that we'd greatly appreciate your feedback.

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All right.  Bye for now.



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Slide outline

1. Intimate partner violence in Australian refugee and immigrant communities: Culturally safe strategies for practice

Presenters: Dr Alissar El-Murr Dr Adele Murdolo & Cecilia Barassi-Rubio

CFCA Webinar 27 March 2019

Please note: The views expressed in this webinar are those of the presenters, and may not reflect those of the Australian Institute of Family Studies, or the Australian Government.

2. Asking questions

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3. Webinar resources available

  • All our webinars are recorded.
  • The slides are available NOW on the website and in the handout section of Gotowebinar.
  • The audio and transcript will be posted on our website and YouTube channel soon.

4. Intimate partner violence in Australian refugee communities

Child Family Community Australia

DrAlissar El-Murr

Ethics approval for this research was obtained through the Australian Institute of Family Studies’ human research ethics committee.

5. Who are we talking about?

6. Research design

This project brings together two pieces of work:

  1. Comprehensive scoping review of the available literature, which provides an overview of the underlying issues and relevant factors associated with IPV in Australian refugee communities.
  2. Qualitative stakeholder consultations with organisations of importance to refugee communities in Queensland, Western Australia and Victoria to contribute to the emerging body of literature on promising practice.

7. Forms of IPV and underlying, intersecting factors

Main forms of IPV:

  • Physical & sexual violence
  • Financial abuse
  • Reproductive coercion

Intersecting factors:

  • Acculturation stress
  • Traumatic pre-arrival experiences

8. Barriers to help-seeking

This is a table identifying the barriers to seeking help.

Immigration status 
Precarity of temporary visas; access & eligibility for services; FV provisions.

Limited knowledge of rights and services 
Distrust of authorities; concerns about consequences; lack of language appropriate information.

Language barriers 
English language skills less developed than their partner; lack of language appropriate information; social isolation.

Issues with interpreters:

  • Limited number/availability
  • Limited number of female interpreters
  • Fears regarding confidentiality.

9. Barriers to help-seeking (cont.)

Lack of cultural safety 
Reluctance to report due to legal and social understandings of IPV in country of origin.

Fear and distrust of authorities 
Past traumatic experiences with authorities (e.g.: systemic violence and persecution) can be exploited by those who use IPV.

Family and community factors 
Informal networks of community leaders and friend/family preferred over formal systems of support for IPV; fear of social isolation is a major factor in decisions to report IPV.

10. Promising practice

This is a table showing strategies and practical examples from services.

Community involvement and leadership

  • Training about family violence delivered to CALD communities
  • Training for staff from CALD community leaders
  • Support for women’s empowerment activities
  • Community co-design for research and evaluation
  • Community advisory groups
  • Bicultural workers act as ‘cultural brokers’ for mainstream service providers

11. Promising practice (cont.)

Cultural safety

  • Safety planning underpinned by a strengths-based approach
  • Apply discretionary strategies (often used in family violence services) to mitigate risk of disclosures and support client privacy
  • Address and support the needs identified by CALD women in a culturally safe way as opposed to imposing a service agenda
  • Training provided to workers on how to respond to disclosures from women

12. Promising practice (cont.)

Integrated, trauma-informed care

  • Coordinate with other community services to provide outreach to women at various locations
  • Address and support the needs identified by CALD women in a culturally safe way as opposed to imposing a service agenda
  • Staff draw on culturally safe and empowering strategies in safety planning (underpinned by a strengths-based approach)
  • Address and support the needs identified by CALD women in a culturally safe way as opposed to imposing a service agenda
  • Training provided to workers on how to respond to disclosures from women

13. Adele Murdolo 
Multicultural Centre for Women’s Health (MCWH)

14. Community involvement and leadership

15. Cultural safety and trauma-informed care

16. Primary prevention strategies

17. Implementing culturally safe practices and building capacity

18. Cecilia Barassi-Rubio 
Immigrant Women’s Support Service (IWSS)

19. Working with women from migrant and refugee backgrounds in regional/rural areas

20. Training and capacity building

21. Applying cultural safety in practice

22. Intimate partner violence in Australian refugee communities

CFCA Information Exchange - decisions in policy and practice is external) 

Dr Alissar El-Murr 
Email: [email protected]

Related resources

Related resources and further reading



Dr Alissar El-Murr is a Senior Research Officer at the Australian Institute of Family Studies. Alissar trained as a social scientist and has expertise in violence against women, public health policy and programming, and qualitative methods. Alissar has worked in academic settings, and in non-government organisations focused on culturally and linguistically diverse communities and the prevention of violence against women and their children. At the Institute, she is currently undertaking research that explores the support services available to victims/survivors of violence in Australian communities.

Dr Adele Murdolo is from an Italian migrant background and has led the Multicultural Centre for Women’s Health as its Executive Director for 17 years. She has a PhD in History and Women’s Studies, and her research and publication areas include women’s health, violence against women and feminist history and activism in Australia. Adele is a passionate speaker and advocate for building the status of immigrant and refugee women through research, practice and policy. As Executive Director, she provides strong leadership, expert advice and input into policy.

Cecilia Barassi-Rubio is the Director of the Immigrant Women's Support Service (IWSS), a specialist domestic violence and sexual assault support service for migrant and refugee women. IWSS has a long history of providing specialist services since 1986. It offers domestic violence and sexual assault responses from an integrated model of service delivery. 

Cecilia has been the IWSS Director for the last 10 years. Prior to this role, she worked in policy and program areas with the Violence Prevention Team (Queensland Government) and other program areas in Brisbane, Logan and Ipswich. Cecilia was the inaugural court support worker at the Brisbane Magistrates Court, employed by Legal Aid Queensland. She is a migrant from Chile. Her practice is driven by compassion, feminist principles and a commitment to social justice.