‘As a Muslim woman seeking asylum, I am three times invisible.’ This is the quote that Fatima, one of the amazing women I have worked with in the past, used to describe her situation.
Fatima is a survivor of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) and was struggling to secure protection for herself and her children. She describes the intersectional layers of discrimination and multiple oppressions that many women seeking asylum who are survivors or at risk of SGBV have to endure, often being left with little choice.
Women like Fatima are not vulnerable per se; it is the impossible situation they face that makes them feel powerless. Being a woman seeking asylum is not the same as being an asylum-seeking man, and this needs to be understood.
At JRS Australia, we work with many women like Fatima. What is amazing about them is their resilience, agency and resourcefulness, and their smiles despite the enormous struggles they have had to overcome throughout their journeys.
Things often do not get better in Australia, in a policy context that seeks to deter people seeking asylum from arriving by boat regardless of their circumstances and needs. Leaving women in limbo, without proper legal rights or access to essential services, puts them at risk of increased and ongoing violence.
It is this agency and this drive that inspires us at JRS. We currently have a program for women seeking asylum who are survivors or at risk of SGBV, which we hope to expand by raising additional funding.
Our program will support women like Fatima to stand up for themselves and to exercise leadership. But it also aims to improve our systemic response by creating new connections and referral pathways, and raising awareness among key decision makers about the specific needs of the women seeking asylum among key decision makers.
My call in the wake of last week’s International Women’s Day is to look at all our different activities and analyse how much we are promoting gender equality, women’s leadership and empowerment in each of our ministries.
This includes developing new programs with the people that we serve, focused on the specific needs of women and girls, promoting gender equality in all our work, and promoting women’s leadership and decision-making at management and board levels.
Women are half of the world’s population. We are not a vulnerable group. We are agents of change and have much to contribute. Let us encourage and celebrate this reality at all levels.