Women’s Health

My research is largely around violence against women but also sexual and reproductive health. So the main areas of my research are violence against women, with a focus on the experiences of women with disabilities and women from migrant and refugee communities whose lives are often invisible in national prevalence studies, and in the big data sets that are analysed to look at violence against women. I also do research around sexual and reproductive health and again a lot of that work is with migrant and refugee communities or women with disability. I used to work as a Physiotherapist in Australia for a number of years and then in Pakistan in 1996 and 1997 and then came back to Australia and did a Masters of Public Health and that really came out of that experience in Pakistan where I realised that almost everything I was dealing with was preventable. When I finished my Masters in Public Health I then worked in international health for a number of years with the Burnet Institute and then with a range of international NGOs and that work was largely around HIV and through working on HIV programs, you can’t work on HIV and not become interested and quite passionate about gender, it’s a very gendered phenomenon the transmission of HIV; experiences of women and men once they have acquired the infection are quite different and the outcomes in terms of responsibilities for care, the burden of looking after family members and so on is different for men and women. So I worked in that field for a long time, mostly working in Asia and the Pacific and a little bit in Sub-Saharan Africa but primarily in this region and then, out of frustration I think with programs that were ineffective in working with young people, I went to the UK and did my PhD looking at how young people in Papua New Guinea understand health and what they think has an impact on their vulnerability or the likelihood of acquiring HIV and again that had a focus on the difference of the experience and perceptions of young men and young women. That brought me to Melbourne and to the university and a focus on gender and women’s health. Because I came to academia having worked for a long time in international health and working with communities around health problems, I recognise that if you don’t involve the communities with the most at stake in the research, in the design of that research, in the development of the questions and also in the collection of data and the analysis of the data, the research that you’re doing doesn’t always meet their priorities, it doesn’t reflect their concerns and therefore will often be irrelevant to their lives and therefore any policies and programs that are developed on the basis of that research are also often dismissed. I guess I’m quite passionate about ensuring that the priorities and perspectives of the women that I work with are at the centre of the research and that involves getting women and men and community members together at the start of the project to have them contribute to the design of the work that we’re doing but also building their skills in actually doing interviews, doing surveys, collecting information so that they’re also learning about the process of research and then can use that experience of collecting data in the analysis as well. It’s through each of the steps of the research cycle into then dissemination and advocacy on the basis of the findings. I’m really passionate about using participatory methods because in my experience the results of that kind of work have two benefits; one is that the process of actually being involved in doing the research themselves enables members of communities that may be disadvantaged, may be not have had a lot of opportunities to develop a critical understanding of their own situation, to build their skills and talk about developing confidence, that they develop practical skills that help them apply for jobs, so there’s sort of individual level benefits, but I also think there are benefits at a collective level and benefits in terms of the policies and programs that are based on the research that I do, so I think that, that way of working, and it’s not to say that other ways of working are not valid, but for the work I do this way of working means that programs and policies tend to be more relevant. An example of a participatory approach and how that’s gone on to feed into policy and programming, I can give you a couple, but one would be in relation to working on violence against migrant and refugee women where we trained a large team of bilingual health workers, so these were women who spoke over twenty languages, and they supported the development of the data collection tools but also running focus groups, interviewing women who’d experienced violence and then supported us in the analysis of that data and then that information has fed into a whole range of policy forums so whether that was into the Royal Commission on Family Violence that was conducted in Victoria but also into reform of family violence programming and policy in Tasmania and then specifically into the work of individual NGOs and domestic violence services and partly that’s been also around the visual work that we did. We used visual methods where migrant and refugee women were given cameras and through the photographs that they took to express their priorities and perspectives and experiences of family violence that emotionally engages leaders in a way that I think a dry report doesn’t and that meant that they were more likely to engage with the women about what they thought needed to change in response to family violence against migrant and refugee women. I think that one of the underlying drivers of this globally high level of violence against women is gender inequality and that means that women have a lower status in society are viewed to be worth less in some societies and that conversely men have a sense of entitlement and a right to behave towards women as they see fit. Now obviously this is not all men but we know that 1 in 3 women do experience this level of violence so it’s an awful lot of men, and I think it’s a structural thing, it’s reflected in the fact that up until very recently there were really low levels of funding and support to domestic violence responses and certainly to prevention of domestic violence or family violence in Australia and that’s still the case in many parts of the world, that there is very little put into the system to try and support women who are experiencing violence and that the work that’s done on prevention is often not based on evidence and not based on really genuine recognition of the underpinning role of gender inequality. So I really feel very strongly about the need to make sure that gender inequality is a focus of discussions around violence against women. Other factors are at play, alcohol plays a role, mental health plays a role, trauma plays a role but underpinning it all is this unequal status and unequal value given to men and women in society.

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