Adjournment speech - 12 March 2013
Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (20:22): Last year the Speakout association for immigrant women turned 30, and tonight I would like to honour the achievements of this community-based organisation, run by the most remarkable and dedicated group of women, all from a non-English-speaking background and all deeply committed to the rights of the most downtrodden and vulnerable among us. The association, as I said, was set up 30 years ago, and the philosophy that they set out on their website and their management structure show how they have been able to stay true to their aims over that period. They have set out that they:
... will provide services to members and clients in a manner that is ethical and without discrimination on the basis of race, religion, age, physical ability or sexuality.
The work and practice of the Association is based on a belief in the equality, creativity and strength of the diversity of women.
The management structure is very interesting, because it certainly has helped ensure that these objectives have remained central to the organisation. The management committee comprises 10 positions, of which women from non-English-speaking backgrounds or refugee women must fill at least 75 per cent, and one position is to be dedicated for a rural or regional representative. I would particularly like to congratulate the Executive Officer, Jane Corpuz-Brock, for her fine work over many years in assisting this organisation to grow and to assist so many women, particularly in the western suburbs of Sydney.
Speakout came into being in 1982 as a result of 300 women choosing to speak out openly about the many problems faced by women of non-English-speaking background, often refugees fleeing from deplorable situations. For the last three decades, this volunteer organisation has brought help and assistance to so many. This generous and caring group of women perform their remarkable role by assisting women to access basic services, and they are so good at identifying exactly where these services are needed. They help with education, employment and training, immigration and industrial issues; they respond to domestic violence and discrimination; and they are active on health and housing, child care and legal issues, working out how access and equity can be assured when women identify that they need these services. They are particularly strong when it comes to undertaking community development projects. Their goals have an elegant simplicity: to educate, to empower and to advocate for migrant and refugee women. They bring this about through antidiscrimination protection in the workplace, for example, or by handling culturally sensitive information concerning referral to health or legal services. They also often offer conciliation. They run educational programs for employers, community-based workers and women from non-English-speaking backgrounds. They highlight flaws in existing laws and identify changes needed to federal and state legislation. They have put in many submissions over the years to various government inquiries. They organise workshops to help participants regain confidence. Seminars and forums are organised on issues of physical health such as hearing, and on mental health they have also taken up people's needs. They tackle intercultural problems such as medication needs and religious, marital or cultural requirements.
It is especially pertinent at the moment, after yet another damning assessment by the UNHCR of Australian immigration detention centres, and it is a timely reminder to all of us in this chamber that ongoing conflicts in many countries are such a threat to survival that many are obliged to seek asylum in countries like our own. Many of these women are forced to undertake a perilous journey by boat, often with young children. So many of these women arrive here with an extraordinary array of interconnected issues. Speakout has found that homelessness is inextricably linked to education, family, self-esteem and residency status. If children are involved, there are other complications: finding the local school, understanding what the requirements are when their children are sent there, proper and stable housing and children's protection agencies. If they are on bridging or temporary visas, they have even further restrictions in accessing community resources.
This is what Speakout is managing: all that array of issues for people recently arrived in this country or who may have been here for a while but for whom, because English is not their first language, how to manage this can be very confusing. A key problem for women who access Speakout is so often the language barrier. Lack of English is often coupled with little education and poor literacy skills, which make these women easily bullied because they have neither voice nor access to assistance.
There are so many deeply moving stories and, when I joined the women at Parramatta to celebrate the 30 years of this organisation, one of the highlights of the evening was hearing from the women themselves about their particular stories. Irene immigrated from Greece following the Second World War with her three children. She faced the daily struggle of so many single mothers in this country, but for her there were the problems of language and she had to survive on a factory worker's poor pay and conditions. Aarya came to Australia from Pakistan. She was brought here by an abusive husband and was trapped on a temporary visa and subject to his cruel violence. Like many others before her, Aarya would have fallen through the cracks in a system which often fails to recognise the needs of women in such a situation. But fortunately she was put in touch with the Speakout association and her life turned around.
I would like to congratulate the dedication of these astounding Speakout women and to celebrate their resilience and courage. These volunteers have seen and been subjected to many horrors. Many of the people active in the organisation have their own quite traumatic story.
They have come to Australia, they have come together, they have been able to make a new life, and they are ensuring that, through their collective spirit, it can be passed on to others. They provide not just assistance to others, but also inspiration, strength, and the means to achieve a new life. In honouring them, I do hope that they will become just a little more visible to us all. Everybody in this parliament should learn about the Speakout association. It is an excellent model of an organisation that has continued, over three decades, to stay true to its principles and objectives of access and equity. I applaud the remarkable work they perform, the tireless and selfless assistance they give, and the enormous improvements they bring not just to the lives of the women that they deal with but also to the communities that those women live in.