Creating Connections in Schools to Empower CALD Communities - Mothers as Mentors Project
South West Sydney Legal Centre
What is the project about?
The project was a partnership between South West Sydney Legal Centre Domestic Violence Services and a local public school in South West Sydney, New South Wales.
The aim of the project was to educate and empower parents and students from CALD communities to become advocates in the prevention of violence against women and children.
- A Mothers as Mentors (MaMs) group was established for CALD women to develop leadership and mentoring skills to become change advocates in their communities. 10 CALD women were recruited from within the school community. All the women were from the local South Asian community and had migrated from Bangladesh (n=3), Pakistan (n=3), India (n=3) and Afghanistan (n=1). There was a diverse range of time since arrival in Australia amongst the group, from newly arrived of less than 6 months to those who had lived in Australia for 10 years.
- Tailored education and awareness raising workshops were delivered weekly at the school during 5 school terms. They focussed on:
- increasing awareness of gender equality, respectful relationships and the dynamics of domestic and family violence;
- improving understanding of the legal options and services available to protect and support women and children affected by domestic and family violence in Australia; and
- strengthening personal development through activities promoting personal growth, mentoring and leadership skills, building hopes and aspirations for positive futures.
- A local mobile childminding service was engaged to care for the non-school aged children accompanying the women.
- In collaboration with TAFE NSW (Cultural & Linguistic Diversity Unit, South West Sydney) the project delivered a tailored 10-week Business Administration course to the women’s group at the school.
- The project staff also arranged for the delivery of three full-day professional development workshops to school staff and teachers on “Understanding Gendered Violence”, “Impact of Trauma on Child Development”, and “Trauma-informed Responses to Managing Challenging Child Behaviours in the Classroom”.
Action research focus
The action research explored whether awareness raising through educational activities about gender equality and respectful behaviours in a school setting empowered women to support other women in their communities who were affected by domestic and family violence.
The action research activities so far include:
- the creation of a digital story capturing the women’s journey with the Mothers as Mentors project.
- regular consultation meetings with the school partners to reflect on, and review the progress of the project; and
- the collection of qualitative data from observations, four feedback surveys and reflective dialogues with participants of the Mothers as Mentors group over the life of the project.
March 2018 – June 2020.
Impact of the project:
The qualitative data highlights the following outcomes from the project:
- All women in the group reported increased knowledge and understanding of:
- domestic and family violence from the “Western” perspective;
- principles of gender equality and respectful relationships;
- their rights as women in Australia;
- legal and support services available to protect and assist women and children affected by violence and abuse; and
- the impact of trauma on women’s health and wellbeing and the impact on children living in situations of domestic violence and abuse.
- Many of the women (n=7) reported sharing their learnings on respectful relationships and the impact of trauma on children affected by domestic violence with family members, friends and other women from their communities in the local area, as well as disseminating information via social media to family and friends overseas.
- Some of the women (n=5) reported that they discussed the learnings from the weekly sessions with their husbands. This generated conversations between them that reviewed and challenged the gender roles and norms operating in their own households.
- A few women (n=3) reported that they gained the knowledge and confidence to seek help from local support services to assist with their own situations of domestic and family violence.
- All the women agreed that they had developed safe and trusting relationships with each other in the group. Most of the women (n=8) did not have extended family in Australia and many reported that the group had become the extended family network for them that broke their isolation and loneliness.
- All the women reported that their participation in the group strengthened their self-esteem and self-confidence, and gave them courage to participate in community life in Australia.
- Evaluations of the professional development workshops indicated that school staff increased their understanding of gendered violence and trauma on child development, and furthered their knowledge on responding to challenging child behaviours in classroom settings.
What worked well?
- The allocation of a private meeting room on the school grounds provided a safe venue for women to participate in the project. Several of the participants (n=6) reported that they required their husband’s permission to engage in out of home activities. The school was seen as a safe place by their husbands and this enabled them to attend the group under the guise of participating in activities for their children.
- The onsite mobile child care service provided a new opportunity for the non-school aged children to socialise with other children, and experience separation from their mothers in a supported way. All the women reported that their children enjoyed the activities and the children looked forward to attending the child care every week.
- Whilst many of the women (n=6) had attained tertiary qualifications of Bachelor and Masters degrees at university in their countries of origin prior to marriage and migration, all the women were full-time child-rearers and household managers at the time the group was held. All the MaMs participants completed the 10-week TAFE course. This course was a catalyst for many of the women to enrol in ongoing study with TAFE (n=6), seek part time employment (n=3) or gain employment in their professional field (n=1).
What did not work?
Establishing projects in schools takes time, particularly at the outset of the project, for negotiating written agreements on project roles and activities and establishing an agreed structure for activities.
The project originally planned to engage mothers as well as children at the school, however, it can take time to find space in the set curriculum to work with children. In terms of resourcing and organisation it proved to be more feasible to concentrate on working with mothers in the first stage of the project and working with children later on.
What did you learn from the project?
- The project acknowledged that engaging with a CALD community group required a culturally sensitive approach. In the inception phase of this project, it was proposed to the women that a culturally specific worker from the local South Asian community join as a co-facilitator on the project. Following several conversations, the women declined the proposal. Their reasoning was that they felt that their freedom to express themselves would be compromised and that their anonymity could be jeopardised. It was crucial to learn and understand from the women about the social values and cultural norms specific to their communities.
- The group sessions became a learning exchange platform, which the women described as valuable to their acculturation process with, what the women in the group referred to as, “Western” culture. This approach ensured that the project was grounded in good practice principles of sensitivity and respect for the diversity of cultural worldviews, traditions and religious beliefs.
- A significant learning that emerged from this project was about the difference between the “Western” understandings of the drivers of domestic and family violence and the understandings shared by the women in the group. Whilst it was acknowledged that South Asian communities are not homogenous, the women in the group felt that they shared the same social and cultural roots, with differences in religious influences. The group identified social and cultural practices that reinforce rigid patriarchal norms. These norms generate and maintain unequal power relations that sanction men’s control and power over women. The group echoed the cultural expectation to exemplify the ‘good woman’ as one who is generous, attentive to the needs of others and submits to and obeys her husband.
- At a macro level, the women in the group identified with collectivist cultures, as opposed to individualistic, “Western” cultures. Collectivist cultures stress the importance of community, family and duty to the group to maintain harmony for social cooperation. In contrast, individualist cultures stress the needs of individuals as independent and autonomous from the group (Siddiqi & Shafiq, 2017). In exploring gender roles and gender relations, the group shared their experiences of joint family systems, with hierarchies of respect that confer privilege and entitlement disproportionately to men over women and children. The women in the group described their role of maintaining harmony in the home by taking care of the house and children, respecting and supporting their husband in his role as head of the household and breadwinner and obeying his wishes.
- Stigma is attached to disclosing domestic and family violence. Members of the Mothers as Mentors group reported that discussing relationship conflicts with outsiders was considered an unacceptable way to resolve conflict for their families. Women agreed that it was unsafe to seek outside help for domestic violence in their communities because of gossip, the duty to conform to preserve family status and reputation, shame and fear of repercussions and ostracism from the family and community. The women in the group identified that culturally acceptable strategies for conflict resolution in relationships required women to approach parents and male elders in their family, with calm and patience, and follow their advice on what to do. In some situations, it was deemed appropriate to approach male elders to talk with their husbands to negotiate a resolution to the conflict.
- Cultural norms and values are challenged as communities and families respond to social and economic shifts associated with globalisation, migration and acculturation. The women in the group reported experiencing increased pressure from family overseas to resist “Western” influences and to ensure that cultural values and traditions are preserved. Preserving tradition becomes the exclusive responsibility of women as key protectors of culture, to teach cultural values, language and religious traditions to children, whilst supporting the male role to financially provide for the family (Pan et al., 2006). Women acknowledged opportunities since migrating to Australia that promoted acts of resistance to challenge their gender role – the Mothers as Mentors group was identified as a significant opportunity.
Do you have suggestions for policy-makers, educators or service providers?
It is recognised that Australia has become a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic and multi-lingual environment. The individualistic – collectivistic dimension is useful in understanding the influence of diverse cultural norms, values, roles, and familial authority on how people think and behave. This dimension is particularly relevant as many of the operating systems and organisational methods for engaging with family violence in diverse CALD communities are still individualist in their framing. For example, few prevention responses engage whole families or communities and response measures often target individual safety and pay less attention to roles and connections to community.
To effectively engage with CALD communities on gendered violence prevention, we need to broaden our understanding of the macro and micro cultural experiences across diverse communities, rather than rely on the dominant “Western” framework for understanding the interplay of culture and gender equality. Time needs to be invested to understand the diversity of worldviews and to develop culturally appropriate strategies and solutions that are informed and sanctioned from within the cultural community itself. The Mothers as Mentors group offered a recommendation for education workshops targeting families, with a focus on recruiting men, to engage in conversations on respectful relationships in the Australian context.
Where to from here?
It is envisaged that this project will commence in another local public school in South West Sydney in October 2019, engaging with different CALD community members. Lessons learnt from the completed project will inform the design and engagement strategies with the second Mothers as Mentors group, as well as with the school community. This extension of the project will aim to work collaboratively with the school to develop and implement educational initiatives with children to build their understandings of gender equality and respectful relationships.
People and organisations to thank:
- Special thanks to all the women of the Mothers as Mentors group. Their time and contributions made this project a reality.
- The local public school staff and teachers, the mobile child care service and TAFE NSW for their support and contributions to the Mothers as Mentors group.
- ANROWS for their support and guidance with the action research component of the project.
- The Australian Government Department of Social Services for funding the project.
Hofstede, G. (2001). Culture’s consequences: Comparing values, behaviors, institutions, and organizations across nations. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Pan, A., Daley, S., Rivera, L.M., Williams, K., Lingle, D. & Reznik, V. (2006). Understanding the Role of Culture in Domestic Violence: The Ahimsa Project for Safe Families. Journal of Immigrant and Minority Health. 8(1), 35-43. doi:10.1007/s10903-006-6340-y
Siddiqi, N., & Shafiq, M. (2017). Cultural value orientation and gender equity: a review. Social Psychology and Society. 8(3) 31-44. doi:10.17759/sps.201708030