By Angela Matheson
Juana was repeatedly raped and tortured during her two-year imprisonment in Central America. She is still receiving medical attention for the wounds. Her husband was killed while she was in prison, while her one-year-old daughter was raised by her parents as their own to protect her from police retribution.
Amnesty International managed to have Juana released from prison and flown with her daughter to Australia.
On arrival, Juana was given a government flat in the western suburbs of Sydney for 13 weeks. At the end of that period, she had to find accommodation on the private rental market. She speaks only Spanish.
During this period Juana cried each night in fear of the memory of her ordeal and the loneliness she suffered. Her daughter screamed for her "mother", really her grandmother. Neighbours contacted the Department of Family and Community Services, asking that the child be taken away.
According to Eileen Pittaway, policy officer for the Australian National Consultative Committee on Refugee Women, the help Juana needs is almost impossible to find. Women like Juana need a sheltered, supportive environment where they can begin to resolve their trauma and adjust to life in Australia. Such services are not available.
Says Pittaway, "Women like Juana need therapy in their own language, from an empathetic woman. There are none available. Their children need help. There is none. There are often no English classes available in their areas, and they cannot afford private classes. Without English, their chances of getting a job are very small. If they did get work, child-care would be either unobtainable or very expensive."
Pittaway's report, "Refugee Women — Still at Risk in Australia" has recently been released by the Refugee Council of Australia. It studies the first two years of resettlement of 204 refugee women in Sydney and calls for urgent changes to the provision of services.
Pittaway claims there is a huge gap between policies which aim to help refugees and their implementation. She identifies major procedural and administrative problems in service provision from both government and non-government agencies.
One of the most significant findings is the extent of torture and trauma experienced by the women prior to arrival in Australia. Of those interviewed by Pittaway, 73% had suffered from either medium or high degrees of torture. The effects of this experience on resettlement needs has only recently begun to be acknowledged by service providers.
The Victorian African Women's Association believes that all women from refugee camps in the Horn of Africa suffered from repeated rape, to the extent that there was a 50% occurrence of pregnancy. It is also estimated that nearly 70% of Vietnamese women in boats arriving along the southern Thai coast were raped. Women from Eastern Europe have suffered from the trauma of police and military harassment, having their possessions taken by the state and living in constant fear about the well-being of close relatives left behind.
When these women arrive in Australia, their experience is barely acknowledged.
Says Pittaway, "Torture and trauma centres in Australia, while providing an excellent service, are woefully inadequate. The overworked staff could not even begin to address the total need."
She believes that Australian reluctance to discuss publicly the atrocities committed upon refugee women has led to gross neglect in levels of funding, staff and services.
Apart from trauma counselling, Pittaway identifies several service needs which are essential for successful resettlement. English classes, employment, accommodation and child-care were experienced as priorities by most women.
Learning English as soon as possible was seen as essential by all women interviewed. It was also the area with the most problems: 64% found the services provided were poor. A 23-year-old Hungarian woman reported, "In 10 weeks I had six teachers, and six 'getting to know you' classes. I want English, not friends."
Despite a policy which aims to stream people into classes at different levels, many women complained of being put into mixed classes. "Some of them speak so much English, I am ashamed to ask even when I don't understand. They look impatient and the teacher gets cross. I never speak in class — I am just lost. I will not go any more", said a 26-year-old Vietnamese woman.
The Adult Migrant Education Service allows 300 hours of tuition for each student, which must be taken within the first three years of residence. For many women, this was a problem because their
traditional roles meant that their first priority was to help the family establish itself. This can take several years. Only then does the woman have time and energy to pursue her own needs, including learning English. By this time she may be barred from access to classes.
In the classroom, women who have survived severe torture suffer further problems. The questioning style of teaching, where teachers come up behind students and put them "on the spot" in front of a class, can rekindle moments of terror to the degree that many women are unable to continue attending classes.
Without English, successful resettlement is not possible. Nor is it possible without a place to live.
Of the women surveyed, 59% saw decent, secure housing as the most fundamental of their needs. The opportunity to establish a new home and a secure base for the family is of prime importance for refugees who had to abandon their homes and possessions, and who have been in transit for several years before arriving here.
Secure housing is not available.
The waiting list for public housing is a minimum of three years. Says a Hungarian woman, "We need public housing straightaway for at least three years and then we can go onto the private rental market. This way it is all the wrong way around. By the time you give us public housing, I hope we won't need it."
When faced with the private rental market, 68% of the women had trouble finding the bond and advance rental. Most real estate agents require a referee and are reluctant to take families dependent on social security.
Pittaway recommends that refugee women who have suffered torture be allocated government housing on arrival. This would be followed without any intervening period by the offer of a Department of Housing house or flat. She also suggests that all refugee women be provided with returnable, government-issued housing bonds and with help in finding accommodation in the private rental market.
On top of having to cope with problems of basic survival, refugee women confronting the job market are faced with formidable obstacles. Often they do not speak English, some are unskilled, and those who have skills rarely obtain a position comparable to the one held in their country of origin.
Lack of Australian experience is often cited by employers and the
CES as a reason for refugees not being given work. Overseas qualifications are often unrecognised. Many refugees see their treatment as a subtle form of racism. Many resented employers citing lack of English as the reason for not employing them regardless of their qualifications or the relevance of English to the job.
One CES applicant was told that there were more than 500 people on the file who spoke English better then she did and that she should stay on the pension. A Chilean woman was told she was too old for work. She replied, "I an only 42! I can do anything. I was a lawyer in my country."
A major stumbling block to employment for refugee women with young children is lack of child-care. They need time to attend counselling, English classes, job training to seek employment, and also for time alone. Good quality, affordable, culturally specific child-care is not available.
Pittaway argues refugee women are assisted so little they are in danger of becoming an underclass: unemployed and unemployable, living perpetually on social security.
"For these women, the tragedy that made them refugees could become a triple tragedy. First, loss of homeland and all that it entails. Then, sacrifice of self, in order that the family will survive. Finally, the loss of that dream, the sacrifice apparently in vain." She calls for a comprehensive, coordinated and effective service provision that will allow these resourceful and courageous survivors to create secure and productive lives.