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Ms Maha Abdo, CEO Muslim Women Association and 1800RESPECT National Sector Advisory Group member

31 Jul 2018

Understanding and listening is key to providing support

In an immaculate, but humble office in Sydney’s southwest, Maha Abdo walks into the foyer to be greeted by a slight Vietnamese woman, eyes filled with tears, and holding a small envelope. She has come to thank Maha for helping her settle in a new country and escape a violent relationship.

Ms Abdo explains that donations are not necessary. The woman says it isn’t much, but it is what she can afford. It was clear in her eyes that it was important for her to give back. She hugs Ms Abdo in a poignant display of thanks that overcomes all language barriers.

This moment brings everyone to tears. It is the human side of women’s services.

“We need services to be available to support all women when they are seeking help,” says Ms Abdo, CEO of the Muslim Women Association.

“The Muslim Women Association has established a project called Linking Hearts which aims to provide families from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds with safe and supported crisis and transitional accommodation. It was born out of recognition that many cultures can benefit from the approach taken through combining a multitude of skills and services from existing organisations to help a family unit with the complexities of violence.

“Linking Hearts brings a range of expert service providers together to deliver holistic support options focusing on prevention and early intervention, safe and supported crisis and traditional accommodation, rapid rehousing and intensive support for clients with complex needs.”

The gratitude of the woman who just hugged Maha is testimony to the success of the service.

After working in the sexual assault, domestic and family violence sector for 35 years, Ms Abdo says she can see progress is being made regarding the issues facing women from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds.

“I am very hopeful for the future. The National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children has been a good initiative. I am also pleased to work alongside 1800RESPECT to advise the national support service as part of their National Sector Advisory Group. It is heartening to know that people are listening and evolving. But there is still more to do.

“We still need to have more conversations, more productive partnerships and more research. When we have evidence-based information to understand the issues, that’s when we can find the solutions. That, and listening to each other.”


Listen, understand and relate to people as individuals

While the Muslim Women Association supports all cultures, including emerging cultures such as refugees, its heritage has been supporting Muslim women and their families. Ms Abdo says when it comes to supporting Muslim women experiencing violence, it’s important to see them as individuals first and foremost.

“Muslim women seeking support from sexual assault, domestic or family violence are individuals in their own right. They shouldn’t need to carry or bear the brunt of how they are perceived as a Muslim woman first,” says Ms Abdo.

Ms Abdo encourages support services, frontline workers and indeed the general population to listen, understand and relate to people as individuals—emphasising that in the first instance this is more important than cultural competence.

“It’s not necessarily about speaking another language fluently or cultural competency. People mostly need to be aware of their own cultural biases. These biases can hinder us from supporting other people when we don’t see eye-to-eye. While it is definitely not ‘one-size-fits-all’, it’s not complicated either.

“Muslim women who were born in Australia have different needs than returning, or newly arrived migrants. While the way they dress may be similar, everything in their life intersects in different ways and the support they’re seeking is unique—just like the broader Australian community.

“People in the Muslim community simply want to use mainstream support services. They want to be seen as people with no labels.”

To support women with unique experiences and needs it is important to listen to them and learn about their stories.

“When you speak to people and listen you find similarities to relate to. For example, being a mother is something that crosses cultural barriers. When you see a person as a mother who is experiencing violence and she is worried about her children ­­— that is relatable.”

Ms Abdo says that we can’t do this from behind computer screens or from our offices, but that it is important to have first-hand exposure to the communities.

“I like to see communities and neighbourhoods working together. We don’t need to be the same as each other to engage. We need sincerity and we need to spend time together.”

Understand barriers to accessing support services

However it is important to understand that people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds experiencing violence do face complex issues when trying to access support services. There are many barriers to accessing support including language, discrimination, lack of family and community support, as well as fear of authorities.

“The biggest concern I have for the Muslim community is how they can navigate through their cultural and spiritual practices alongside the Australian norms and challenges of accessing support for violence.

Ms Abdo ensures a range of support is available to women at their time of need. They partner with established organisations who attend their premises on a regular basis.

On this particular day at the Muslim Women Association, a financial support person from the Salvation Army is in residence, running a session for a group of women in need. A young woman is meeting with a crisis support worker to seek immediate financial help. In another room, a group of passionate women are answering the phone-lines. A warm and inviting outdoor space sits waiting for a gathering. This is a place where women can go, engage with support providers and feel safe.

Domestic and family violence and sexual assault does not discriminate. It impacts women, children and men from all cultures and backgrounds. Ms Abdo says the prevalence for violence across various cultures does not necessarily differ.

“What matters is how we respond, through a culturally aware lens; considering the individual as just that—a human being.”


Find more information

To read about inclusive practice, including supporting women from CALD, migrant and refugee backgrounds visit 1800RESPECT, the national sexual assault domestic and family violence support service. Information includes: