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Firstly, what is the Multi Cultural Women’s Health Centre (MCWH), and what are your main activities as the senior research policy advocate?
MCWH is a national, community-based organisation which works to achieve health and wellbeing for and by immigrant and refugee women. As my job title suggests, I basically conduct and/or coordinate research and advocacy activities, and provide policy advice in relation to immigrant and refugee women’s health and wellbeing. This usually includes presenting at various workshops and forums; building alliances with researchers; communicating with our national network; and engaging women in advocacy activities – no two days are ever alike!
The MCWH recently published a position paper on International students and their access to pregnancy related care. What motivated you to develop this position paper?
We developed the paper as a result of the work we conducted with female international students in the City of Melbourne, which is detailed on the ‘On Your Own’ Report. One of the main findings of that report is the 12 month waiting period for all pregnancy-related treatment in the Overseas Student Health Cover Deed which, as we’ve outlined in the position paper, can have dire consequences for women who experience an unintended pregnancy.
In the position paper, you reported socio-economic status, intimate partner or other forms of violence, isolation and lack of culturally and linguistic appropriate health services and information may impact upon international students’ ability to make informed decisions in relation to their sexual and reproductive health. Of these, what are the biggest challenges facing international students in Australia, and how could youth get involved to respond to this?
I think the biggest challenge for students is that they are faced with multiple health issues. In some ways, international students are just like any other young person in terms of the challenges a young person may face, but issues around and knowledge about safe sex become more acute if you’re living away from your usual support networks and are forced to navigate your way around an unfamiliar health system.
Given that there are far more temporary visas than permanent visas being issued now, another challenge is making the general public and governments see that international students are migrants too. International students’ contribution to Australian society—not just the economy—is rarely acknowledged: they pay taxes too, but they don’t have equal access to health care compared to Australian citizens. Why is this? It’s a question we’re working hard to find answers to.
I think it’s safe to say that from the high number of unplanned pregnancies, it is safe to assume that there may also be a high number of STIs being reported. How would you recommend an organisation like YEAH to reach out to this population?
It seems like YEAH is already doing an excellent job. As we know from our own work, peer education is the best approach in preventing and helping to minimise unexpected health issues. There’s always strength in linking up with other organisations that also have international students’ wellbeing as a focus.
The paper also reports a gap in service provision for international students. How did you become aware of this gap, and what, if any, other services have you come across that are available to international students?
The extent of the issues for international students became more apparent when we conducted the research for ‘On Your Own’, especially in relation to the change in the health insurance deed. We consulted with a number of organisations and services during that time and one consistent finding is that students find it difficult to navigate the health system in the first place. If and when students access care, then another issue is confusion around health care costs and entitlements. The International Student Care Service in Carlton provides free and confidential welfare support to students studying in Victoria, but I suspect students may only be accessing this service when they encounter a problem. Prevention and knowledge are the keys to good health, so it’s always best to seek advice and information before difficulties arise.
Tell us a little bit about the Female International Student Program, and how international students can access this.
The program is made of different components: research, advocacy and education. We conduct and publish research on the issues when. In relation to advocacy, we’re in the process of putting together an advocacy group made of female international students in order to make some, if not all, the recommendations we put forward in the position paper a reality. And we do run health education sessions for female international students (usually in their language of choice) in an outreach capacity and it’s free of charge. If international students are interested in any aspect of our program, they should feel free to contact us.
In regard to sexual and reproductive health of international students, the challenges faced are often linked to broader issues around recognition of rights. How can international students, and the youth population in general, be more aware of their sexual and reproductive health rights, and service providers obligations?
It’s a misconception that human rights is something that only needs fixing in faraway places, when in fact rights are about ensuring that the conditions in which we live, work, study and play allow us to make genuine choices in our daily lives.
Don’t be afraid to ask lots of questions! If you’re unsure, or if something doesn’t feel right: ask, or ask a friend who can help you find the information you’re looking for. It’s best to equip yourself with as much knowledge as possible to ensure you make choices that are meaningful for your particular situation. If you feel your choices are limited then it’s best to seek expert advice about why this may be the case. MCWH regularly conducts health education sessions with international students, so students have the option of requesting a group session be conducted at a location most convenient for them.
What’s coming up for you at the MCWH that our audience would be interested in, or how we can support you?
In addition to our regular programs, we continue to advocate on issues that affect the health and wellbeing of all immigrant and refugee women. We’re always looking for opportunities to link up with youth through our various programs and projects. I would suggest that anyone interested in supporting our work should firstly check out our website, or follow us on Facebook and Twitter. If there is a particular issue or information that you think could help us in our work, then we’d like to hear from you.