Students from Renaissance College’s third-year community problem-solving course have spent the past year working with the New Brunswick Immigrant Women’s Association (NBIWA)—an organization created this past summer—in advocacy and program creation.
The founding members of the NBIWA are all part of an Advisory Forum for New Brunswick Immigrant Women, which was created as part of a project led by the New Brunswick Multicultural Council and funded by Status of Women Canada.
The project, ‘ A Coordinated Community Response to Domestic and Intimate Partner Violence Experienced by Immigrant Women in New Brunswick,’ began in November 2015 and will finish this November.
Aimed at improving services for immigrant and newcomer women experiencing domestic violence or intimate partner violence (D/IPV) in New Brunswick, the immigrant women selected to sit on the advisory forum represent a demographic and geographic diversity—and all of them have experienced D/IPV in some form.
Natasha Akhtar and Jael Duarte are two of the women from the advisory forum, and current co-chairs of the NBIWA. They created the NBIWA last summer along with four other founding members: Sandra Lawrence, Layla Rahmeh, Nigam Khanal and Lisa Gay Taylor—all current members of the Board.
NBIWA created to address gaps discovered in province’s services to immigrant women
According to Akhtar, sitting on the advisory forum made the women realize that there were huge gaps in the access to—and quality of—services for immigrant women in New Brunswick; in particular, with the D/IPV project’s conclusion, there would be a need for a more permanent organization.
''There are so many barriers that have to be overcome: there's isolation, there's no network…All of these things were identified by the needs assessment that was done by the Muriel McQueen Fergusson Centre,” said Akhtar.
The needs assessment report was published in December 2016 and authored by Catherine Holtmann, Maria Constanza Tori, Tracey Rickards and Crestina Matta of UNB’s Muriel McQueen Fergusson Centre for Family Violence Research.
While its focus is on domestic violence and intimate partner violence among immigrant women, the number of barriers identified within the settlement process revealed the true breadth of systemic gaps that exist for immigrant women in the province.
The needs assessment found that the main challenges for immigrant women throughout settlement are finding employment, acquiring language skills, accessing affordable childcare, making new friends and dealing with anti-immigration rhetoric.
According to Lawrence, it can be difficult for women and children who arrive in Canada as dependents, because they’re tied to the domestic duties of the household and taught little about the language, customs and their new home’s culture.
“[The] focus of skills is on the principal applicant [who are mostly male]. The wife is at home and the father will get [a] job once they are here. The woman doesn’t know English, and has kids she can’t put in daycare.”
Akhtar added that for many immigrants, daycare is a foreign concept and it can be difficult for these women to leave their children in another person’s care every day without feeling like a “bad mom.”
These challenges are made even more difficult when combined with the barriers women face in accessing public services—which were limited to domestic violence services in the needs assessment, but included universal barriers such as lack of public services in the country of origin, trouble accessing crucial information to help in various situations and public service providers’ lack of understanding.
For instance, the Multicultural Association of Fredericton (MCAF) offers on-site daycare, but their services are only available to permanent residents, creating a gap for women and children who are in Canada with spouses studying as international students.
Domestic violence among immigrants can also become an issue—which Akhtar said is mostly because “immigrant women and children have no idea what their rights are as a Canadian.”
Women who try to break out of the cycle of violence by coming forward can encounter difficulties from the immigrant community—especially in New Brunswick, where the community is so small—because they are afraid of the anti-immigration rhetoric that might emerge if women did share their issues.
According to Akhtar, there’s also a widely-held ‘this is the way it is’ attitude that immigrant women have due to their lack of knowledge about individual rights—because in their home countries, the government doesn’t provide protection against domestic violence.
“You all have similar problems—so if you want to break out of that cycle, who do you go to?” said Akhtar. “Because those are women 90 per cent in the same boat.”
“If they’re not willing to make a move, why would they encourage you to make a move?”
The NBIWA intends to do advocacy, outreach and support, education and cross-cultural training to both address perceived gaps and to provide assistance to immigrant and newcomer women navigating these gaps. Currently, the association is still in the process of setting up a permanent board and getting incorporated—but they hope to be official soon.
“To actively participate in consultations that happen in the community,” said Lawrence about their mission as an organization. “Public safety, public health; so we can be there and provide an intersectional lens, because it is completely different when you’re talking about an immigrant experience for women.”
“That's what we want to do, to be there for them.”
NBIWA’s partnership with RC students
Akhtar, Duarte, Lawrence and Rahmeh are the four NBIWA members working with Renaissance College students Chloe Bieber, Abigail Dolan, Marie Olson, Courtney Foster and Emily Roy to address some of the gaps immigrant women are currently encountering in the settlement process.
After completing a literature review and environmental scan of their own, the RC students decided to create an easy-to-read binder full of information that immigrant women are not receiving effective access to.
“This first exercise with [the student-consultants] has been amazing,” said Lawrence. “They’re creating a welcoming binder for our website; any person can go and access it for free—it’s like 20 pages.”
The binder contains different sections, including how to engage in community services, how to access basic services and how to navigate forced marriage laws. Lawrence said the text is simple and easy to understand for non-native English speakers. In time, the English version will be translated into some of the main languages of immigrant women in New Brunswick—French, Arabic and Spanish, to name a few.
Bieber said their team is also working on creating child-friendly versions of the booklet and will have printed copies available to those without internet access.
According to Dolan, the advocacy and awareness section became so large that they’re anticipating it will be made into its own separate binder. Dolan said this section is “[targeted] towards Canadians, and how they can be helpful.”
The RC students also designed pamphlets for the NBIWA and their organization, targeted towards immigrant and newcomer girls that will be passed out to schools, doctors and other relevant locations “so they have information on how to protect themselves,” said Akhtar.