December 9, 2021

gurqui

Only The Finest Women

HERS Project helps young migrant women in Perth break taboos and learn about sexual health

“I didn’t know forced marriage was illegal.”

It is something Marwa Wasiqe, who was born in Australia but lived in her home country of Afghanistan for four years, only recently discovered.

“In my community [forced marriage] is something that occurs,” she said. 

“I thought it was just not really accepted, but not that it was completely illegal in Australia and that the federal police could even get involved.”

For many young women like Ms Wasiqe, cultural taboos, stigma, and lack of education leave them struggling to navigate their own sexual and reproductive health and rights.

Some are even reluctant to seek information or access sexual health clinics due to fear of being shamed by their community.

A project in Perth’s north is challenging these taboos by educating young women from multicultural communities about their sexual and reproductive rights in Australia.

Creating agency for women

Established last year, the HERS Project aims to deliver educational sessions through a targeted sexual and reproductive health program for women aged 16 to 29.

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Marwa Wasiqe, who has lived part of her life in Afghanistan, has taken part in the HERS program.(

ABC News: Tabarak Al Jrood

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“I decided to participate and brought in three young women with me who had recently come to Australia but their families were very conservative,” Ms Wasiqe said.

“That really made me feel like there are a lot of young women within my community and other cultural communities that don’t talk about these important things … about their own health and body, about female power, and empowerment.”

The HERS Project was developed through a collaboration between Sexual Health Quarters (SHQ), the WA Sexual Health and Blood-borne Virus Applied Research and Evaluation Network (SiREN) and refugee service provider ASeTTS.

‘Women have been actively denied access to knowledge’

Karen Molhuysen is one of the sexual health educators from SHQ who has facilitated the program.

She said the organisations recognised the need for women to have access to information and clinical services.

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Karen Molhuysen hopes going through the HERS Project will help women become leaders in their families and communities.(

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“We know that for many young women from migrant and refugee communities, there can be many barriers for them when they need to access sexual health clinical services,” Ms Molhuysen said.

“These are really smart, capable women who have been actively denied access to knowledge.”

And she said there were other reasons why some women might not have been able to access the information they needed.

“It may be that in their country of origin, they have not been allowed to go to school, or that in their journey to Australia their schooling may have been completely disrupted.

“It may be that even if their families want to talk about these topics, they’re not able to because they themselves didn’t have access to the knowledge and information.

“Or it just may be that some of these topics are taboo.”

Empowering women to become leaders 

The program was delivered across five-day workshops at ASeTTS’s community hall in Perth through a combination of sexual and reproductive health information, interactive and team-building activities, small group discussions and guest speakers.

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The program is delivered across five-day workshops at a community hall in Perth.(

ABC News: Tabarak Al Jrood

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It aimed to improve the women’s confidence, independence and capacity to make informed decisions about their sexual and reproductive health and wellbeing.

During the sessions, the group discussed topics such as sexuality and sexual health, gender identity, female and male anatomy, menstruation, sexual pain and pleasure, sexually transmitted diseases, arranged and forced marriages, consent and fertility control.

“We wanted to work with these women to increase their own knowledge, their own comfort, their own confidence, sometimes to support them in finding their own voice, for them to become leaders in their own lives and in their own communities,” Ms Molhuysen said.

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It can be difficult for women from migrant and refugee communities to access sexual health services.(

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“Women and men are able to make good, strong decisions about their lives if they have access to knowledge … and to be denied access to knowledge about your body and your rights can have massive impacts, particularly on women’s lives.”

Student says schools failing to cater for migrant women’s needs

Most WA schools teach sexual health education, but 18-year-old Susan Achea says it is not thorough enough.

The South Sudanese teenager said schools failed to accommodate for culturally and linguistically diverse students.

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Susan Achea, 18, from South Sudan says the school curriculum does not cater for people of colour.(

ABC News: Tabarak Al Jrood

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“I think it’s important to teach young people about different cultural practices that relate to sexual health.”

She said the program shed light on topics that were not usually discussed.

“I learnt about [female genital mutilation] which I didn’t know happened, but it actually happens a lot in Africa,” she said.

“Learning about that really gave me a lot of perspective and it was a turning point for me because I felt it was really important to know that.”

It also helped improve her confidence and ability to “recognise [her] self-worth”.

“I remember we were learning about gender and sexual identity and that helped me find myself and what I wanted to look like, instead of being a girl and wanting to look like a girl or being a guy and wanting to look like a guy,” she said.

Creating a safe space to ask questions

In designing the HERS Project, ASeTTS youth specialist Lucy McEvoy said it was important the peer-education model offered participants a safe space.

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Youth specialist Lucy McEvoy, who helped design the HERS Project, says creating a safe space has been vital.

“Sexual health is something a lot of communities feel really uncomfortable [having] young women learning about, and we wanted to provide a safe space for young women from migrant and refugee backgrounds to learn, to ask questions and to share,” she said.

“One of the women in the program talked about how she’d talk to her family about what she learned … but she was really conscious that she couldn’t talk about it with anybody else from her cultural community because her whole family would be viewed negatively.

“So the bravery it takes for women to choose to come to a program like this is incredible.”

Breaking through the shame barrier

An evaluation conducted following the completion of the HERS Project found up to 90 per cent of the participants had become more aware of their sexual and reproductive health rights in Australia, and their knowledge about respectful relationships and consent had also significantly improved.

Seventeen young women have completed the program so far, with nine of them signing up to co-facilitate future HERS groups.

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The HERS Project was developed through the collaboration of several services.(

ABC News: Tabarak Al Jrood

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The Project also went on to win the Y WA Large Achievement Award at this year’s WA Youth Awards.

“It was a privilege to be able to see our work acknowledged,” Ms McEvoy said.

For 21-year-old Sumeya Abdirahman, being Muslim meant she was very reluctant to talk about sexual health.

However, after completing the program, the Somalian university student realised the importance of being educated about it.

“It’s something that we’re all going to go through at some point [and] it’s natural, so we shouldn’t be ashamed to talk about it,” she said.

“Not talking about is not helping anyone because a lot of young girls are not sure what a healthy relationship looks like or what to be comfortable and OK with.”

A woman smiling wearing a head scarf.
Sumeya Abdirahman, 21, says Muslim women are often reluctant to speak about sexual health.(

ABC News: Tabarak Al Jrood

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She said the program had helped her become more confident talking about the topics without “having to censor [herself]”.

“It’s given me the knowledge and the confidence to talk about it with my friends and not be scared that they’re going to assume I’m on the wild side for talking about stuff like that,” she said.

HERS success paves way for expansion

The HERS Project has gone on to inspire the development of a similar program for young men from migrant and refugee backgrounds.

Designed in partnership with the young men themselves, the YMES Project was delivered by ASeTTS and SHQ through educational workshops touching on a range of topics including respectful relationships and consent.

Karen Molhuysen said the most unexpected outcome of the HERS Project was the support from older women in the community, who also requested help in learning how to discuss sex with their children.

“We have just started delivering workshops with older women originally from Afghanistan, Syria, Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Ethiopia and more,” she said.

Funded by the Department of Health and Department of Social Services, both the HERS and YMES programs are expected to run for the next three years and include new residential retreats.

The HERS participants continue to work with SHQ and ASeTTS to develop follow-up resources and future programs for other young migrant and refugee women throughout Perth.

“Many of them have gone on to make very brave changes in their own life or even in their communities,” Ms Molhuysen said.

“Our hope was that we could support them to become young leaders — and that doesn’t necessarily mean they need to stand up and lead large groups of people, it may be that they become leaders in their family or in their community or leaders in their own life — and every single woman who has gone through this project has done that.”