Posted by Betsey Hawkins
For the last seven months, I have been helping Justice Centre as a volunteer to support Voices for Protection – an innovative advocacy and human rights training programme to provide refugees with the skills, tools, platform and opportunities to engage in advocacy and become their own change-makers in the community. Through the generous funding of HER Fund, we are pleased to announce a special intake of Voices for Protection adapted for women, to encourage gender empowerment among the refugee community and give these women a forum to be able to learn from each other in a safe space and develop the skills and tools to be agents of change.
I personally feel great excitement at the launch of Voices for Protection WOMEN. During my time at Justice Centre, I have seen one intake of refugees complete the Voices for Protection traineeship from start to finish and witnessed the transformative power that the knowledge and skills taught throughout the programme has had on the lives of the participants. I was humbled and inspired by the graduates who were so eager to learn and actively claim their human rights; many of the graduates have gone on to engage in advocacy, media and awareness-raising activities both through Justice Centre’s work and in their own capacity.
The groundbreaking intake will provide a much needed forum for refugee women to engage in the political process. During the course of administering several Voices for Protection intakes, we learned that many women found it difficult to voice their opinions in front of men, sometimes due to cultural reasons or perhaps because of sensitive experiences in their past. Others felt that because their concerns did not affect the wider group, they were therefore not worth discussing. For example, some women may avoid a discussion about sexual and reproductive health needs in a mixed-gender forum for any of the above reasons. We have found, however, that when women come together to discuss issues amongst other fellow women, they more freely express their concerns.
Refugee women, in general, face multiple and compound forms of discrimination often due to their gender, race and asylum-seeking status. Many of these women come from countries where women’s rights are extremely limited, where some may even have faced persecution due to their gender – such as women fleeing from forced marriages or from sexual and gender-based violence. Sometimes, they may feel humiliated about what they experienced and embarrassed to talk about it in front of a male interpreter or Immigration Officer, for example. In Hong Kong, they face particular challenges. For example, I’ve learned that, with the low housing allowance they receive, single women often struggle to find appropriate accommodation here where they feel safe. We also have many single mothers who worry about providing for their children. How do you explain to your children why you had to uproot their lives, or that daddy might never be coming home?
As a mother, I understand the challenges of parenthood are difficult enough, but when compounded by these circumstances, the task of parenting seems almost impossible. Hearing their stories moves me, and I am in complete awe of the strength of the women I have met at Justice Centre; they are courageous fighters who understand the need for equality and want to help not only other women, but other vulnerable groups as well. What I am really excited about is that Voices for Protection WOMEN will engage with leaders of other women’s organisations and coalitions in Hong Kong. Our hope is that the participants will be empowered by these interactions, and I am particularly inspired by women from different walks of life teaching and learning from each other because it builds up solidarity and understanding across different segments in Hong Kong.
The protection screening process can often be very demoralising, especially in Hong Kong where refugees are often mistakenly treated as unwelcomed opportunists. Through every step of the process, refugees often feel like they have no control over their own fate and spend endless months or years waiting for decisions from others. I hope that Voices for Protection WOMEN will give these women the opportunity to be active participants in the policies and laws that affect their lives. I look forward to learning from these women’s voices, experiences, and talents, and I can’t wait to see how they change themselves, their families and their communities as a result of the experience. What I have learned over the course of this year is that, given the chance, refugees have so much to give back to the community.