Exploring refugee women’s settlement experiences in Australia through photovoice

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Research exploring issues faced on resettlement from a gender perspective is relatively recent and a growing area of inquiry [1, 2]. For refugee women, key issues include psychosocial wellbeing and mental health, linked to stressors including isolation, loss of social support networks upon migration, racism and discrimination and low socioeconomic status [1].

More often, women’s health is negatively impacted by migration [3, 4], as women’s needs can be overlooked in settlement policy and services [5]. In the refugee discourse women also contend with a construction of being passive and helpless [6-8]. Research approaches are needed that enable women to take collaborative and active roles, providing a deeper understanding of their needs and issues from their standpoint [2].

We conducted a participatory research project which explored refugee women’s perspectives on settlement in Western Australia, including barriers and facilitators to successful settlement, and responses which may lead to improvements in women’s health and wellbeing. We used the method of ‘photovoice’, which has three main goals: to enable people to record community strengths, issues and concerns through taking photos; to promote critical dialogue among participants about issues captured in their photographs; and to reach policymakers [9]. Facilitating empowerment among participants is also central to the photovoice method [10].

We conducted the project in partnership with Ishar Multicultural Women’s Health Centre, a holistic health service located in ethnically diverse Perth’s northern suburbs and 43 women of refugee background participated in the project. Six photovoice sessions were delivered and included content on ethics, camera practice and selecting topics to photograph, and small group discussions about the photographs. We used the ‘SHOWeD’ technique of questioning which is specific to photovoice, allowing for critical reflection on the meaning and stories behind women’s photos [11]. We also sought women’s recommendations for successful settlement and feedback on the photovoice method. Semi-structured interviews were conducted with 11 of the women to obtain more in-depth reflections.

Over a third of participants from Iraq while others were from Iran, Afghanistan, Syria, Vietnam, Sudan and South Sudan, Eritrea, Somalia, Myanmar, Pakistan, Lebanon and El Salvador. Almost half had been in Australia for more than ten years.


While acknowledging the diversity of women’s experiences, and the role of factors such as pre-Australian education, ethnicity and age in shaping settlement trajectories, a strong finding was the importance of English language proficiency in becoming successfully settled, yet women reported many barriers to learning English. More than half of the women participating in the project required interpreters. Family responsibilities, health issues, being older in age, limited education prior to Australia and isolation were some of the issues which impacted access to full participation in the Adult Migrant English Program made available to new refugees.

I have good English but I lose it because I don’t have a friend here talk with them…when I’m at home, I don’t read, I don’t study, I don’t talk with the people.

 Other challenges related to family separation, issues within families, often attributed to cultural adjustment and changing gender roles, isolation, managing health issues among themselves and family members, difficulties accessing appropriate housing and barriers to employment. Women stressed the importance of family reunion, as well as support from services and their own ethnic and broader community in helping them to settle. Feeling welcomed and accepted and valuing multiculturalism in Australia was expressed.

If I go into somewhere, a party or wedding and if I am different, everyone else look the same colour, same skin and I am the odd one out, then I feel very uncomfortable because I don’t speak the language and I look lost. But if the people there talk to me, welcome me as a friend, then I’ll be ok.

Recommendations included English language programs which account for women’s unique circumstances, increased resourcing for settlement and women’s services, settled migrants to help new arrivals, and support to gain employment.

That’s what I think the government needs to do in future, extend the number of hours for migrants to learn English. Because 510 is a bit rushed for them. It seems long but I think for them it is very rushy and very hectic.

We found photovoice to be very successful and accessible as a participatory research method. Some women reported empowerment and wellbeing benefits, while others enjoyed the skills and knowledge gained from the photography component and the group interactions and connections made. 

I felt like it was a way to express myself and taking away some of the pain that is inside me by sharing the photos with others, talking about that.

The women selected photographs and wrote accompanying captions for a travelling exhibition of photo banners, which aims to inform the broader community about their experiences.

A report will also be released with policy recommendations. For more information, please contact Professor Jaya Dantas at Curtin University: jaya.dantas@curtin.edu.au

This research was supported by the Western Australian Health Promotion Foundation (Healthway), through research grant (24265).



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  2. Young, M.Y. and K.J. Chan, The Psychological Experience of Refugees: A Gender and Cultural Analysis, in Psychology of Gender Through the Lens of Culture: Theories and Applications, S. Safdar and N. Kosakowska-Berezecka, Editors. 2015, Springer International Publishing: Cham. p. 17-36.
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  8. Hajdukowski-Ahmed, M., N. Khanlou, and H. Moussa, Setting the context: reflection on two decades of an evolving discourse on refugee women, in Not born a refugee woman: contesting identities, rethinking practices, M. Hajdukowski-Ahmed, N. Khanlou, and H. Moussa, Editors. 2008. p. 1-23.
  9. Wang, C.C., Photovoice: A participatory action research strategy applied to women’s health. Journal of Women’s Health, 1999. 8(2): p. 185-192.
  10. Teti, M., et al., Taking pictures to take control: Photovoice as a tool to facilitate empowerment among poor and racial/ethnic minority women with HIV. Journal of the Association of Nurses in AIDS Care, 2013. 24(6): p. 539-553.
  11. Catalani, C. and M. Minkler, Photovoice: A Review of the Literature in Health and Public Health. Health Education & Behavior, 2010. 37(3): p. 424-451.

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