Refugee and Immigrant Women for Change examines gender equity in refugee and immigrant cultures with 'Gender Democracy Toolkit'

Refugee and Immigrant Women for Change members at the International Women's Day event in March 2012. Beaudelaine Pierre, left, Dr. Wilhelmina Holder, center, and Ekta Prakash, right. (Photo courtesy of Refugee and Immigrant Women for Change)

When a female refugee arrives here from a war-torn country, her first thoughts may be that she has reached a safe place. But as time goes on and she becomes more adjusted to her new home, cultural issues from her background regarding working outside the home or being part of an arranged marriage may conflict with the American standards she is learning.

Because of those conflicts, Refugee and Immigrant Women for Change (RIWC), a coalition of seven women-focused organizations, has come together across multiple ethnic identities to build a movement for social change that addresses systemic issues that face refugee and immigrant women and girls.

RIWC member organizations include CAPI (formerly known as Centre for Asian Pacific Islanders); SEWA-AIFW (SEWA means "to serve" in Hindi and Asian Indian Family Wellness); Lao Women of the Lao Assistance Center of Minnesota; Centro; African Health Action; Women's Initiative for Self Empowerment (WISE); and the Liberian Women's Initiatives-Minnesota.

Planning for this coalition began in 2009, with a launch in 2010. In 2012, RIWC piloted the Gender Democracy Toolkit.

The toolkit, written by former RIWC coordinator Beaudelaine Pierre, is a 65-page booklet designed for agencies to use in workshops and in discussions with their staff members to better understand the daily life of immigrant women and men living in Minnesota. The toolkit offers information and methods to integrate gender awareness in organizational practices and procedures.

Exploring gender equity is an important first step for RIWC, which envisions violence-free homes, access to education and health care, and economic independence and vitality for all individuals.

According to Pierre, who is now women's program coordinator for WISE, the toolkit offers a way to solve community problems by engaging the collective intelligence among people of different cultures.

"We set up focus groups so that we could talk directly to women and girls, as well as men and boys, about issues of gender inequity," said Dr. Wilhelmina Holder, WISE's executive director. "We wanted men to be supportive of our journey."

The issues discussed at the focus groups were subsequently framed as questions in a survey that was given to 100 immigrants and refugees.

"We contacted a wide spectrum of the population in person, by phone and via Internet," said Raj Chaudhary, SEWA-AIFW executive director. "We also hired consultants to help us go through this [toolkit development process] systematically."

Each organization in RIWC also completed a gender audit to determine how each agency deals with gender democracy issues internally. "We need to develop gender equity in our agency before going to the community," Chaudhary said.

Holder, meanwhile, said, "It is so good to bring these conversations out in the open. Not just with women, but with men and youth." She said the most surprising aspect of this process has been how little prevention there has been for gender inequity.

Ekta Prakash, executive director of CAPI, said RIWC learned from its focus groups that many women are deprived of basic health rights and that immigration issues put a lot of pressure on them. "We need to look at how we can improve situations and find the root cause of the problems," she said.

Holder agrees. "We need to look for systemic and social change," she said.

Added Prakash: "There's lots of work to be done. But we hope the toolkit will be used as a living document for organizations."

The Gender Democracy Toolkit is expected to be available online in December 2012. A small donation is requested.

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