opinion

Khadija Gbla: "Young girls of colour are often taught to take up as little space as possible."

At Mamamia, every day is International Women’s Day. But this year, we’re celebrating March 8 by sharing stories from some of Australia’s most influential women, as well as columns from voices spanning 5 generations, on the decade-defining conversations women are having. You can find all our International Women’s Day stories on our hub page.

This post deals with domestic violence and might be triggering for some readers.

I’ve spent much of my life being caught between two cultures.

When my family came to Australia from Sierra Leone via Gambia when I was 13 years old, I had to find myself in a new context.

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I tried desperately to live up to the way my family thought I should behave, think and act. I also had to deal with the racism and ignorance that was a part of my new world.

In ‘white’ Australia, I was too black. But my community thought I wasn’t black enough and that I needed to know my place.

I was too loud, outspoken and empowered to be a ‘good, agreeable’ African woman, and yet backwards stereotypes about violence and lawlessness dissed my culture.

Stuck between a rock and a hard place, finding my voice and navigating leadership as a young woman of colour was challenging.

 

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When I was unsafe in my home after being terrorised by my ex-partner, I went to the police for help. Instead of receiving support, I was told point-blank by the police officer I was relaying my horrific ordeal to, that African cultures were simply ‘more violent’.

When I turned to my community and family for help, I was told to be more obedient and that I must have provoked the violence that was inflicted upon me.

Caught between two worlds, I was forced to confront and question how gender and race, and their intersection, impact how migrant and refugee women are treated in society and how that differs depending on the context.

I am lucky enough to have been university educated and speak English fluently, but I dread to think what it would be like for a refugee woman with limited English, who’s socially isolated, lives in a regional town and is financially dependent on her husband. That woman’s experience is vastly more disadvantaged than my own.

One in four Australian women will experience intimate partner violence.

It can happen in our leafy, unassuming suburban streets by our seemingly friendly neighbour. Violence against women doesn’t discriminate. Sadly it touches all postcodes, pay brackets, races and cultures.

Contrary to popular belief, domestic violence is not perpetrated by a man ‘driven too far’ – the research is clear; it is driven by gender inequality which is compounded with added layers of disadvantage.

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One of the things we need to do in order to strip back this disadvantage is to change how young women see themselves, their careers and their potential to make a difference.

Through my work for the Our Watch and the Centre for Multicultural Youth project funded by accessories brand MIMCO, I had the opportunity to get to know and mentor young women from migrant and refugee backgrounds.

I met many young women who are currently facing the challenges I faced, but just need some support and encouragement to be able to reach their potential.

The young women designed and delivered the Lead Yourself, Lead Others program that promoted connecting and supporting other young women – to share their unique experiences and find common ground in their similar ones.

Centre-for-Multicultural-Youth-in-Ballarat.
Khadija with young women at the Centre for Multicultural Youth in Ballarat. Image: Supplied.
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For me, this program is my hope piece. When I was younger there weren’t many safe spaces for women from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, but the Centre for Multicultural Youth and the young women from Lead Yourself, Lead Others have created them.

Young girls and especially young girls of colour are often taught to take up as little space as possible if they want to feel safe. While feeling safe is important and societal change is needed in order to make that a reality, feeling safe can also keep girls and women in a life of mediocrity.

We need to start encouraging them early to aspire to be leaders in their communities and to be empowered to advocate for themselves.

While leadership looks different for different people, young women from refugee and migrant backgrounds, First Nations women, women with disabilities and those from the LGBTIQ community have a voice. They just need to be given the opportunity to speak up, be heard and thrive.

Passion, inclusion and diversity are what will continue to keep the sisterhood strong and alive.

Khadija Gbla is the Director of No FGM Australia and an Our Watch ambassador. She is a survivor of female genital mutilation and founded the Desert Flower Centre to provide holistic surgical counselling and gynaecological care for women impacted by FGM. You can follow Khadija on Instagram.

If this post brings up any issues for you, or if you just feel like you need to speak to someone, please call 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732) – the national sexual assault, domestic and family violence counselling service. It doesn’t matter where you live, they will take your call and, if need be, refer you to a service closer to home.

Mamamia is funding 100 girls in school, every day with our charity partner Room To Read, and our goal is to get to 1,000 girls every day. To help empower women this International Women's Day, you can donate to Room to Read and make a difference in girls' futures.

Feature Image: Supplied.

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