Women in the World: the Stepping Stones and Multicultural Connections Programs

By Joanna Francis Around the world, there are countless organisations working with women by using creativity as a pathway out of poverty. Today though, I thought we’d look a little closer to home. What about women who have arrived here in Australia as refugees, who have brought with them a multitude of skills and resources but face cultural barriers and a lack of access to resources? Recently I came across two wonderful groups that exist in Melbourne.... the Stepping Stones program, run by the Ecumenical Migration Centre (a branch of the Brotherhood of St Lawrence) and the Multicultural Connection Centre.

The Stepping Stones program offers mentoring, training and support to help refugee and migrant women develop new skills and increase their participation in business and the community.

One woman who participated in the program is Luz Restrepo. Luz is a Colombian woman who came to Australia 2 years ago as an asylum seeker and has faced huge challenges including a lack of English and a consequent lack of identity and self esteem. In an effort to improve her English, improve her wellbeing and help others in the same situation, she organised a group - the Multicultural Connection Centre - to create a space where migrant women could come together, share their stories, improve their English and reduce their feelings of isolation.

The group has evolved to focus on women meeting regularly to create handmade crafts which they are then selling at markets around Melbourne. This allows them to not only earn some income for themselves and their families, but to improve their self esteem, continue to build relationships and a sense of community.  I met some of these women recently... Ler Paw from Burma, Saida from Rwanda, Lakpa from Tibet and Monica from Pakistan.

Each has endured much hardship in the their lives, and many challenges adjusting to a new life in a new country. But each one was finding that the skills they  had learnt through their involvement, as well as the friendship and opportunities provided were helping to improve both their lives and those of their families.

Speaking to Luz and the women she was working with helped remind me that each of these women has come to Australia with their own skills and experiences and identity, and that the challenges faced here often diminish that sense of self worth. But that the benefits of meeting with others in similar situations and increasing their own sense of confidence and independence are huge.

Stepping Stones is looking for mentors for the women participating in their program. If you're interested, you can learn more here.

Similarly, Luz is looking for funding for materials, as well as creative women who might be able to assist with advice or training, particularly in making their craft stalls more financially viable. If you are interested, you can contact get in touch with me (details below) and I can put you in touch with Luz.

Joanna Francis spends most of her time hanging out with her 21 month old son. But she also works for a children’s foundation and has recently started her own little business making baby quilts. In the past, Joanna has worked as an aid worker in several developing countries, and is passionate about the rights of women and children. You can visit her and her blog at www.miettehandmade.com