IARS’ Refugee Women’s Action Research Group (RWARG), a project funded to design and deliver a training programme for professionals working with refugee and asylum-seeking women, is half-way through the fieldwork stage of the project. The group of refugee/asylum-seeking women volunteers have so far carried out 13 interviews with other refugee women from a range of backgrounds and communities. Interview participants have been referred by a number of charities and community groups and the volunteers have also found women to participate through their own networks and contacts.

Of the women who have been interviewed so far many have experienced depression, Post-traumatic Stress Disorder and suicidal feelings since coming to the UK. As one interviewee recalled: ‘Sometimes…I didn’t care about my life, I didn’t see that I have a life.’

A common theme that has emerged from the interviews is that some women prefer to be seen by female doctors because they continue to feel unsafe in the presence of men due to their experiences in their countries of origin. Feeling uncomfortable with male GPs has been described as having an impact on how much personal information a woman discloses  to her doctor. One participant referred to her experiences of a male GP with whom she finds it difficult to confide sensitive information: ‘I would never discuss certain issues with him’.

Divulging personal information to both GPs and solicitors is reported to be difficult and often stressful for many of the women we have spoken with. Some women have said they are reluctant to tell their GP about their situation as an asylum-seeker/refugee because they are worried about being discriminated against. Others report a lack of awareness of the role of their GP. As one interviewee mentioned:  ‘I didn’t know you could tell your GP stuff like that.’

Positive accounts of both legal and health services appear to involve displays of empathy and emotional understanding on behalf of the professional involved. One interviewee described her GP’s response when she told her about the problems she was experiencing as an asylum-seeker: ‘She was like kind of showing me emotional understanding, you know. She was also tearing, you know like, crying.’ Some women also mentioned that their solicitor was ‘supportive’ and that this improved their experience of legal services.

Several women said that they felt most understood by those solicitors with a firm grasp of the situation in their country of origin: ‘She understood me very well due to her response, like whenever I was trying to tell her, she was like ‘oh sorry’ and she knew exactly what was going on in my country…it wasn’t new to her ears…that made me feel that she was very very understanding of what I was talking about’.

From the interviews carried out so far, it appears that legal services and healthcare professionals are crucial in the role they play in referring refugee/asylum-seeking women to other services and support. A participant stated that it is important for solicitors to recognise that women clients from refugee backgrounds will most likely be in need of therapeutic support: ‘I needed them to help me, but I also needed help from other people…other professionals to talk to’.

More fieldwork interviews are scheduled to take place until the end of January. To keep up to date with the progress of the project, please follow our project blog.

Funded by Comic Relief