The alleged murder in the Melbourne CBD last weekend of Laa Chol, a 19-year-old woman of South Sudanese heritage, drew the attention of Peter Dutton, the Minister for Home Affairs, Immigration and Border Protection.
‘This is a tragic and needless loss of a young life,’ Mr Dutton said in a statement to Fairfax Media.
‘There is a major law and order problem in Victoria and more people are going to be hurt until the rule of law is enforced by the Victorian Government. We don’t have these problems with Sudanese gangs in NSW or Queensland.’
Laa Chol deserves better
Like most of you, I was saddened and shocked by the death of a young woman over the weekend. Laa Chol was found dead on the 56th floor of the EQ Tower early Saturday morning. Speaking to colleagues on Monday, we all remarked on how it was another example of the violence that women are facing in Australia. This is a global problem we are not exempt from, and it is disturbing how common this sort of incident is becoming. However, I was angered that some politicians and the media saw this death very differently. The approach to this sort of violence and the way we look at new migrant and refugee communities really needs to be rethought.
Before I outline my thoughts about this, I think it is important to say that on behalf of the organisation I work for, I would like to express my heartfelt sadness and condolences to Laa Chol’s family and offer support to them in what must be an extremely distressful time. We are so sorry for your loss and want you to know that we are thinking of you, your loved ones and your community during this difficult period.
We hope that the compassion that many of us are feeling reaches you and that some empathy reaches other people in Australia where it is sorely needed.
Like many people I was upset and angry about Peter Dutton’s comments in the wake of this incident, linking it to a larger campaign to vilify the South Sudanese community in Victoria. As a woman of colour, I find it wounding that somehow this death has been reduced to discussion of an individual’s race alone. Somehow it feels like the violence she experienced means less than if it had happened to a young white woman.
The minister knows that dozens of women have been killed violently this year in Australia. He should acknowledge this is a real problem that needs to be addressed by politicians and the community. To use the tragic death of a young black women in this way is not worthy of someone who represents us.
I would encourage all politicians to listen to the Victoria Police, who have pleaded that political figures not use this incident to generalise about an entire community of people. Commander Stuart Bateson, who is responsible for liaising with the African-Australian Community Taskforce, said on 3AW: ‘The idea [is] that when we start to make that an issue bigger than what it is, then we start to racialise it and target a specific community. That leads to some unintended consequences. That means a whole community feels vilified.’
This death reminds us that as a community we have failed women over and over again. That failure occurs in a multitude of ways across the health and wellbeing sector. Many already acknowledge the health sector is a complicated system for most people to navigate. To its credit, the Victorian Government’s multicultural policy states that women and children from refugee and migrant communities face significant disadvantage in health and wellbeing.
We need to address these disadvantages. At the moment, unfortunately people are often labelled by services as being ‘one thing’. So if you need translated health services, you attend a clinic specialising in multicultural health. If you are facing domestic violence, you must approach a service that specialises in that. The health system operates, for the most part, in silos, but we know that as human beings, we are much more complex than one health concern. Too often these services have trouble intersecting and addressing people who are facing more than one issue.
In our organisations, we work with communities every day who face a range of challenges. I recently spoke with a young person from the Afghan community who identifies as a lesbian and is also infected with hepatitis B. I spoke to an older person from the Greek community suffering from an ice addiction who will not seek out help because he is worried about being stigmatised by his friends and family. We meet people like this every day and they often have to seek help from different services, with varying degrees of engagement and success.
It is only by combining a range of expertise that we can start to change our culture and deliver women the happiness and safety they have a right to. It is only by working in partnership (sometimes across many organisations) that these services will help people. We work with young people in this way in that informs them in a culturally sensitive way about healthy relationships, consent and the fundamentals of gender inequity in our society. We would encourage the health sector to examine their services and ask themselves if their approach is the same.
Laa Chol has been described by friends and family as a clever and happy person, as well as a second-year legal studies student and talented soccer player. She deserved better from all of us.
Alison Coelho is co-manager of the Centre for Culture Ethnicity and Health and manager of the Multicultural Health and Support Services.