Speech by Senator the Hon Concetta Fierravanti-Wells

Domestic Violence and Interpreting Forum – Monash University, Lonsdale St Melbourne

Can I start by adding my acknowledgement of Country.

I would also like to acknowledge:

  • Professor Rita Wilson, and other Monash staff
  • Many distinguished guests
  • ladies and gentlemen.

It is a great pleasure to be here today. As the recently appointed Assistant Minister for Multicultural Affairs my areas of responsibility mean that I work closely with the Attorney-General, the Minister for Immigration and the Minister for Social Services.

With these various responsibilities, I can share some of my thoughts from 30 years’ experience in public life, which includes engaging with many of our communities at risk.

Domestic and family violence and sexual assault in our community, irrespective of cultural background, is unacceptable. It is everyone’s responsibility to reject and prevent it.

In my home city of Sydney only 2 days ago, it was reported that yet another woman, 7 months pregnant, became the victim of a horrific incident of domestic violence.

As awful as stories like this are, they are not entirely uncommon with 1 in 6 Australian women reporting instances of physical and sexual violence from a current or former partner.

We have interpreters here today who are dealing directly with these issues and have done so for many, many years. Translators and interpreters will continue to deal with people experiencing domestic violence, perhaps even increasingly so.

Government and the community are working to reduce domestic violence, but this will take time. There is some progress on the awareness front. What was once a taboo subject now makes the headlines and the evening news — and rightly so.

With this new prominence can come an increase in reporting of cases. As our women and children become more resilient, more willing to come forward, the caseload is likely to increase.

Translators and interpreters will be among those on the frontline in this battle.

As the daughter of migrants and somebody who has lived the bilingual and bicultural experience and given my close involvement in the multicultural space for over 30 years, I have heard the stories.

For those of us who have been in this space, we know the problem. It is now time to take the action. We need to empower women and help build resilience in families.

The Minister assisting the PM on Women embarked on process to inform herself of CALD women’s experience of violence, by supporting 29 kitchen table conversations with CALD women from more than 40 ethnicities.

The conversations and the subsequent report of these conversations, Hearing her Voice, confirmed what many of us already knew were about issues of domestic and family violence and sexual assault in CALD communities.

This included that issues around translating and interpreting can be a key challenge for CALD women in addressing and escaping violence.

These conversations also confirmed what we already know that CALD women share many issues and experiences in common with other Australian women in relation to domestic and family violence and sexual assault such as finding affordable accommodation, achieving financial independence, finding employment, obtaining legal advice and finding appropriate childcare.

However, for CALD women, these difficulties can be exacerbated by factors such as not being able to speak English, having no rental history, lower employment rates, lack of transport, and having few friends or family members in Australia who can provide support.

CALD women are also less likely to report violence, can experience more barriers in accessing support services, and are less likely to leave a family violence situation than other Australian women.

As I said, the Hearing Her Voice report only confirms yet again the stories that have been around for many, many years.

Similar observations were made at the national roundtable on reducing violence against CALD women and their children, held in Sydney last month (7 August).

Challenge for interpreters

This is a very challenging area, particularly for interpreters.

Interpreters have the unique ability to communicate with people from different cultural and linguistic backgrounds and bridge communication gaps to promote understanding and respect.

Interpreting services are crucial to CALD women experiencing violence. They enable the woman to make first contact with frontline services, disclose violence and seek help. They have an ongoing part to play as women navigate a complex support service and legal system.

As you can all appreciate, interpreting for domestic violence victims is extremely sensitive. It is never acceptable to rely on victims’ children, relatives or perpetrators to provide interpreting.

Professional interpreters are bound by the Australian Institute of Interpreters and Translators (AUSIT) Code of Ethics.

This covers a number of requirements, such as impartiality – interpreters do not voice an opinion, solicited or unsolicited, on any matter during an assignment; and interpreters do not, in the course of their duties, assume other roles such as offering advocacy, guidance or advice.

Unfortunately, a number of women who participated in the kitchen table discussions had some negative experiences with interpreters.

Some of the challenges raised by participants included interpreter availability, cost, a perceived lack of female interpreters, and issues of confidentiality, impartiality and cultural insensitivity.

Of particular concern were reports of interpreters inserting their opinions into a woman’s statement or arguing with the woman over what is appropriate to say.

Furthermore, women noted instances where interpreters have distorted statements so that incidents of violence in their community were not exposed.

This is misleading and can harm women seeking assistance or compromise evidence in a criminal offence. Some interpreters reportedly tried to influence women and encourage them to stay in a violent relationship. This is an abhorrent outcome.

There were also cases where interpreters were known to the victim and perpetrator. This raises significant concerns around conflict of interest and their ability to exercise objectivity.

One woman was quoted as saying “some interpreters don’t interpret – rather they try to solve the family problem and they’re not qualified for that.

Indeed they are not. I am sure interpreters here today will agree on the need to take a stand against this kind of professional misconduct, and encourage your colleagues to do the same.

Section 9.2 of the AUSIT Code of Ethics talks about professional solidarity: “Interpreters and translators support and further the interests of the profession and their colleagues and offer each other assistance”.

It is imperative that interpreters are aware of what constitutes appropriate and professional behaviour and show a more nuanced understanding of the dynamics in family violence situations.

To those interpreters who conduct themselves professionally and sensitively during these extremely delicate interactions, I applaud your commitment and professionalism.

Interpreters often go from one emotionally demanding job to the next, therefore it is important to make time for forums where they can debrief, recover and recharge.

I encourage the interpreting sector to work together to create these important opportunities to better support interpreters, who support others at critical times.

Government approach

The Australian Government, through the National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children 2010-2022 (the National Plan), has been working with state and territory governments and civil society to achieve a long-term reduction in domestic and family violence and sexual assault.

Under the National Plan, the Australian Government is providing $100 million over four years, for complementary measures to support women who have experienced or are at risk of domestic violence.

These initiatives focus on primary prevention, understanding diverse experiences of violence, integrated systems, perpetrator interventions and building evidence.

The Council of Australian Governments (COAG) has agreed to take urgent and collective action to address violence against women in 2015; including a $30 million national awareness campaign and an Advisory Panel to support COAG to address this issue over the next 12 to 18 months.

CALD in Second Action Plan

I am pleased that the Second Action Plan of the National Plan commits to working with CALD communities, to reduce violence and support women and their children.

It also recognises that women from CALD backgrounds may face many challenges in addressing violence and may experience it in diverse forms.

This can be more difficult due to a new language, culture and laws.

In some cultures and languages, there is no direct translation or agreed definition of domestic violence or concept of sexual assault within a marriage.

Knowing that the concepts themselves are not readily understandable by non-English speakers, the role of interpreters in the domestic violence context becomes even more crucial.

CALD communities

We need to understand the cultural overlays if we are going to properly deal with the issues in our CALD communities.

We must remind ourselves that for CALD women experiencing domestic violence, it is not just about the children and the women. It is about family; it is about heritage; it is about culture; it is about tradition. It is about those bonds that bind those women so much more tightly.

I have lived across bicultural communities with one foot in each camp.

Those ties that women in CALD communities have to their families, to their traditions, are very, very strong. Therefore we need to understand the solutions to this problem.

In a society where 45% of us were either born overseas or have at least one parent who was, CALD communities should be considered mainstream. Policies and programs would be developed in the context of how they affect all Australians, regardless of language or ethnicity. Regrettably, this is not the case.

CALD issues are still siloed. All too often CALD problems are band-aided. The simple solution seems to be – well, we translate a few pamphlets, we put a CALD person on our board. That should tick a box!

Whatever the issue is, the CALD component kind of gets tacked on at the end, often as an after-thought. We have to move beyond this tokenistic approach.


Dealing with domestic violence in CALD communities is challenging. It is a challenge we must all accept. Government has a role, as does civil society.

Interpreters are uniquely placed to deal directly with families who are experiencing domestic violence. Interpreting and translating services are crucial to CALD women experiencing violence.

They enable women to make first contact with frontline services, disclose violence and seek help.

I wish all the best for this forum as you traverse very sensitive terrain.

The rewards however — resilient women, families and communities — are worth all our efforts.

Thank you.