Migrant and refugee women are some of the most disadvantaged by gender inequality. Wellsprings for Women is helping to shift the dial

by Women’s Agenda
Tuesday 11 October 2022

Group of women from Wellsprings for Women

In Australia, migrant and refugee women face additional barriers to live a safe and healthy life free from violence and discrimination, often facing lower levels of access to essential services.

That’s where Wellsprings for Women comes in, an organisation based in Dandenong, Victoria that caters to migrant and refugee women who otherwise might not be able to access the services they need to fully participate in society.

“We work with the women who have been left behind. We want them to have equal access to education, and to safety, because they are some of the most disadvantaged by gender inequality,” Wellsprings for Women CEO Dalal Smiley says.

“What we found is that nothing much existed out there for women with low English literacy and low education backgrounds that helped them to get through life. So that’s where we focus our energy.”

Wellsprings for Women is a women-only space that offers services, support, and programs for women from migrant and refugee backgrounds to improve their education, employment prospects, health, wellbeing, and ability to live free from violence. 

It’s a life transforming organisation that works hard to deliver services for women, with a recent study from the organisation showing that for every $1 invested in supporting women, Wellsprings returns a massive $12 of social and economic value. 

Over the last few years, more and more women disclosed instances of family and domestic violence. Dalal Smiley says despite a lack of adequate funding, the organisation has done its best to deliver services and support to women in this situation. 

“What we found was that the women were not interested in going anywhere else. They were scared to go to an identified specialist family violence service, because that would've increased their risk. Some of them wanted to stay in their relationship,” Smiley said. 

“So, it was a big dilemma. We were not adequately funded, but we just had to keep finding ways to assist them. The risk is, if we don't get the funding, who is going to support these women?”

Smiley says the charity is still working on bringing in enough funding from the state government. 

“It's about deepening our work within our local community. And giving more security to our staff for what they're doing, but also being more relevant and meeting the evolving and emerging needs of the communities that we work with.”

Lisa Keenan, Executive Director of Mecca M-POWER, says the work Wellsprings for Women is doing can be life-changing for women.

“Wellsprings is a more than a place where migrant and refugee women can go to learn English, how to drive, or how to use a computer. It is a haven, having someone on your side,” Keenan says.

“For women who have often left everything behind in search of a better life only to find that there are still mountains to climb, these things can be lifesaving.”

One of the most exciting developments at Wellsprings recently has been its Cultural Cuisines Social Enterprise program, where women from migrant and refugee backgrounds can be trained in food handling, food presentation and catering as a way to earn their own income.

“It started because we’ve had many women who want to be able to earn an income, but their lack of English language skills prevents them from competing in the mainstream employment sector,” Smiley said.

“The women loved cooking and they have been making amazing food. So we started working with them to get their food handling certificates and training, and they’ve been doing catering.”

Now the focus is to bring on board a food truck, so the women have another avenue to earn their own income.

“The catering and the food truck will compliment each other. We are excited about that because there are quite a few women who are very interested to be involved and from different cultural backgrounds. They're developing menus and trying to work out costs.”

Smiley, who herself came to Australia after the civil war in Lebanon in the 1970s, knows firsthand what it’s like to find your feet in a new country. She wants Wellsprings to be able to continue to support migrant and refugee women in the community. 

“Being in a women-only space helps the women we service to feel secure and safe,” she says. “It’s imperative we keep this work going.”