Newcomer health services provide support for women’s reproductive health
By Russul Sahib
Posted on March 29, 2021
TRIGGER WARNING: This article contains topics such as sexual health, reproduction, birth control, and mental health.
Moving to a new country can put a lot of stress on a newcomer’s physical and mental well-being. When settling in Canada, newcomers are faced with many changes within a short period of time. Dealing with these changes can negatively affect their physical and mental health. This, coupled with not fully knowing how to navigate the Canadian healthcare system, can create even more stress. One aspect of physical health which is often overlooked is women’s reproductive and sexual health.
Though reproductive and sexual health is an important part of many women’s lives, it can be very difficult for new immigrants to find appropriate services for them. One of the greatest challenges that newcomer women often face when it comes to accessing healthcare is finding doctors that speak their language. According to a 2014 report by British Columbia’s Women’s Hospital, newcomer women stated that finding a female doctor that spoke their first language was very difficult. Additionally, women who had negative encounters with doctors were discouraged from using other health services, as they felt that their next encounter would be the same.
There are many organizations in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA), the area that includes Durham, Halton, Peel, and York region, that are committed to helping newcomer women address reproductive and sexual health issues. Organizations such as the Immigrant Women Health Centre offer women support by providing them with birth control options, STI information and treatment, pregnancy counselling, and much more. Settlement.org also offers a lot of information regarding these topics. While these websites can be useful, new immigrants who face language barriers may also need language support when accessing information and resources.
Hoda Ghonim is the newcomer health program coordinator at an organization in the GTA called Shore Centre. The centre provides family planning resources and information, birth control options, and support for women undergoing pregnancy, and encourages healthy discussions around sex and relationships. The organization also helps women better understand what is included in their healthcare coverage and provides pregnant women with prenatal vitamins. The centre also provides language interpreters for women who speak different languages.
Ghonim knows first-hand how language barriers can prevent newcomer women from accessing needed health services. She explained how many women struggle to communicate with their healthcare providers about their needs.
“Some of them are struggling when they are approaching the health services because of language. They don’t know how to express what they need,” Ghonim said.
Aside from language barriers, many newcomer women also feel that reproductive and sexual health are sensitive topics. Since some women come from cultures where these issues are not openly discussed, it becomes essential for healthcare providers to be culturally sensitive. Although these conversations can be difficult for some women to have, Ghonim explained that these discussions are important.
“I’m trying to normalize it’s part of our life,” Ghonim said. “We need to have this information to give consent for everything: consent for relationships, consent for family planning, consent for pregnancy. You need to have all this information to feel comfortable to give that consent.”
TK Pritchard, the executive director at Shore Centre, said that another concern for many women is a lack of support networks.
“Many newcomer folks, they’ve been cut off from their support network, where if they were in the country they came from before, they may have had other family members who support them throughout their pregnancy, who would provide information about the reproductive health,” Pritchard said. “Suddenly, that support system is very far away.”
To make it easier for women to access these resources, many of the programs at Shore Centre offer child-care as well as free transportation. Providing this type of help makes it easier for women to find the time in their busy schedule to seek out these health resources and programs. It also allows them to balance their responsibilities as parents and their own well-being.
Additionally, programs discussing contraceptives and family planning consider women of all cultural and religious backgrounds and avoid assumptions about one’s personal beliefs. Ghonim said that for women who prefer not to use contraceptives, she can provide natural family planning information and tools.
Regardless of the resources or organizations newcomer women choose to access, it is important that anyone who seeks out these services feels welcomed rather than further isolated as a recent immigrant or refugee.
“Sometimes, people lump all newcomers together, [but] the newcomer experience varies widely,” Pritchard said. “Everyone’s coming in with a different story. Everyone’s coming in with different views, and so our staff are making sure that we’re not assuming what folks might want to do or what they need support with, and that we’re really letting people lead that process.”