The birth of NIAWA
The majority of Italian immigrants to Australia came from the southern regions of Italy, such as Calabria and Sicily, and the Veneto Region in the North, frequently regarded as very conservative regions and often described as “patriarchal” societies. In reality, the role of Italian women was never as subservient as many outsiders would think. They have always played a very influential role in domestic life and in the upbringing of children.
The Italian immigrant women in Australia have tended to remain outside the workforce to a higher degree than many other immigrant women from other backgrounds. Many women, contrary to men, have never been unionised because they mainly worked part time from home. Women were also less likely to be proficient in English and this obviously inhibited them from taking a more active role in the community and political life of Australia.
Women in the Italian community
They felt isolated and marginalised. They were trying to be good wives, mothers and good citizens, all without the supportive family network which many of them had left behind in their country of origin. It was a lonely time for many of them. Franca Arena, through her work as a journalist, as founding vice chairperson of the Ethnic Communities Council of New South Wales and deputy chair of the NSW Women’s Advisory Council to the Premier, was only too aware of these major problems faced by immigrant women. Together with other activists, Franca Arena decided to fight for the recognition of the needs of women of non-English speaking background and for consultation between government and service providers. But for this to be successful, the women themselves had to take charge of the issues confronting them, organising themselves and developing formal structures within their own communities. As this started to happen through Ethnic Communities Councils all over Australia, Franca turned to her own Italian community where many women felt it was time for them to have a voice in Australian society. The first step in promoting the needs of Australian women of Italian heritage was to organise a conference in order to get to know each other, share experiences and discuss problems. The result was the first international Italian-Australian Women’s conference, followed by the official birth of the National Italian-Australian Women’s Association, firstly in New South Wales and then in other States, Victoria, Queensland, Western Australia and South Australia.
The Association’s main objectives were the following :
-To increase, within the community at large, the awareness of the contribution of Italian-Australian women to Australian society.
-To focus on issues of concern to Italian-Australian women of the first and second generations and promote a better understanding amongst them.To promote Italian language and culture amongst members of the second generation.
-To make submissions to Local, State and Federal Governments on women’s issues.To organise a regular Forum for women to share their experiences and exchange ideas on matters of common interest.
-To produce suitable material on topics of common interest for distribution to members, clubs and organisations and other interested people in the community.
-To invite, whenever possible, eminent speakers from overseas so as to mutually exchange ideas, information and progress.
The Association soon became an important structure through which women could more easily understand the issues they faced, work together to overcome problems and provide a strong network of friendship in a country where established family networks were often non-existent. Women worked tirelessly and on a voluntary basis, building bridges of understanding, breaking down the effects of isolation and creating a feeling of strong solidarity.The Association has continued over two decades to fully inform the members about the way in which Australian society operates, giving Australian women of Italian heritage the skills essential for participating in society to whatever extend they choose. In doing so, Italian-Australian women have been given a voice. They have been able to change the stereotype image of Italian women, that of the big mamma, submissive, all-enduring and dependent on the male members of her family. Moreover the Association has aimed at keeping Italian-Australian women up to date with the changes and reforms that have taken place in Italy, thus lessening the sense of distance and isolation.
Thanks to the Association, Italian-Australian women will no longer be the Cinderellas of the immigration process. They can now come forward and be protagoniste e non spettatrici (participants, not onlookers). Of course there is still a lot more to do. Italian women are not isolated or voiceless as they used to be. They have learned the art of lobbying, they are more aware of their needs, rights and responsibilities, however, they have to keep fighting to ensure that newly-arrived immigrants do not experience the same difficulties and injustices they had to endure.
Times have changed and so has the Association’s task. The community is ageing and very few new immigrant women are arriving from Italy. It is the Association’s responsibility to ensure that the Italian language and culture are kept alive in Australia for future generations. This is the greatest challenge the Italian-Australian community has to face at this point in time.