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Melba Marginson


Working on the margins 

Working on the margins

I came here in 1989 when I married an Australian national. Soon after arriving, I began hearing stories about Filipino women being “mail-order brides” in Australia and suffering domestic violence. The first gathering I attended here was the funeral of a Filipino woman who had been strangled by her husband. At that gathering, I met Filipino women who were helping other Filipino women in domestic violence situations.

When I heard about these problems in immigrant communities, I knew I had to do something. I had to gather and mobilise people to act on issues.

So, using my ability to organise, I started gathering support for Filipino women. Out of that experience, we set up an organisation called Centre for Philippine Concerns Australia, based in Melbourne. It became an Australian national organisation, growing out of that common issue of family violence.

The first thing we did was start to document the killings. I then presented the murder cases to the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission and requested a royal commission enquiry.


Eventually the Labor government at the time came up with a domestic violence provision of the Immigration Act. The amendment, in a nutshell, means that if any woman from overseas comes here under spouse or fiancé visa and they become victims of domestic violence or sexual assault or harassment, they do not need a sponsorship from their partners to seek permanent residency. So they can lodge permanent residency on their own, with reports from police, the courts and social workers to prove they have become victims. It encouraged Filipino women to come out of the shadows.

As a result of all this experience I became a project worker for Health Sharing Women (now Women’s Health Victoria). In 1994 I organised a two-day conference of immigrant and refugee women in Victoria and it was unanimously voted that we would set up a Victoria-wide organisation to give a voice to immigrant and refugee women. This is the Victorian Immigrant and Refugee Women's Coalition I am now the Executive Director of. I was Chairperson from 1998 to 2004, and made Executive Director in 2005.

I developed a seven-day leadership training course for refugee women in 2002. We have now trained more than 1000 refugee women in Victoria. Women come out of it more aware of themselves, their self-esteem is better and they learn practical skills including public speaking. They learn how to develop a community project addressing an urgent priority issue in the community.

Anyone who wants to work in this sector has to understand the context of the sector, the bigger picture of it. Being a not-for-profit sector working for marginal communities, immigrants and refugees, they have to understand the politics of context. It takes courage, critical thinking – that’s an important tool, you have to have people skills to build influence. You have to work at the bottom to make sure you have the support and also the top level to build influence to be able to do what you want to do.

For me, success is the ability of a person to move people to achieve their shared goals. I could have aspired for a career that pays well, but I stayed on in the community sector because there are huge barriers to overcome to improve the plight of many immigrant and refugee women in this country.

I cannot even say I have succeeded because we are still on this daily grind of seeking funding for programs that women need to break down their isolation, free themselves from the cycle of family violence and improve their well being.

I felt very honoured and delighted for being named as a woman of influence [Melba was named in The Australian Financial Review and Westpac 100 Women of Influence Awards in 2014], especially because I was one of a few women from immigrant and refugee background in the list of 100. I am also glad that the area I was acknowledged for is the community sector because that is a sector that does not usually get valued at mainstream awards programs.

To me, influence is when you are able to get people to listen to what you fight for and move them to act towards your vision. At this stage in my life, I have become a warrior and that is related to influence.  I now have around me many women at the grassroots level, professional women and women in politics who support the vision of our organisation, believe in my leadership, and are willing to be mobilised to achieve our shared goals. That for me is influence based on values and integrity.


Melba Marginson completed a Masters of Social Science, in Policy and Management in 2001.

Top and inset images: Melba Marginson pictured in the Queen Victoria Women's Centre in Melbourne. Photos by Emma Phillips. Background image: Detail from RMIT's Swanston Academic Building.


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