Blog: How Cultural Mediation Makes Women’s Voices Heard

Marchu Girma, Chief Executive of Hibiscus Initiatives, writes about the benefits of cultural mediation.

Marchu Girma is the Chief Executive of Hibiscus Initiatives. Hibiscus Initiatives is a charity that provides trauma-informed services for Black and migrant women in the community and prisons. Hibiscus Initiatives supports families, women, and men in Immigration Removal Centres. A new report from Hibiscus highlights the benefits of cultural mediation – interpretation that addresses the cultural context and concerns of the individual – in reducing the cultural and language barriers experienced by migrants who are survivors of trafficking, and ensuring their voices are heard.

The report ‘Cultural Mediation: An inclusive solution to help reduce the cultural and language barriers experienced by survivors of trafficking’ shares what Hibiscus learnt over six months applying cultural mediation techniques to casework with 16 Albanian women who accessed their Women’s Centre. As well as language barriers, these women faced significant cultural difficulties such as not being understood when discussing gender-based-violence (GBV).

Take Elira*, for example, who at 27 was trafficked to the UK with her four-year-old son. Elira suffered immense trauma throughout the experience: through being trafficked and escaping her traffickers once in the UK; through her experience at the police station, where she was asked to sign a document which she did not understand; through the hostel which was unsuitable for Elira and her son; and through the absence of the housing, financial and specific support Elira was entitled to and which would help her to recover. Fortunately, Elira was referred to Hibiscus who allocated her an Albanian speaking cultural mediation project worker who, over time, was able to build a relationship of trust, discover her story, and find the support that Elira needed, and was entitled to. Elira’s full story and those of other women can be read in the report.

Cultural mediation empowers women to use their own words and languages to express what they are going through. In this context, the cultural mediator is asked to be much more than an interpreter, and is more an expert at finding equivalences between languages and cultures, ‘shaping’ an exchange between two or more cultures or social systems.¹ They can advise both parties regarding appropriate cultural behaviours, and explain equivalences and differences such as different cultural perceptions of criminal behaviours. Use of cultural mediation in healthcare, education, public services, rehabilitation centres and immigration offices is common in many European countries including France, Germany, Italy, and Greece.²

Evidence shows that 95% of women in the National Referral Mechanism – the national framework for identifying potential victims of trafficking and modern slavery³ – are foreign nationals⁴, many of whom will face language and cultural barriers to accessing justice. Cultural mediation in these settings can help survivors navigate the system, identify the entitlements available to them, and feel supported through this tough period of recovery.

In the report Hibiscus Initiatives make three recommendations:

  1. Improve understanding and communication between survivors of GBV and statutory and non-statutory bodies by adopting cultural mediation as a primary approach to working with this community
  2. Ensure those working with GBV survivors are also trained in and apply trauma-informed and survivor-centred approaches
  3. Improve knowledge and good practice in working with survivors of GBV within service providers

Looking ahead, Hibiscus are continuing to promote cultural mediation as a tool to enable survivors of GBV to better understand the systems they find themselves in, and to be better understood by those working with them on their journey towards recovery and justice. Hibiscus will be developing a training package and toolkit to support the wider adoption of cultural mediation in statutory and non-statutory agencies, and will be working with women with lived experience of GBV to train them in cultural mediation techniques to support their work in their communities.

This report was made possible by the support of The Bell Foundation. It forms part of a three-year funded project exploring the benefits of cultural mediation for supporting individuals with English as an Additional Language, particularly survivors of GBV, trafficking, and modern-day slavery.

*Name changed to protect identity

¹ Giordano, C (2008) Practices of Translation and the Making of Migrant Subjectivities in Contemporary Italy, McGill University, American Ethnologist, Vol. 35, No.4, pp. 588-606, p. 596.
² Cartarci, M. (2016). InterCultural Mediation as a Strategy to Facilitate Relations between the School and Immigrant Families. Revista Electronica Interuniversitaria de Formacion del Profesorado, 19(1), 127-140, p. 129.
³ The National Referral Mechanism (NRM) is a framework for identifying and referring potential victims of modern slavery and ensuring they receive the appropriate support. For more information:, https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/human-trafficking-victims-referral-and-assessment-forms/guidance-on-the-national-referral-mechanism-for-potential-adult-victims-of-modern-slavery-england-and-wales.
⁴ Hibiscus Initiatives, Closed Doors; Inequalities and Injustices in Appropriate and Secure Housing Provision for Female Victims of Trafficking who are Seeking Asylum, 2020, p.15.

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