This year marks the 125th anniversary of the women’s suffrage movement, which succeeded in giving women in Aotearoa the right to vote. In recognition of this achievement, this month feature Nirmala Narasimhan who is a current champion for change for ethnic women.

Nirmala Narasimhan, a social work and psychology manager at Waikato Hospital, who has lived in New Zealand for 19 years.

Nirmala recognised that the challenges faced by ethnic women, like her, are complex and unique and they often sit outside of what is catered for by mainstream social support services. As one of the founding members of Shama, a Hamilton-based charitable trust providing services for ethnic women and children, Nirmala is aiming to meet these needs.

The centre supports the development of a society where all women, from all ethnic minorities, are able to live lives of dignity, free from fear of violence and discrimination, and are recognised as valuable contributors to their local communities.

To celebrate Nirmala’s contributions and involvement in her community, the Office of Ethnic Communities spoke to Nirmala about her work, and Suffrage 125.

What does celebrating Suffrage 125 mean to you?

“For me, this is a historical event, providing women with equal opportunities to vote, which in turn encourages women to seek political positions. This was the result of hard work put in at the grassroots level, to open this opportunity for women. It is also now the time to reflect and celebrate what women have achieved, and how many female prime ministers and political leaders we have had in New Zealand, thanks to the efforts of those women who put in the ultimate effort.”

What inspired you to identify and initiate the development of Shama?

“I migrated to New Zealand in 1999. Soon after, I started work as a social worker. Being new to the country, I felt the desperate need to be able to talk to someone who would understand the cultural context of where I came from, and what my feelings were with all that I was going through – racism, role differences in family, and the ideological clash with my understanding of various roles. I could not find any space that was culturally appropriate and safe to seek support.

At the same time, as part of my work, I came across ethnic women and children in various walks of life who were battling a huge amount of migration related stress, who didn’t know the laws and their rights, and who were controlled and conditioned by the social norms and patterns of behaviour that were part of the country they came from. These included intimate partner violence, feelings of isolation, and financial stress, as they were unable to find employment and had no support networks of family or friends.

This led to a meeting with a couple of like-minded women, to discuss the need for a centre for ethnic women. A place where women could find a safe space to talk to each other, discuss issues, find support, have access to information, and be able to seek advice and intervention for issues, within a culturally safe and appropriate environment. Where they are not judged based on colour, race, language or accent.”

How do you think Shama benefits the women involved?

“Since its opening in 2002, Shama has supported ethnic women and children who have accessed the services of the centre as a drop-in place. Here they are not seen as ‘different’, they are understood and are able to find support, they have been able to discuss and ensure safety for from violence, and can live a full and positive life in New Zealand.

This work is ongoing, and social workers and staff who work in the centre provide safe and culturally appropriate support to women. The centre provides information and support to new migrants in gaining life skills, in an all-female environment which allows women to be able to freely discuss issues that are of concern to them.”

What is your message to women from an ethnic background?

“Never fear or hesitate to ask for help and support when in need. Be fully informed of your rights, and rise to your full potential, as there is nothing that can stop women achieving their goals. Be proud to straddle two worlds and two cultures comfortably.”.

For more information about Shama.

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