One of today’s stories reminds me of something that happened in Melbourne a couple of years ago. For a while, just once a month, I used to help out with a soup van for homeless people. One chilly Saturday evening we pulled up at a crisis centre around the corner from the bright lights and glitz of the Casino.
Most of our clients avoided eye contact, took a coffee and sandwich and shuffled off without conversing. But one 35-ish woman in a loosely fitting track suit hung around for a chat. I rabbitted on about safe topics like the weather and the football when I heard her say offhandedly, “… and when I have my baby”. I took a second look at the contours of the track suit and quickly said, “Oh, congratulations.”
She was waiting for that. “Yeah,” she said. “The social worker in the centre at Dandenong told me not to have it and all the girls in the shelter did too and they beat me up and starting kicking me and I knew that wasn’t much good for the baby. So that’s why I moved here. They were telling me it was just a bunch of cells, but I reckon that’s b*******. It’s a baby.” She patted her stomach happily.
I never saw her again, of course, and I have no idea of how things turned out for mother and child. But the image of a patronising social worker who knew what was best for her clients stuck with me. I recalled it when I read an article in the Israeli paper Ha’aretz this week. It turns out that officials have been giving Ethiopian migrant women – who happen to be poor, dark, and illiterate – injections of Depo-provera without obtaining their informed consent. Perhaps as a result, the birth rate in the Ethiopian community has plummeted.
It’s the same everywhere: social workers and doctors always seem to know what’s best for women who are poor, marginalised and badly educated.