Associate Professor Cathy Vaughan: Gaining trust through accountability

Associate Professor Cathy Vaughan is Head of the Gender and Women’s Health Unit in the Centre for Health Equity, Melbourne School of Population and Global Health. She currently leads research on the role of settlement and multicultural services in responding to violence against women; the Australian arm of a multi-country study on sexual and gender-based violence against refugees from displacement to resettlement; and research on building the capacity of faith leaders to respond to violence against women and family violence.

How did you come to work in this area?

“I was working on a health program in Papua New Guinea early in my career and was exposed to the inequalities faced by women in the Pacific. Violence against women is such a pressing problem in Papua New Guinea, so you can’t work there without having gender equality front and centre of your mind. My work in community engagement naturally led to working with women about the inequalities they face.

“Before coming to the University of Melbourne in 2011, I worked in international health and global development, primarily in countries in Asia and the Pacific, and based my PhD on research I undertook in Papua New Guinea.”

Which of the MDHS Faculty’s values speaks the most to you and why?

“Accountability. Naturally, you have to be accountable to the Australian taxpayer who funds most of the work we do. You also have to be accountable to the funding institution, the university and our family of researchers. But for me the people I feel most accountable to are the women I work with. If I’m talking to women who have experienced violence, they often share difficult, private stories of some of their most painful experiences. They put their trust in me to do something with that information to ultimately make change."

How are you embedding the MDHS Faculty values and standards into your own work?

“A key priority is for my research to be translated into government reports and policy briefings that are then used in the design of prevention and intervention services. In this way, women telling their difficult stories makes a tangible difference to people’s lives.

“I’m very aware of the strengths and capacities of people in all sorts of settings and what they can teach me. I might teach colleagues from the community about research methods and data analysis, but really it’s a two-way learning approach. The women I work with have far more expertise in their lives than researchers do, so you have to make sure you put their perspectives first.

“Accountability is also about being mindful of my privilege, and the power that comes from working for a big institution like the University. I work a lot with migrant and refugee communities, and I am not from a migrant or refugee background, so I listen far more than talk in order to develop genuine relationships of trust with the community organisations I work with and to maintain those relationships over time. I’ve made such good friends along the way, and have some great long-term partnerships, such as with the Multicultural Centre for Women’s Health.

“I also encourage my students to be aware of the responsibility and advantages that come with having a world-class education, and to think hard about how to really listen to the people that have the most at stake in the research they’re doing or the programs they are running. It’s important for them to know that they have the power to use the skills they’ve gained at university to make society a better place.”

As told to Emily Wrethman.