Understanding the sexual and reproductive health access of young im/migrant women: A community engagement project

April 13, 2021

This blog is authored by Stefanie Machado, a PhD candidate in the Faculty of Health Sciences and a participant of CERi's Community-Engaged Research Funding Program, and Elmira Tayyar, an MPH candidate in the FHS at SFU, and the Assistant Project Coordinator of IRIS.

As young im/migrant women, we work closely with the IRIS team to contribute to qualitative data collection, analysis, the development of recruitment materials, and knowledge translation and exchange.

The IRIS project is a longitudinal, community-based, mixed-method study that aims to better understand and develop approaches to improve im/migrants’ health access in BC. IRIS is built on partnerships with local im/migrant-serving community organizations (e.g., MOSAIC, PIRS, Sanctuary Health, Watari), an im/migrant advisory board, and a multicultural, multilingual and experiential research and interview team.

What we planned to do...

At the beginning of 2020, we developed a plan to consult young im/migrant women aged 15-30 in Metro Vancouver about their sexual and reproductive health (SRH) access. We tried our best to ensure a range in age, duration in Canada, im/migration status, and region of origin.

Supported by the IRIS interview team, we learned from and engaged with 12 women aged 18-26 through individual conversations and focus groups to understand issues that affected their SRH; gaps faced in seeking SRH services; and effective ways for engaging young im/migrant women in research.

Given that we developed our plan prior to COVID-19, we hoped that this would help us establish an advisory board of young im/migrant women within IRIS, not realizing how challenging this would be during a pandemic. 

What we actually did

Our plans evolved with COVID-19 and the various ways in which IRIS had to pivot during this time. We required additional time to engage with our community partners, use innovative virtual methods to build relationships with young im/migrant women, and actively work to earn their trust.

While we didn’t quite establish an advisory board, our community engagement project led to valuable relationships and knowledge exchange with several amazing young im/migrant women, with whom we are privileged to continue learning from as they support IRIS as community researchers and advisors.

This is a testament to the importance of intentional and respectful processes, where trust was built over time, relationships were developed and strengthened, and safe spaces were created to engage in meaningful conversations and work. In this way, we deepened our understanding of the SRH priorities of young im/migrant women, as well as ways to better engage in research with them.

What we learned

Logistically, seeing this project through during COVID-19 was incredibly challenging as we adapted to changes within IRIS, and required significant extra time and staffing support to ethically engage with young im/migrant women from diverse communities. The extension of the project and funds provided by the SFU CERi team was very helpful and important for us to be able to implement this work virtually and in ways that were meaningful. Given that this project was nested within IRIS, our diverse research and interview team also greatly supported our ability to consult women who spoke a variety of languages in ways that were respectful.

Our preliminary findings demonstrated that access to SRH services for young im/migrant women is often shaped by:

  • their unique migration journeys;
  • family dynamics and relationships;
  • critical life events, including unplanned pregnancies and early or arranged marriages;
  • sexual stigma, silence and secrecy within households and communities; and
  • the availability of im/migrant friendly, youth-specific services.

Women had valuable recommendations for research and policy, and expressed interest in engaging further in these areas. There was a strong preference for more engagement opportunities, including group-based discussions, language-specific videos, and participation in research. We are very excited to have already begun engaging in these initiatives with young im/migrant women within IRIS.

Ethical, respectful and community-engaged research requires a workflow that moves at the pace of trust. Often, as student researchers, we are encouraged to publish as many manuscripts as possible in a short amount of time. If we want to truly conduct research that is community-engaged and participatory, “moving quickly” is not an option.

Through this project, we learned that good research requires time to build relationships, trust, and rapport with communities that help ensure that the work is meaningful and useful to them. 

Next steps

Since the completion of this project, we have been working towards enhancing community engagement within IRIS to ensure the co-creation and verification of research; commitment to collaborative and equitable partnerships; and centering of community knowledge and experience.

We continue to engage young im/migrant women as advisors and community researchers in research conceptualization, data analyses, and innovative knowledge exchange and translation to ensure that their SRH needs and priorities are reflected in all stages of the research. This is important to address unequal power dynamics, build research literacy and capacity, address the need for youth-tailored approaches, and engage in work that aims to directly benefit im/migrant communities.

This project would not be possible without the young im/migrant women community. We are excited to continue working together and center them in this research.

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