In touch with … Helen McLaren

We spend a moment with Dr Helen McLaren, who tackles global issues concerning the protection of women and children at risk of abuse, exploitation, oppression and disadvantage – with her work footprint stretching across two nations.

What is your role and what does your work focus on?

As a social work researcher, my work is rooted in challenging power and consequences of social, cultural, administrative and political environments over time, space and bodies. I’m located in the College of Education, Psychology and Social Work, but I’m also a Professorial Fellow with the Centre for Decentralization and Participatory Development Research, Universitas Padjadjaran, Indonesia.

My transdisciplinary approach when focussing on women’s and children’s protection stretches across gender studies, sociology and social anthropology, as well as politics. I focus on global issues, gender relations, culture and the customary practices of people, and religion. I also look into some of the seedier aspects of everyday life – poverty, oppression, disadvantage, inequity – and their manifestations both locally and globally in gender-based violence, intimate partner abuse, child trafficking and more.

I’m lucky to collaborate across Australia and Internationally with really strong women who share my passion of advocating for positive change, to affect the lives of populations living at the margins of society. Together, we engage participatory, emancipatory research methods to explore the quality of life outcomes for survivors of domestic violence, socio-economic protection of women and children in poverty, empowerment of women with intellectual disability, impact of disaster (including bushfire, drought and climate change) on women and their communities, women’s leadership, and also Mosque-based interventions with women and families in Muslim minority communities.

I am an International Advisory Member of the Asian-African Association for Women, Gender and Sexuality, Editorial Board member for journals in Australia and Indonesia, and affiliated with many research groups – CASPR Climate Change and Social Policy Research Group, Centre for Decentralization and Participatory Development Research, Universitas Padjadjaran, Orama Institute for Mental Health and Wellbeing, Open Door Veteran Transition Integration Wellbeing and Social Work Innovation Research Living Space. So, yes, my workload is busy!

What journey brought you to this point in your career?

I’ve had a varied employment history in economics, criminal justice, human services and health, prior to academia. However, the turning point in my journey must acknowledge the opportunities provided by my colleagues at Universitas Padjadjaran in Bandung, West Java, Indonesia. We met by chance in 2015, then I spent a sabbatical in Indonesia during 2016, and continue to grow our collaborative interests in global issues affecting the protection of women and children.

My work now extends to countries across four continents, on issues of gender and sexuality, human rights, policy and program development, activism and women’s leadership. I’ve been lucky that a few grants from the Indonesia-Australia Institute have enabled me to keep working with my colleagues, across geographical borders. With current funding, I’m in the middle of planning an international roundtable discussion on the future of sustainable development goals with academic and public sector colleagues in Indonesia.

Can you describe a challenge in your life and how you dealt with it?

My life has not been without challenges, having come to Australia as a migrant child with two parents and three siblings – culturally and linguistically diverse, and from a non-English speaking background. We were rootless and very different to other families where we lived. After only a few years, my father lost his job and it was financially tough. The oppression and disadvantage they experienced made it hard to support me and my siblings; since they were older, they had to work. I was pretty much abandoned and did not successfully complete high school. Despite the hurdles, I learnt early that it doesn’t matter who or what knocks you down, you gotta just keep getting back up and push back against social injustices and structural disadvantage.

What does a normal day look like for you?

My alarm blares at 7am, but I’m usually awake long before. I roll out of bed and mutter ‘coffee’ before heading to the kitchen to prepare a serving of Nasi Campur or Sundanese Liwet. COVID-19 meant no overseas travel, so I needed to make my own street food. At the other end of a day, it’s also quite normal – but not always nice – to wake in the middle of the night for international project collaboration meetings.

What is something you are most proud of?

I’m really proud of my PhD students, the vast majority who are students from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds. All have come to come to Australia in pursuit of something better or different in their lives. There are language and cultural barriers to hurdle, different methods in which to approach learning, different conceptual thinking about daily life, strengths and weaknesses in research capacity. When they start, they are learning three-fold. However, they do it and succeed – often better than domestic students who start with English proficiency and cultural familiarity.

How do you like to relax or spend your spare time?

People tell me that I never relax. I like my research and, luckily, it has allowed me to mix research with socialising, travelling (ugh!) and to dine with people from all over the world. I love cooking different foods that originate from everywhere, and any food culture involving sharing, eating, laughing and enjoying the company of friends.

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