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Multicultural swimming program breaking down barriers for women

Aish Ravi looks at a program from Life Saving Victoria designed to encourage and support women from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds to learn to swim.

On Tuesday evenings, after school lessons when it’s relatively quiet, Zara and her friends gather at the local pool in south-east Melbourne to receive swim lessons and swim in their own lane for an hour. For most women, this is the highlight of their week.

Swimming is a great Australian past time. Which is why local councils around Victoria in conjunction with Life Saving Victoria (LSV) are piloting the established migrant program for migrants who have been living in Australia for 10 years or more and haven’t had the chance to learn to swim. Participants learn basic survival skills, how to identify risks on and around water as well as encouraging them to continue swimming beyond the program. The program has brought plenty of joy for young Muslim women in Victoria, who have relished the opportunity to learn a new skill. 

“Given we’re surrounded by beautiful beaches, there’s an urge to learn to swim,” said Layla who also occasionally does swimming lessons on a Tuesday evening. 

The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that almost 236,000 people lost their lives to drowning in 2019. Just over 50% of these deaths occurred among those aged under 30 years, and drowning is the sixth leading cause of death worldwide for children aged 5-14 years.

Many Australians have access to coastal beaches and/or inland bodies of water (including swimming pools) for recreational and sporting activities. Swimming is a popular leisure, fitness and sporting activity.

Increasing water safety and reducing drowning related injuries and deaths are priorities for Australian governments at all levels. In 2020-21 there were 968 drowning incidents (294 fatal; 674 non-fatal) in Australian waterways. 

“We are proud to fund this important program, which helps give some of our most at-risk communities the opportunity to learn valuable water safety skills in a safe and supportive environment,” said LSV project coordinator diversity and inclusion Ramzi Hussaini.

“According to Life Saving Victoria’s data, in the 10 years to 2021-22, people from culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) backgrounds represented 35 per cent of drowning deaths, making them twice as likely to drown as people born in Australia.”

Swimming provides a number of benefits beyond the obvious. Image: supplied.

Swimming also has been proven to improve sleeping patterns in people and improve their overall wellbeing. The mental health benefits are also obvious, the confidence one gains from a skill as well as the positive energy that comes from the serenity of being in the pool and exercise. However multicultural groups face challenges to access facilities and programs.

“Inaccessible swimming lessons are a major challenge for us,” said Zara. “I was only able to make this possible because one of us was connected to someone from LSV”

“Most participants including myself were unable to find similar swimming programs in our local swimming pool centre but have to drive further away to access this program.”

These women have faced a number of barriers to swimming apart from accessibility. 

One of the most important barriers is finding culturally appropriate swim wear.

“Given the cultural elements, participants are finding it difficult to find modest and culturally appropriate swimwear,” said Zara. 

Very few swimwear manufactures cater to making modest and culturally appropriate swim wear. Finding an appropriate time to swim is also challenging. Participants described feeling uncomfortable in swimming pools and unable to use all facilities at the pool when surrounded by mixed genders.

“It is difficult to swim, particularly when the pool is crowded by men it is a problem.”

“For us, some of the participants wanted to access sauna/spa at the pools, but [are] unable to access it because it’s filled mostly with men.”

Clubs like Brighton Lifesaving Club are successfully running programs for women from CALD backgrounds. Image: Supplied.

Other obstacles include lesson programs only being made available in certain seasons, for example the current program is only made available in winter. In addition, women only sessions being made available at certain times that are often inconvenient, like women only session on Saturday nights only when participants would much prefer weekdays.

As well as the opportunity to learn to swim through the LSV program, participants will have the opportunity to enhance their skills to potentially become future lifeguards one day. 

Considering the shortages of lifeguards across most swimming pools, and beaches and the fact more women from multicultural communities will want to learn going forward, having the more talented swimmers become lifeguards is a bonus from the program. 

Clubs like Brighton Lifesaving Club have taken the initiative to welcome people of CALD backgrounds into their club. Brighton have seen an increase in women from multicultural backgrounds participate in their programs. Chenayde Reid, the club’s director of member development says the CALD lifesaving program has been incredibly successful.

“Our programs cater to diverse multicultural communities. We are invested in educating and encouraging more people of diverse backgrounds to take up swimming and become a part of our lifesaving community.”

The feedback from the women getting lessons has been positive as expected. 

“It boosted my confidence being in the water, whereas previously I’ve always been afraid of being in water even if it’s not deep,” said Layla. 

“Programs like this are quite encouraging as it provides a platform to connect with other participants who are in a similar boat as you.”

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