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entrepreneur Filomena Carvalho

by Radha Nayar | March 11, 2003

Congratulations to Filomena Carvalho, winner of the $10,000 Marion Powell Award for 2003! In making her destiny, she helped other women make theirs.

The award recognizes an individual who has demonstrated leadership, commitment and dedication to the advocacy in women's health over his or her career. The award is named for Dr. Marion Powell, a woman committed to women who fought for access to birth control and sex education for 50 years.

Filomena donated the $10,000 she won towards a new mobile health clinic unit which, if the remaining $280,000 is raised, will visit factories where many immigrant women work. With all her advocacy on behalf of the centre and this generous gift, Filomena has really put her money where her mouth is!

Filomena walked into the Immigrant Women’s Health Centre in Toronto, Ontario, on a snowy day in 1982. She felt scared and wondered if she should just turn around and go home. She had started a new job there three months earlier as the Portuguese Sexual Health Counsellor, and was still reeling from everything she was learning. She knew that applying for the job had been the right thing to do – she felt it in her soul.

She had asked the collective that organized the Immigrant Women’s Health Centre if she could start a sexual health support group for women in the Portuguese community, and had been given the go-ahead. She had wanted to do it because so many of the women had similar concerns and fears. Why not get them all together to chat? She wasn’t sure if it was a good idea, but she wanted to try. Maybe they would hate it and feel shy. But five women had agreed to come to at least one meeting to see what it was all about. If it was a flop, at least she could say she had tried something new. She could never have known that she was about to start on an incredible journey of discovering who she is as an immigrant woman, a women who has fundamental human rights and could support other women to realize their rights as well.

It was time to start the group. She sat down with the women. Everyone seemed nervous. They wouldn’t look at each other. Some of the women looked older, others as young as early 20s. All looked a little scared.

Filomena took a deep breath. This was a new thing to be doing in her community. Had she made a horrible mistake? There was no turning back, so she began.

“Why don’t we start by talking about who we are?” she said. “Maybe our stories of coming to Canada? Does anyone want to start?”

Nobody did, so she went first. She talked about coming from a village, about her parents deciding to leave Portugal so her brothers would not have to do mandatory army service. She talked about her parents getting jobs in factories in Toronto. She talked about going to school and experiencing racism. She talked about how she used to feel like a sexual object. Everyone called her “exotic” and she never knew if it was a compliment or not.

Slowly, the other women started to talk. And talk and talk and talk! The stories were soon coming out faster than Filomena could remember them. Everyone was animated. They nodded their heads, or smiled, or laughed, or sat still if someone shared something painful. Stories of first days in Canada, of having a child, of the first time they fell in love in this country, of the first time they realized that they were being discriminated against here. Stories about being new to this bizarre, cold place.

A woman told her story:

We came here with two children and very little money. The Portuguese community was so helpful and kind. But still, I had to find a job, I had to feed my kids. I was trained as a nurse in Brazil, but couldn’t find any job. Finally, I got work cleaning hotel rooms. And my husband, he got a job driving a truck throughout Ontario. He was hardly home at all, but we managed.

About a month ago, I started to have some terrible things happening to me in my private place. I had itching and a terrible discharge. It hurt a lot. I tried to go to a walk-in clinic, but I didn’t understand what they told me. The doctor spoke really fast, and didn't answer my questions. I didn’t want the medicine he gave me. Why would I take something when I don’t even understand what it is? I was telling my friend about it and she told me to come here to the Immigrant Women’s Health Centre. But I'm still scared about it. What’s wrong with me? And is my husband okay? I don’t even know what to tell him.

Another young woman started to cry.

I didn’t want to have sex without a condom. I was scared to say no, though, because I asked my boyfriend to wait for so long. When the time finally came that I was ready, I didn’t want to put it off again. So I said okay, if just for one time only. Now I’m pregnant and I haven’t heard from him since I told him. I’m scared and don’t know what to do.

As the women told their stories, Filomena’s life work slowly came into view. This was what she was meant to do! This was where she was meant to be! Supporting women like herself to become strong in their health, empowered in who they are and what they need! She wanted to support women to ask the tough questions and get answers! Questions around dealing with relationships, being empowered in using birth control, talking to doctors without feeling intimidated.

She looked into the faces of the women before her.

We can do this together, my sisters. We can make a new life for ourselves, one where we are strong, where we get what we deserve, where we live our lives to the fullest. We can be the makers of our destiny, and it is going to happen starting here, starting now. Just by sharing our stories with each other, we are becoming stronger! And now that we have shared our stories, we can explore them and come up with ideas to help each other and ourselves. Together, we are stronger than if we are alone.

The women looked at each other, full of hope and excitement. They were glad they had come to the group after all. Things could change for them, in ways they hadn't expected. Filomena took a deep breath and said, “Flaviola, let’s start with your story. Let’s put our heads together and come up with some solutions.”

To contact the Immigrant Women’s Health Centre (489 College Street, Suite 200, Toronto, ON M6G 1A5), e-mail iwhc@canada.com, or call (416) 323-9986.

This feature was first published on section15.ca's predecessor site CoolWomen.

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