Cultural shawl project increasing breast screening in Aboriginal women wins VicHealth award

VAHS site director Susan Hedges uses a cultural shawl at a screening with BreastScreen Victoria radiographer Monique Warrillow.

A cultural shawl project designed to reduce the barriers Aboriginal women face in breast screening has won a prestigious award for ‘Improving Health Equity’ at the VicHealth Awards which celebrate achievements in health promotion.    

BreastScreen Victoria in partnership with Victorian Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (VACCHO) and Victorian Aboriginal Health Service, worked with the Aboriginal community to understand why fewer women were accessing free, life-saving breast screening compared to the Victorian average.

The shawl project aimed to improve Aboriginal women’s experience of breast screening and ensure they felt more comfortable, respected and culturally safe by using screening shawls featuring local artists’ work, that was unique to each community. BreastScreen Victoria staff also received cultural safety training to support their understanding of Aboriginal women. 

The shawls were trialled at St Vincent’s BreastScreen in 2018 and Aboriginal women reported positive experiences and pride in undergoing breast screening. One client said of the shawl: “Felt good. Made me proud of who I am. Visible.”

Since then, the shawls have been used state-wide as part of BreastScreen Victoria’s Mobile Screening Service (van) which has visited seven Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisations sites in October and November 2019:

  • Dhauwurd Wurrung Elderly and Community Health Service PORTLAND
  • Winda-Mara Aboriginal Corporation HEYWOOD
  • Gunditjmara Aboriginal Cooperative WARRNAMBOOL
  • Kirrae Health Services PURNIM
  • Ramahyuck District Aboriginal Corporation SALE
  • Ramahyuck District Aboriginal Corporation MORWELL 
  • Wathaurong Aboriginal Co-Operative GEELONG, and
  • Rumbalara Aboriginal Co-operative SHEPPARTON

The van screened 160 Aboriginal women, with 82 per cent of them agreeing that the shawl made them feel culturally safe. Each Aboriginal woman who screened received a shawl to keep.

The screening shawls, developed at each site, have detailed artwork designed and made by Aboriginal artists, including respected Wiradjuri and Yorta Yorta artist Lynette Briggs who was inspired by the stories of women and their personal journeys shared in yarning circles.

BreastScreen Victoria, VACCHO and Victorian Aboriginal Health Service would like to acknowledge all partners in this project: Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisations, Department of Health and Human Services, Deakin University, Cancer Council Victoria, and St Vincent’s Hospital BreastScreen clinic, Western Health.

 BreastScreen Victoria CEO Vicki Pridmore said:

“We’re so honoured to have worked closely with Aboriginal health organisations and the Aboriginal community to make breast screening a culturally inclusive and positive experience. It’s important that screenings are accessible and welcoming because they can save lives.

“The VicHealth Awards are the state's highest accolade for health promotion. I am very proud that this collaborative project has been recognised, and congratulate everyone involved.”

 VACCHO Manager of public health and research Susan Forrester said:

“This initiative is a culmination of 18 months’ hard work and planning resulting in a highly successful, strengths-based, community-led project that we hope to expand across Victoria.”

 Victorian Aboriginal Health Service (VAHS) site manager Susan Hedges said:

“This has been a great partnership project, and we really want to acknowledge everyone who made it a success particularly the artist Lyn Briggs.

 “Since the launch of the shawl at our service, there has been an increase in participation to breast screening and also awareness of breast health from our Indigenous women. It’s made women feel comfortable and secure while screening.

 “VAHS will continue to produce the shawl for clients, not only can it be used for breast screening, but it has other uses for breast feeding and cervical screening tests.”