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Time To End Violence Against All Women
30 / 11 / 2015
By Isabelle Lane
In a year when violence against women was recognised by federal and state politicians as a “disgrace” and a“national emergency”, we talk to organisations that aid women on both sides of the fence: from a Melbourne based safe house, to behind the barbed wire of detention centres.
“There is no doubt that there would be an outcry if Australians knew what had happened to these women. There would be an outcry. But how do we let them know?”
Pamela Curr is the campaign coordinator at the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, and knows better than most the plight that faces vulnerable women when they reach the bleak shores of Nauru, Manus or Christmas Island. She works on the frontline, advocating for and assisting women such as “Abyan”, the 23-year-old Somali refugee whose case hit headlines after she was raped on Nauru, then spirited to, and away, from Australia by the government.
Curr details the varying forms of violence women experience on Nauru, from the “low level sexual harassment going on all the time” in the camps, to the women whose stories are “so intense” they have been allowed into the community, yet are “at risk at having their houses invaded by drunken locals who sometimes rape them”.
“There’ve been some extraordinary decisions made about the treatment of people on Nauru. For instance: why did allow male local men who were ill-trained to freely patrol the single women’s camp? They were in the camps at night, and as a woman told me ‘You cannot lock a tent. You are not safe,”‘Curr says.
The bitter irony for these women is that it is very often the reality of gender based violence that pushed them to flee, to step aboard a boat and make the uncertain journey to seek refuge in Australia. Some, like Abyan, are Somali and have been undergone brutal Female Genital Mutilation procedures in their home country. Others are Iranian and have told stories such as being placed into forced marriages by fathers and brothers. “While their stories are different from the Somalis, they’re still stories of gender violence. They’ve only fled because they’re going to be killed,” Curr says. “These women have been subjected to gender violence that we in Australia cannot even imagine.”
So why, in 2015, when Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull condemned violence against women as “one of the great shames of Australia…a national disgrace” are these vulnerable women being subjected to yet more trauma by the Australian government?
For Pamela Curr, one answer is that it is all too easy for Australians to “ignore the pain and harm suffered by small groups, while we luxuriate in the freedom and safety of the majority.”
“Violence against women is unacceptable. It is violence against all women,” Curr says. “There are a lot of women asking Prime Minister Turnbull ‘Why is it different for Australian women? Why are we demanding that they be protected when we are not standing up for the refugee women on Nauru?’”
Curr also believes that media blackouts, and government attempts to stifle the release of information about the abuse of women in detention centres are largely to blame for the Australian community’s inaction.
“I’ve seen intense efforts by our government and our opposition to hide this shameful abuse of women,” Curr says. “We’ve spoken to politicians and senators. I have sent photographs to every MP and senator of women who have been attacked on Nauru. There is indisputable proof that this is happening.”
“The immigration department is extraordinarily punitive. The women cannot tell their story for risk of the consequences. The media are not allowed into detention centres to sit down and talk to women, or onto Nauru. No woman wants to publicly tell the story about the worst thing that ever happened to her. Why are these women any different? Why should they have to say publicly the most terrible things that have happened?”
Indeed, the sense of shame and silence that gender based violence inflicts upon women seems to transcend cultures and borders.
When I spoke to Jocelyn Bignold, CEO of McAuley Community Services for Women, Victoria’s only 24/7 safe house, there were no women who felt up to detailing their stories of abuse to a reporter.
“Even women who are ‘out the other side’ are still often reluctant to speak,” Bignold says.
Despite this, more and more women are starting to come forward to report instances of family violence. In 2013-14, there were 65,393 family incidents reported to Victoria Police, a rise of 83 per cent since 2009-10. Family violence occupies a third of all police work. In Victoria this year, we’ve seen the historic Royal Commission into Family Violence, due to deliver its findings in early 2016.
“Family violence is a national emergency. It’s our number one law and order issue and it can happen to anyone,” Prime Minister of Victoria Daniel Andrews declared earlier this year.
Indeed, the statistics are chilling. Family violence is the leading cause of death and disability in Victorian women under 45. Every week in Australia, a woman is killed by her current or former partner.
At McAuley, it’s impossible to keep up with the ever-increasing demand for safe housing without funding to match.
“Our crisis service is always full. The support dollars are not keeping up,” Bignold says. “We can access housing – but not funds to support the tenants. We’re limited in our ability to respond to the need. We need the support. We’ve seen the numbers increase in the community. We feel the impact. When we go to court only a third of the women needing support are getting support.”
Despite the constant funding pressures, life must go on, and McAuley does its best to provide women and their children with some Christmas cheer.
“We see children with very conflicted feelings – they’re excited about Christmas but they’re also worried. They want to be safe, and they want their mothers be safe,” Bignold says. “The women are grateful but often conflicted. In many instances, if they have slightly older kids they won’t come with them [to McAuley] – so the whole ideal of Christmas and family is gone or lost.”
Christmas is often a dangerous rather than joyous time for women at threat of family violence. High tension among family members often leads to a spike in reports of family violence in following days. McAuley offers protection for many, and one woman spoke anonymously about her experience during the holiday season.
“I think it was the chance to be involved with women who were experiencing the same roller coaster emotions that got me through Christmas,” she said. “It is never an easy time anyway but just knowing people were there I could talk to made a difference.”
Indeed, it appears that something as seemingly simple as the ability to speak out about experiences and be understood, listened to, and believed, that could make all the difference for survivors of gender based violence, both in our communities and in our detention centres.
“It is natural for all of us to not want to have publicly known the most abusive and horrible things that have happened to us,” the ASRC’s Pamela Curr reflects. “In a way that makes people like Rosie Batty so heroic. She could have gone away into a corner and nursed her pain, she didn’t. She stood up and said ‘this must never happen again’.
If you wish to assist McAuley CSW or the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre in their work, you can make donations via their websites:
Isabelle Lane is a Melbourne-based journalist. You can follow her on Twitter @isabellelane