The 25th of November was the ‘International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women’, known more commonly in Australia as ‘White Ribbon Day’. Having just recently announced his shiny new $100 million ‘women’s safety package', this event provided the perfect opportunity for Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and his government to once again appeal to the hearts of Australians everywhere to do everything in their power to put an end to violence against women. Numerous politicians joined our PM in support of his new cause through heartfelt tweets, meaningful status updates and by sharing images of white ribbons. In his official address at the launch of White Ribbon Day, Turnbull claimed that this is a cause he has been passionate about his whole life. Perhaps this is true, or perhaps this campaign is simply the government’s attempt to distance themselves from that other, less charming, old white guy that once headed the party and had a knack for blurting out overtly sexist drivel (remember the ironing board thing? lol). The truth? We may never know. Either way, we have to admit it’s something right? While any attempt to shine light on the issue of violence against women can hardly be viewed as negative, there is one glaringly obvious omission in the government’s apparent commitment to the cause.
On the 25th of November, Malcolm Turnbull made a heartfelt speech to parliament stating “Violence against women and children must stop.” During the time it took to plan and make that speech, and for much longer before and after it, hundreds of women and children under the care of the Australian Immigration department remain imprisoned in offshore detention centres that render them extremely vulnerable to the threat of violence. It would appear that when it comes to violence against women, the Australian government says “Well it depends on the woman”.
This ‘oversight’ by the Turnbull government has not slipped under the radar. At the announcement of Turnbull’s $100 million women’s safety package, leading activist in the campaign against domestic violence and Australian of the Year, Rosie Batty, took to the podium to humbly thank the Prime Minister for his generous contribution and support. A week later, Batty released an open letter to the PM in which she urged him to treat Manus and Nauru detainees as he would Australian women. She said “Those of us who care about violence against women, children and other vulnerable people at home, need to care about what happens to those same people elsewhere who are under our care.” She urged the Prime Minister to shut down offshore detention, stating “the Australian government funds the offshore detention centres on Nauru and Manus Island. The centres are, by their very design, unsafe and dangerous places” (#burn). The Prime Minister took the low road and didn’t acknowledge the letter at all. Instead, he chose to continually insist it’s his life’s mission to end violence against woman, proving that he is still able to delude himself and his government into thinking they are all good people with or without support of that treacherous Rosie Batty.
Mums 4 Refugees is a badass organisation that actively petitions for the rights of refugees and aims to change the attitude of the Australian people towards refugees, all while rearing tiny humans (as I said, badass.) Earlier this year the organisation released a video entitled “Our War on Women,” which aims to draw attention to the specific dangers facing women in offshore detention and calls upon Malcolm Turnbull to close the Nauru Detention Centre. When asked directly about the dangers and risks that face women in detention, spokesperson for the organisation Tara Crisp responded with this statement:
“It is widely recognised that there is a greater risk, and greater incidence, of abuse in detention and detention-like conditions. The power imbalance between guards and those being held often manifests in manipulation, threats, coercion and physical and psychological abuse. This is heightened where there is secrecy surrounding a facility. If there is a feeling that complaints won’t be taken seriously or may result in retaliation (as has been reported in relation to Nauru), it disempowers those who are abused and prevents them from speaking out to seek protection. Women and children are most vulnerable to such abuse. Refugee women should be entitled to the same expectations of safety and protection that we expect for ourselves.”
Crisp also stressed that the violence these women and children are facing is not purely physical but also psychological, sighting the recent case of ‘Abyan’, an asylum seeker who was raped on Nauru and eventually, due to public pressure, offered medical treatment but was refused access to her family to help with her recovery. These harsh and dangerous conditions are forced upon hundreds of women by a government that claims to believe “Violence against women is one of our nation’s greatest shames.”
Crisp suggested that the government is also partly responsible for the general apathy of Australian society when it comes to the issue of refugee safety, stating, “The Australian government perpetuates myths about asylum seekers that create division. They do this both through language, using terms such as ‘illegals’, ‘queue-jumpers’ etc and by suggesting that the majority of asylum seekers arriving by boat are not in fact refugees (which is not the case) and should be feared as their motives are not pure. This in turn leads people to believe it’s okay to treat asylum seekers with contempt and keep them in situations where they are subject to potential abuse. It dehumanises them”
At the end of the day, regardless of public opinion, the government has a legal obligation to protect people seeking asylum in this country, as they have been repeatedly reminded by the United Nations. Secretary General Ban-Ki Moon once again appealed to Malcolm Turnbull to reconsider “Operation Sovereign Borders”, expressing direct concern over conditions in Australia’s offshore processing centers. The issue is not about how we, the public, ‘feel’, whether it’s empathy for refugees or fear for our own national security; our emotions are not relevant. It’s about doing what is lawful and what is right. Safety is not something a woman earns by being Australian born. The right to safety is a basic human right. Politicians like Malcolm Turnbull cannot claim to be seeking to end “violence against women” while funding institutions such as the Nauru Detention Centre where allegations of rape and sexual assault are constant, and continually ignored, not to mention the violence that is not being reported out of fear and shame. Malcolm Turnbull himself put it perfectly in his address at the launch of ‘White Ribbon Day’, by saying “Violence and abuse against women and children in any form is totally unacceptable.” That’s right, Turnbull, “in any form”. It’s time the government stopped hiding behind their ‘white ribbons’ and actually did they have the power to do: prevent violence against refugee women and children by shutting down offshore processing centres.