The Women Whose Voices Have No Hope Of Being Heard

"The Australian Government refuses to see the women and girls on its very doorstep – the women against whom it has chosen to discriminate, and whose rights it has systematically violated."

It’s 2018 and women’s voices are still ridiculed, disregarded, dismissed and put down. But there’s no doubting that our voices are out there, loud and clear and they are increasingly more difficult to ignore.

We want to be safe when we’re walking home. We want to excel in our chosen fields. We want women’s health problems to be taken seriously. We want the right to choose what happens with our bodies.

Our voices are out there and this is a good thing. But not all women’s voices are heard.

Imagine that you have had no control over your life for the past five years. You are told where to live, what’s best for your children, when to go to the doctor. And still now after all this time, you can’t pursue a career, a class, or even an exercise routine. You don’t know when, if at all, you will ever be able to leave.

You will spend your time cooped up in your small house or tent, scared to leave the illusion of safety your walls provide. You are given pills that may or may not have been prescribed for you to address your profound state of hopelessness. You believe that the doctors are sharing details of your declining state of health with the government, and blindly hope they are telling the truth.

The people I work with don’t have to imagine any of this. For five years they’ve been trapped on a dangerous island smaller than the size of Melbourne airport.

Yes, I’m talking about the women that the Australian Government keeps detained in its ‘open air’ refugee camp on Nauru.

Canberra, June 29, 2005. An emotional Alieya Rahmati arrived in Canberra from the detention centre in Nauru, where she and her family had been held since 2001.  They were granted temporary humanitarian visas to enable them to stay in Australia. (Image: AAP Image/Alan Porritt)

Over the years, they have experienced various forms of sexual harassment and assault, and even sexual violence – including by male guards tasked with providing ‘security’.

They complain, but no one listens. Action is rarely taken against the attackers. They report feeling ashamed that they have agreed to expose their body to just to be able to take a shower, obtain goods or provide for their family.

The Human Rights Law Centre represents a number of women who have been arbitrarily detained on Nauru, including some who have been transferred to Australia due to the severe inadequacy of medical care.

This week, Australia is being reviewed by the UN Committee on the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against all Women (CEDAW). It will be Australia’s first review in eight years, and the first since offshore detention commenced in 2013.

UN authorities have repeatedly found that Australia’s refugee policies flagrantly violate international human rights law. Our Government’s treatment of the 300 women and girls who have been detained on Nauru over the past five years is also in clear violation of its international obligations to protect women from gender-based violence, to provide adequate access to health care, and to provide legal protection for the rights of women on an equal basis with men.

For all its platitudes before the CEDAW Committee, the Australian Government refuses to see the women and girls on its very doorstep – the women against whom it has chosen to discriminate, and whose rights it has systematically violated.

Some of our clients are girls that should be in school, who see absolutely no future for themselves or their family. Some were born in the camps even despite the inadequacies of gynaecological care and facilities in Nauru’s only accessible hospital. Other clients worry they’ll never have a child.

One told me that when she fled her country, she was in her early twenties. She’d had a harrowing start to life, but she was hopeful. Now, she’s nearly thirty and feels more alone and helpless than ever. Year after year, every day, she does nothing but age. She doesn’t know if she’ll ever have a family, a career, a normal life. ‘But I can’t go anywhere,’ she cries softly into the phone. ‘I’m a real refugee, Really, I had to leave. Now, I have nowhere to go’.

Refugees on Nauru Island stage a protest on Sunday, March 1, 2015. Nauru's president has accused Australian refugee advocates of stirring up trouble. (Image: AAP Image/ Refugee Action Coalition)

What should have been some of the best years of her life were cruelly stolen from her.

For other women, it’s too hard to bear the thought of giving life in the dangerous, claustrophobic, futureless limbo. A place where everyone around you is ridden by mental illness and despair. It’s no place for a baby. Abortion is illegal. Your fate is entirely in the hands of the government as to what happens next.

It is possible that after weeks of delays and legal battles, the government will transfer women seeking termination procedures to Australia for treatment. However, more recently, women have been threatened with being transferred to Taiwan, all alone -- a country where they are completely unfamiliar with the language and don’t know a soul -- to have one of the most personal and difficult procedures a woman can go through.

This development is yet another example of gendered cruelty: attempting to control and oppress women even in their darkest moments.

Protesters place candles outside the gates of a refugee detention centre during a candlelight vigil as protesters stand in solidarity with refugees in detention in Melbourne on February 26, 2016.  (Image: Asanka Brendon Ratnayake/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

As we continue here in Australia to fight for our rights to be free from violence, fear and discrimination, we need to make sure we also use our voice to bring the refugee women from Nauru with us. Women deserve equality - and that means all women, regardless of where they come from or how they came here.

We all want to walk down the street without being attacked, to have control over our lives, and to be treated equally. It’s time to demand that our Government starts to ensure that each and every one of these women can live their lives safely and freely.

Freya Dinshaw is a Senior Lawyer with the Human Rights Law Centre.