It came unexpectedly, this war on women. In 2012 we began to hear of unaccompanied women arriving on boats. This was previously the mode of transport for men, boys and families only. It seemed that women and girls in danger were waking to the possibilities of flight.
In some cases fathers too had sent their daughters away from the demands of mullahs and the threats of kidnappers. They all came from countries where the oppression of women is rife.
As the boats poured on to Christmas Island during 2013, temporary camps were set up with inadequate toilets and shelter. At first the war against women was waged in small ways: diminishing the women to the status of mendicants begging for rationed clothing, one pair of knickers each and sanitary items handed out piece by piece. These conditions were a warning of what was to come.
Two days before the federal election, a call came through from an immigration staffer on Christmas Island with words to the effect of: “I have done what I have been told until now but this is too much, I cannot do this.”
She explained that they were told to separate the 50 pregnant women in the camp from their children and families. The women would be flown to Darwin where they would stay for the duration of their pregnancies. For some, this would be almost a full term. A call to the then-minister’s office saw a reversal of this decision but the war wasn’t called off.
While controversy raged about sending unaccompanied teenagers to Nauru, nothing was said about the transfer of approximately 80 unaccompanied women and girls to Nauru. Few knew about their existence at this time because “on water matters” extended secrecy to land, too.
The women languished without interviews or information about their future for months, until they could stand it no longer. They painted their sheets and hung these as banners on the fence, stood in silence or chanted their distress, day after day.
Conditions in the camps placed women at risk both day and night. After dark, male security guards roamed; by day the showers and toilets were regulated by guards sitting a metre from the flimsy curtain which was their only privacy.
As we know from consecutive inquiries, and now disclosures from women who were transferred to Australia, some were raped and most had to contend with daily sexual assaults.
“When I sit at the computer the guard comes and touches my breasts, if I speak, he closes computer.” As another woman reminded me: you can’t lock a tent. The contractors did nothing, although they saw and heard what was happening, because of the need to keep the Nauru community onside. Eventually the women’s claims were processed and they were released.
Outside in the Nauru community the situation for women grew worse. They were allocated housing by Nauru and Australian governments. Then Connect – a consortium of the Multicultural Development Association (MDA) in Queensland and Adult Multicultural Education Services (Ames) in Victoria – was contracted to provide caseworkers to oversee any difficulties. The young single women were placed in isolated housing without security.
Late at night drunken locals knock down their doors with flimsy locks and invade their rooms. The women barricade themselves in the bathrooms and ring Connect for help: “I miscall her – I had no credit. She rang and said that she will ring me tomorrow. It was 3am. No help.”
There is an 18-seater minibus to take people around the island but there are now 400 refugees in the community. The girls tell me that the Nauruan driver will not pick them up. This leaves them to walk home in the heat with shopping in one hand and in the other a big stick, to ward off the wild dogs who attack.
They are easy pickings for local men who bar the road, grab the women and drag them off into the bush. Some women make police statements about the attacks. Others keep quiet, fearing reprisal in a place where as Geoffrey Eames QC reported in the Senate Inquiry this year, “No Nauruan has been investigated or charged for an asault against a non-Nauruan”.
The minister for immigration, Peter Dutton, and his shadow, Richard Marles, show little concern for the lack of protection and safety for refugee women condemned by Australian policy to live in Nauru.
So it is with the latest case: a Somali woman who was raped and who will likely be brought to Australia to have her pregnancy terminated. “If they can’t receive medical assistance on Nauru or Manus, then we will look at what options are available to them, including coming to Australia,” Dutton said on Friday.
“But I have been very clear also about the fact that people aren’t going to settle in Australia if they have sought to come by boat.”
In the face of a growing condemnation of sexual and physical violence against women in Australia and calls for respect for all women we are left to ask why refugee women in Nauru do not deserve the same. They too should have the right to live without violence. When will the war on women cease?