I have rarely seen such a retweeted story in my timeline as Guardian Australia’s story about the secret repatriation to Nauru of the asylum seeker known as ‘Abyan’. This Somali refugee is pregnant, allegedly as a consequence of rape on Nauru. She begged to be brought to Australia for a termination and in the face of a widespread campaign, the Australian government did bring her here.
According to her lawyer, George Newhouse, she sought counselling before consenting to any medical treatment. Guardian Australia reports that in doing so, the Australian government took her failure to consent immediately as a refusal of treatment. While her lawyers were bringing an application for an injunction before the Federal Court, the Australian government chartered a flight and flew Abyan back to Nauru.
Abortion is illegal in Nauru.
This is not a story of the Australian government’s victory against deaths at sea. Nor is it a story about a ‘“racket” among refugees and asylum seekers on Nauru seeking to come to Australia for medical care’. This is a story about institutionalised violence against women and the responsibility of all citizens to act to stop it. It is a story about the hollow ring of ‘gender equality’ where violence against women is left to flourish.
According to press reports, Abyan’s background is one of violence, including sexual violence, in Somalia. Having escaped this peril, she submitted her body to another type of institutionalised violence whereby she was held in detention at the pleasure of the Australian government.
Despite the Australian government’s mantra of care and welfare, Abyan’s body was again ravaged by the endemic violence in and around the detention regime on Nauru. This woman was put in a position of having to beg for medical support for the resulting pregnancy. Meanwhile, perpetuating the violence against this woman, the authorities released her identity and details so that all, including her attacker, would know of her plight.
When Abyan was eventually brought to Australia for care, no care was forthcoming. In refusing to afford this woman the suite of health services usually attendant upon a victim of rape and a pregnant woman, Abyan’s autonomy and dignity was stripped from her. In disallowing her to make an informed choice about her reproductive health, her body again became subjected to an unadulterated exercise of state power.
For too many women, pregnancy is a period associated with suffering, humiliations, ill-health, and even death.
This latter violence against Abyan can usefully be considered in terms of obstetric violence. In removing her autonomy to make considered and informed decisions about her reproductive health, her body has yet again absorbed the institutionalised violence that is integral to the government’s (and opposition’s) high moral ground of saving lives at sea.
The chair of Transfield Group, Diane Smith-Gander, has recently called activists to account for their opposition to Transfield’s role in running detention centres – ie delivering ‘essential services’. Transfield takes a ‘welfare-led approach’ in conducting its business, and even has its own statement of commitment to human rights.
“When I was there, the strongest emotion I had was a real sense of pride in the work that the company and the individual Transfield employees are doing,” she says.
Ms Smith-Gander, a known advocate for women, has also recently said that men will need to step aside from positions of power on company boards, before gender parity will be achieved. In an interview with Linda Mottram, Ms Smith-Gander was asked whether there was a place for her to be an activist on behalf of the women in detention. Her response was that she would ‘never step into that space, it is too charged’. Her view is that she needs to stick within her scope as chair of ‘an organisation delivering a welfare-led approach’ to service delivery.
In a timely interview, Nancy Fraser points out that
feminism is not simply a matter of getting a smattering of individual women into positions of power and privilege within existing social hierarchies. It is rather about overcoming those hierarchies.
Whether feminist or simply an advocate for women, there seems little point in populating the boards of the nation with women if we fail to advocate for the vulnerable, and we leave in place the structures of oppression over women’s very bodies.
Despite the limitations of being a private sector contractor in a multi-government arrangement, Ms Smith-Gander has significantly more power than most to impress upon government its role in violence against women. A full commitment to ‘welfare’ and to human rights demands that each of us acts to overcome those structures of oppression. Even the chair of a global listed company.