Honour killings, forced marriages, genital mutilation – we read of multiple crimes against women around the world but… it doesn’t happen in Australia, does it?
The world is no longer compartmentalised as it once was – people migrate, taking their native cultures with them and introducing both brilliant new ideas and, unfortunately, some very ugly customs.
Australians who thought they didn’t need to be concerned by “third world problems” would have been shaken earlier this year when a group of western Sydney residents were charged with soliciting and performing acts of genital mutilation. There was also a report that a family in Newcastle had married off their 12-year-old daughter to a 26-year-old – and left her to set up home with him in Sydney.
The problem of introduced customs and the danger of abuse of women’s rights has even been recognised by the Federal Government. Canberra recently proposed a new program to crack down on domestic and family crime and sexual assault, focusing on migrant populations. The Second Action Plan, costing $100 million, will coordinate state and federal action to ensure that offenders cannot escape court sanctions.
“The Second Action Plan is about improving what we already do in terms of prevention, action and support. It contains practical actions that are critical to improve women’s safety,” Mr Abbott said.
So what are the potential – and existing – problems Australia needs to counter? The following internationally recognised categories of abuse are sadly familiar to many new Australians, some of who migrated specifically to escape them.
Whether for religious or related cultural reasons, some people in the Indian sub-continent and in the Islamic world believe a woman who sins against their standards of morality should face severe punishment, ranging from floggings to being stoned to death. Even victims of rape may be seen as tainted and deserving of punishment.
Another related category is the practise of suttee (spousal suicide), found primarily in India. The practice involves a widow choosing to be cremated alongside the body of her husband. In some cases women have been forced by their families to burn beside their dead husbands to avoid them becoming a burden on other family members or to prevent remarriage.
According to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, 869 so-called ‘”honour killings” were reported in the media last year, but the true figure may be higher due to cases going unreported.
There is no record of documented honour killings in Australia among migrant communities but they have occurred in the United Kingdom and Europe among Pakistani and other migrant families as recently as 2011.
But awareness of such killings is wide, thanks to sometimes sensationalised news coverage. There was public outrage when it was announced an Islamic scholar, Uthman Badar, was to present a speech titled Honour killings are morally justified at Sydney’s Festival of Dangerous Ideas. A media frenzy forced organisers of the event to cancel Mr Badar’s appearance.
The director of Australia’s Immigrant Women’s Health Service Dr Eman Sharobeem said her service regularly connects with migrants to advise them about Australian law and human rights regarding honour killings.
Female genital mutilation (FGM)
This is the practice in which parts of female genitalia are removed in accordance with traditional culture among some Islamic tribes and nations.
It is widely practiced across north Africa from Senegal, Gambia and Guinea through Chad and Mali to Somalia, Sudan, Djibouti and Egypt. It also occurs in the Middle East, notably in Yemen.
Non-medical practitioners, such as traditional circumcisers, typically perform the procedure. The majority of countries practising FGM have prohibited it but the laws are inadequately forced.
FGM can cause infections, infertility and childbirth complications, and there are 140 million females worldwide living with the consequences today.
Even though the practice has been damned as “a violation of a girl’s rights to health, well-being and self-determination” by deputy executive director of UNICEF Geeta Rao Gupta and other leading international and national figures, FGM continues and has even occurred in Australia.
Three members of the Dawoodi Bohra Muslim Community – a Shi’a Muslim priest, a mother and a retired nurse – were charged in NSW in 2012 with female genital mutilation. Two girls aged six and seven were circumcised in a Sydney home by the accused. The nurse and mother have not yet given any statements on the charge or provided the court with evidence in their defence. Sheikh Shabbir Vaziri faces charges of hindering a police investigation and acting as an accessory after the fact.
The NSW Minister for Women Pru Goward said Australian law was tough enough to address the crime. But, she added, “We need to change attitudes and culture, that’s a much slower process than changing the law.”
FGM has become more common in Australia and among Australians overseas. It is a criminal offence in Australia under state and territory laws.
NSW Minister for Citizenship and Communities Victor Dominello said, “We want everyone in NSW to understand, regardless of cultural background or language, FGM is a serious crime in our state and there will be no excuses for anyone who performs or facilitates the procedure.”
Australian leaders of many ethnic, religious and cultural communities have united to take a stand against FGM and firmly believe educating people about the practice will make a difference.
Australia and other first world countries have strong laws to protect women from sexual assault. But in many developing countries law enforcement is weak and corruption can result in a failure to prosecute acts of assault on women.
India has been in the spotlight recently both for the number and the vicious nature of rapes perpetrated in parts of the country. The attacks have been seen by some as a consequence of a failure in rural areas to recognise women’s rights and an attempt by traditionalist male-dominated communities to enforce subservience from women.
In one widely reported incident two cousins, aged 14 and 15, were raped and hanged by a gang of five men, including two police officers, in northern India at the end of May. A few days later a 20-year old woman was raped and force-fed acid before she was strangled. Another woman was allegedly gang-raped by four police officers in Uttar Pradesh. More recently, a teacher from a school in southern India was arrested in relation to the rape of a six-year-old girl. The school head has also been charged with hindering the investigation.
According to government statistics, a rape occurs every 22 minutes in India, a country with a population of 1.2 billion. Laws punishing rape were strengthened last year after a notorious case of gang-rape on a Delhi bus, but the deterrent effect seems minimal.
In 2009 an Amnesty International report said, “it’s a scandal that violence against women is allowed, excused and overlooked.”
Attitude to women does play a role. In 2000 a gang of 14 youths were charged with a series of rapes in western Sydney. During their trial one of the ringleaders blamed the women he raped for agreeing to go with him, saying “they came out with us as soon as I asked them”.
This is the custom or act when the parents or an older relative of a girl force her to marry a suitor of their choice.
The NSW assistant Minister for Women Michaelia Cash said, “forced marriages and underage marriages are not tolerated in Australia, the same applies to the abhorrent practice of Female Genital Mutilation.”
Australia was outraged earlier this year when it was revealed a Muslim priest had been charged with marrying a 12-year-old girl to a 26-year-old man. Forced marriages are illegal in Australia. Arranged marriages are legal only if both parties are of legal age and have given consent. This is a common practice between certain communities.
In Vietnam, the brother of a 16-year-old girl sold her to a Chinese family as a bride after he tricked his sister by telling her that he was taking her to a tourist party. The Hmong teenager was held captive for almost a month before she managed to escape and seek help from police who helped her return to Vietnam.
“My brother is no longer a human being in my eyes,” the teenager told London’s Guardian newspaper at a shelter for trafficking victims in the Vietnamese border town of Lao Cai.
The NGO Working Group on Women, Peace and Security has called upon the Security Council, Member States and the United Nations to step up in the protection and treatment of women.
This is the practice of a mother killing her child within a year after birth. In some societies it is the practice of killing unwanted – primarily female – children.
In China, girls are more likely to be subjected to infanticide because of the government’s one-child population control policy. Statistics show infanticide rates in rural areas are three times higher than urban areas, where boy children are considered more useful for future economic security.
In many developing countries boys are valued more than girls. Financially, girls are less likely to help support their families and upon marriage some societies require their parents pay a dowry in addition to paying for the wedding. Many families kill or abandon their daughters after birth.
In India, Western studies have suggested the female population is 39 million lower than it should be because of infanticide and gender selective abortions.
The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan reported that at least 56 women were killed solely for giving birth to a girl in 2013.
There are many ways in which women are mistreated or enjoy fewer rights than men in some foreign cultures. We frequently read about such cases in the foreign news pages but increasingly, as Australian migration from the developing world increases, elements of those abuses and the customs that disadvantage women are being seen in Australia. (It should be noted that, so far, there are no reports of gender specific infanticide in Australia.)
It is against this background that the Government’s proposed Second Action Plan must be viewed.
The plan includes 15 projects that have been funded by the Commonwealth Department of Health “aimed at raising awareness, increasing training for health professionals, and building the evidence and research base on female genital mutilation in Australia”. The department said that working with affected communities and providing support and education “is essential to achieving change from within and ending the practice of female genital mutilation”.
The Second Action Plan is part of a 12-year strategy to prevent violence against women. It calls for sharing of information between the state, territories and the Commonwealth in pursuit national standards. – Ra’Eesah Lillah
Top photo from Hani Amir’s Flickr photostream.