Abyan and Najma

Note: This post is about sexual assault.  It will not be graphic, but it will probably be upsetting to read.  I’m finding it pretty upsetting to write.   I’m putting the whole thing behind a link, so that people can choose whether they want to read it.

Here are some things we know about the two Somali women who have recently alleged that they were raped on Nauru after seeking asylum in Australia.


Abyan (not her actual name) is 23.  She is also 14 weeks pregnant as a result of the alleged assault.  Nobody is arguing any of this.  She was brought to Australia earlier this week after a public outcry (whether as a result of the outcry or not is under dispute), in order to access abortion services, as abortion is not legal on Nauru.  Nobody is arguing about this part, either (except those who are anti-abortion, but that’s a bit of a different argument).  And as of yesterday evening, she was flown back to Nauru on a chartered flight, while her lawyers were in the process of seeking an injunction to allow her to stay in the country.  She did not receive an abortion or any other medical care while in Australia.  (The Department of Immigration says that she refused the abortion. Her lawyers say that she asked for counselling and medical advice before the procedure and was refused.  Abyan’s own statement on the matter can be found here. This part is definitely in dispute.)


Najma (also not her name) is 26.  She had been found to be a genuine refugee and was therefore settled on Nauru.  This is not in dispute.  She recorded her call to the police requesting help after the alleged rape (she feared her attackers would return).  The recording is on YouTube (and is very disturbing), and is not in dispute.  The case was closed without charges being laid against any attackers, however Najma’s name and details of the alleged assault were released to the media.  (The Nauruan government says there was no assault, and thus no victim, and anyway, they only gave the details to media sources who knew about it already.) The Nauruan government is considering charging her with making a false report.  A recent Senate Report into conditions on Nauru, in addition to detailing numerous instances of sexual harrassment and several of outright assault, found that of 50 cases referred to the Nauru police for investigation since 2012, charges had been laid in only five, and convictions recorded in 2.

Some other things we know

The cost of visas for journalists visiting Nauru was raised last year from $200 to $8000.  This amount is not refundable if the visa is rejected. As of last Friday, visas are not being issued to journalists, and journalists have been barred from reporting from the country.

The offices of Save the Children were raided by police last week.  Save the Children are on Nauru to assist asylum seekers, and many of their workers were deported last year following claims by Scott Morrison that they had encouraged asylum seekers to fabricate stories of abuse.  These claims were found to be unsubstantiated.

Thanks to the Border Protection Act, people working in detention centres face two years in jail for revealing anything about what happens in Australia’s immigration detention centres.

Amnesty International has requested permission to visit the detention centres on Nauru three times since April 2014Permission has been refused.

In short, it seems that whatever is going on on Nauru, we are not permitted to know much of anything at all.  Both the Nauru and the Australian governments are pretty strongly invested in preventing us from finding out exactly what is happening on Nauru.  And they are, apparently, particularly strongly invested in preventing people from reporting abuse. A fear of Amnesty International is not generally the sign of a system that is treating its people well, and it’s hard to read the publicisation of Najma’s name and the threat to charge her with false reporting as anything other than a warning to other women in Nauru who might be thinking of reporting their assaults – be quiet, or you will be punished.

Things we don’t know

Whether either of these women have received counselling or other support on Nauru.  Whether their alleged attackers have access to them on Nauru.  Whether the police on Nauru performed a full investigation, or just assumed Najma was making things up.  Whether it really did take them four hours to arrive after she called for help.  Whether Najma consented to the examination that found no medical evidence of assault.  Whether the examination even happened.  Whether Abyan really wants an abortion.  Whether Abyan would have been flown to Australia if there hadn’t been all those petitions.  Whether the fact that she was flown to Australia is an implicit admission that the Government thinks she was, in fact, raped.  Whether they have caught the alleged perpetrators.  Whether they have looked for them.

And, as many, many commenters on many, many websites hasten to add, we also don’t know whether the assaults actually happened.

Here’s the thing.  I know quite a bit about sexual assault and how it can affect people, both from working as a telephone counsellor on a crisis line, and, unfortunately, from my own experience and the experience of far too many of my friends.  I know exactly how difficult this can be to talk about even to someone who is sympathetic.  I am intimately familiar with the way one’s mind tries to protect one from the event, hiding memories, or only releasing them in bits.  (This does not make for coherent storytelling, as you might imagine.)  I’ve also seen the social consequences for reporting such an assault, or even talking about it to the wrong person.  They are enough to make me lose my faith in humanity.  So I can’t be objective when reading these women’s stories, nor do I want to be.  If someone tells me they have been assaulted, I will believe them unless the evidence to the contrary is extremely compelling.  And in this case?  I have no hesitation in believing every word Najma and Abyan have said.

Immigration Minister Peter Dutton thinks he knows otherwise.  He says that the whole thing is a “racket”. “The racket that’s been going on here is that people, at the margins, come to Australia from Nauru [for medical care], the government’s then injuncted, we can’t send them back to Nauru and there are over 200 people in that category.”

Setting aside for the time being the interesting idea that every time someone comes to Australia for medical care from Nauru the government gets injuncted (and why do you think that might be, Mr Dutton?), there is a very strong smell of ‘women lie about rape in order to get what they want’ in that statement.

The argument runs like this.  These women are not trustworthy.  They are not reliable.  I mean, Abyan demanded to come to Australia for an abortion, and then when she got here, she changed her mind (or rather, requested counselling and an interpreter before proceeding).  And  as for Najma, not only was there no physical evidence of the rape, she also didn’t want to go back to the place where it happened.

How illogical.

How inconsistent.

Obviously, we can’t believe a word these women say.  After all, trauma never affects one’s memory or mental health.  It’s certainly not possible that a woman who had been traumatised would find it difficult to revisit the scene, even with support (I wonder if any support was offered).  Nobody is ever ambivalent about abortion, especially after rape. And everyone knows that a lack of physical evidence is proof that no rape occurred.

Peter Dutton, who is a senior member of a government which has just told us that it is serious about violence against women, would have us believe that women and children are making false claims of sexual assault to get out and get to Australia where they can… be locked up somewhere else, probably?  (Would that really be an improvement?  And if it is, doesn’t that suggest that we should be improving conditions on Nauru so that the difference isn’t so massive?)  And yes, I know he hasn’t said that directly, but it is pretty clearly what was meant.

I find this incredibly upsetting.  It also makes me very angry.

Why are we so eager to assume that women lie about rape?  I’m guessing that in this case, it’s because Dutton and his colleagues actually do have a vestigial conscience and it’s much easier to tell yourself that Abyan and Najma are lying to gain some advantage than to recognise that the policies you supported have led directly to their assaults.  I imagine this is made easier again by the fact that Dutton et al are unlikely ever to meet Abyan or Najma.  They are not going to directly see the effects their policies have on people, and they have done their level best to ensure that they won’t have to know about them indirectly, either, by allowing asylum seekers to be locked up where only people our government approves can have access to them.  And then they can also tell themselves, well, we don’t have jurisdiction in Nauru, and wash their hands of the whole business.

Look, I have no doubt that these women want to get off Nauru.  But, setting aside the fact that it sounds to me like they have horrifyingly good reasons for this, why on earth would anyone imagine they would choose this method? Why would they think this would work when attempting suicide does not?

(Did they believe we really meant it when we talked about respecting women?)

I’m not buying it.  Like it or not, women still tend to feel shamed by rape, even in our culture.  And in cultures such as Somalia, where Abyan and Najma are from, the situation is even worse, with women being blamed, imprisoned and punished for their own rapes.  This is a situation that both Abyan and Najma are already intimately familiar with – why would they risk it again?  And even in more egalitarian societies, if you report a rape, there is always the risk that nobody will be charged, that the case will fail, and that your attacker will be left at large, knowing that you have reported him.  This is a dangerous situation to be in – and indeed, Najma alluded to this concern as the reason she wanted her name kept quiet.  I find it hard to believe that this would considered a risk worth taking.

I believe Najma’s and Abyan’s accounts of what happened.  Of course I do.  As I’ve said, I tend to start from the assumption that women are not lying about sexual assault.  But even if I did not, consider the evidence.

On the one side, we have two women who are pretty clearly traumatised, whose health has demonstrably deteriorated, who are claiming to have been assaulted, in an environment where assault has been shown to be common. No, they have not been 100% consistent in their reactions to their assault – but then again, they’ve been through a traumatic situation and still have reason to feel unsafe.  I’d be more surprised if they had been utterly calm and logical.

On the other side, we have the Australian and the Nauruan governments.  The Nauruan government is very much invested in not losing face, particularly in the light of recent claims that the rule of law has collapsed.  The police on Nauru have a history of failing to prosecute sexual assaults of asylum seekers.  The Australian government is very much invested in keeping asylum seekers out of sight and out of mind, and just resorted to the expensive measure of chartering an RAAF plane to avoid being legally accountable.  Both governments have demonstrated a commitment to secrecy and an avoidance of transparency.

If asylum seekers are being well-treated, if Nauru is safe, if the police on Nauru are doing their jobs, then why aren’t we being allowed to see this?

Conversely, if asylum seekers are being abused, if Nauru is unsafe, if our own aid workers are being told not to roam Nauru alone, and the police in Nauru are uncaring of asylum seekers’ safety, why are we settling people there?

And if we are sending women back to the place where they have been assaulted, with no protection from their assailants and the threat of being punished by the legal system for reporting the assault, how can we live with ourselves?


Honestly, it’s hard to know what to do about this, because it feels to me as though the government just isn’t listening.  But here are a few  things to think about.

The Uniting Church has a petition to close the Nauru Detention Centre and bring everyone to Australia (since it appears that opening up the Detention Centre on Nauru has actually made things more dangerous for asylum seekers there).

VIC/TAS Uniting for Refugees is encouraging people to call Malcolm Turnbull’s Parliament House office on Monday (02) 6277 7700; email him malcolm.turnbull.mp@aph.gov.au or tweet him @TurnbullMalcolm to express your concern over his treatment of Abyan and attitude towards women as evidenced by this horrific issue!

GetUp has a petition to bring Abyan back for treatment.

The Refugee Action Collective is holding a protest on Monday at 4:30pm outside the Department of Immigration and Citizenship in Melbourne (2 Lonsdale Street), with the purpose of bringing back Abyan, and bringing all pregnant asylum seeker women to Australian hospitals to give birth.  Infant mortality on Nauru is eight times higher than it is in Australia.

If money is something you have to give, consider donating to the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, Doctors for Refugees, Save the Children, or Amnesty International.

And, just to end on a more cheerful note, a couple of articles about the Melbourne doctors who are refusing to discharge patients back into detention.  There are good people in Australia.  We’re allowed to take some time to celebrate them.

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