Why do women in detention choose not to report rape?

In Nauru in particular, there can be little faith in the criminal justice system. Not to mention devastating backlash.

In Nauru in particular, there can be little faith in the criminal justice system. Not to mention devastating backlash.

Abyan did not report her rape to police in Nauru. That news comes via The Australian's associate editor, Chris Kenny, who is the first foreign journalist in 18 months to be allowed a visa to visit the island nation.

And this young Somali woman, who is three months pregnant and desperate for an abortion, is one of millions of other survivors of rape the world over who never report their rape.

I only wish that the fact that women don't report rape really was newsworthy – but the fact is, women don't report rape. Not in Nauru, not in Australia. Not in Japan, not in the US. That much is clear.

Nazanin, an Iranian asylum seeker who was allegedly raped on Nauru in May.

Nazanin, an Iranian asylum seeker who was allegedly raped on Nauru in May.

As Kathleen Daly and Brigitte Bouhours say in their 2009 research across Australia, Canada, England, Wales, Scotland and the United States looking at data from 1970 to 2005, victimisation surveys show just 14 per cent of sexual violence victims report the offence to the police. Of these, 30 per cent proceed past the police to prosecution, 20 per cent are adjudicated in court, 12.5 per cent are convicted of any sexual offence, and 6.5 percent, of the original offence charged.


And that's in countries where we have legal systems which follow process. That's in countries where there is at least some degree of recognition that rape is not the fault of the victim.

Is the fact that someone has not reported a rape meant to imply that the rape never happened? Experts in the field say no.

Picture of letter signed by "Abyan", the Somali refugee who was sent back to Nauru.

Picture of letter signed by "Abyan", the Somali refugee who was sent back to Nauru. Photo: Supplied

Why don't women try to call their abusers to account?

Ellie Freedman, the medical director of the Northern Sydney Sexual Assault Service, says there are so many reasons: shame, secrecy, fear and lack of confidence in the police.

Freedman, with decades of experience in the field of sexual assault, says: "The majority of women don't report to police; and the reasons have to do with shame about what happened. That leads to secrecy."

But the lack of reporting is not just about their own sense of self – it also has to do with fear, fear that the assailant will threaten their reputation, or fear that the assailant will continue their violence against them.

"And they don't believe the police can do anything or the police can't protect them from further assault.

"They think there is no purpose in reporting, the criminal justice system won't support them," she says. "That is our experience of why women won't report."

Refugees and asylum seekers are generally fearful of authority, says Jane Vanderstoel, the chief executive officer of the Western Region Centre Against Sexual Assault. She has had decades of experience with sexual assault victims as a counsellor and has dealt with a number of refugees and asylum seekers in her work in Melbourne's west.

She says: "Their experience with authority has been traumatic . . . asylum seekers are very vulnerable people and the cumulative impact of trauma is that it can be difficult to respond.

"It increases that shut-down trauma response," says Vanderstoel.

There is also the increased cultural pressure to pretend the rape never happened, "Hiding it means they can still be seen as respectable women."

So, more reasons for women not to report, especially those who are refugees.

Last week, the Nauruan government released a statement, defending its decision to send a police report of a rape allegation with the name of the victim to media outlets. The Nauruan justice minister David Adeang said: "The police investigation has shown there was no rape therefore as far as we are concerned the person in question is not a rape victim or a victim of any crime . . . the woman concerned may face charges of making a false complaint."

What hope is there when women report a rape know they will be shamed and then are threatened with punishment if the justice system can't secure justice?

A spokesperson for Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young says that as far as he can determine, there have been no convictions relating to sexual assaults on asylum seekers in Nauru. Not one.

In Nauru in particular, there can be little faith in the criminal justice system.

Those who have worked on Nauru say that since the collapse of the rule of law, there has been no process. They say the executive interferes with justice at many levels. It took ten months to make new appointments to the bench and it is understood that those who have now been appointed are subject to short-term contracts and constant performance reviews.

One source believes that anyone involved with the criminal justice system would have reasonable apprehension that they would not get a fair trial. And there are three significant court cases where legal representatives cannot get visas to represent their clients on Nauru; and that includes a case where 1500 detainees are alleging crimes against humanity, including rape and torture.

Senate estimates heard this week that there have been multiple sexual assaults on Nauru, involving both asylum seekers and processed refugees. Immigration spokeswoman Cheryl-Anne Moy told Senate estimates that there were nine reported sexual assaults of adults in immigration detention on Nauru and outside the centre, 10 reports of sexual assault against processed refugees between May 2014 and September 2015.

I rang Chris Kenny on Nauru on Tuesday after reading social media reports that he had forced his way into Abyan's home. He says that did not happen, that she chose to speak to him. He also said that Abyan is a grown woman and is capable of speaking for herself; he also said she was not very well.

"I don't care what anyone says on Twitter, I found her, knocked on her door and she invited me into her house," he says. When he visited Abyan again on Tuesday, he arrived at the same time as a number of Nauruan police.

Kenny's report in The Australian on Tuesday said the Nauruan police have closed the case on the rape of Abyan.

And here is the strange thing – if Abyan never reported the rape, how on earth did police have a case to close?

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