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Issue #1708      October 28, 2015

Nauru sexual assault

Statement Professor Louise Newman Professor of Women’s Mental Health –
University of Melbourne

The treatment of a 23-year-old pregnant rape survivor from Nauru (see Police aggression against pregnant refugee) highlights the profound lack of understanding of the psychological impact of rape and trauma. Blaming the victim – assuming that she is misusing the system to come to Australia and is not “genuine“ in her request for termination does nothing to help us understand her torment and respond in a compassionate way.

Rape is a significant psychological trauma. Pregnancy as a result of rape is always confusing for the woman who is often unclear about how to proceed and deeply troubled. We know that this young woman has been distressed and withdrawn, not eating and has been suicidal. She has been asking for termination since around 4 weeks into the pregnancy. She had not been responded to until around 14 weeks and the question of how to proceed became even more complicated. She is still distressed and has stated that she needs time to consider her options. She requests counselling and this has not been provided. Instead she is blamed for her indecision and seen as misusing a care system.

This response on the part of government sets women’s rights back 50 years to a time when rape victims were dismissed, denigrated and belittled with huge social and psychological consequences. To treat any woman in this way is wrong; this is magnified when we treat a vulnerable and powerless refugee with such contempt.

From a mental health perspective, this young woman is in urgent need of clinical assessment and care. She needs specialist sexual assault trauma counselling and time to consider her options.

The decision about whether to proceed with the pregnancy is hers alone and needs to be made with full support and awareness. Discourse of her medical details and private information in the media is inappropriate.

The risk of not providing mental health support is significant and she has already been despairing and suicidal about her situation. Blaming and shaming by government ministers is something we should never sanction. The prospect of becoming a parent on Nauru and the difficulties of parenting a child who is a product of rape is extremely high risk and should not be ignored for some perceived greater political need.

Compassion for rape survivors is a core Australian value. It has been hard fought for and needs to be protected. Respect for all women regardless of their visa status is a social responsibility and standing in opposition to any violence towards women is at the heart of this issues.

Next article – Police aggression against pregnant refugee

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