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Monday, 4 September 1989
Page: 922


Senator DUNN(10.57) —One in five men responding to a survey commissioned by the Office of the Status of Women condoned the use of violence by a man against his partner. `It's okay to slap the little woman about a bit' must rank among the most pervasive of Australian myths, along with that other myth that domestic violence is a private matter. The shield of privacy must be stripped away from the perpetrators of actions which, if they occurred outside the home, would be condemned as criminal behaviour.

The plight of any victim of domestic violence is great but for a woman of non-English speaking background married to an Australian it is appalling. A number of Filipino women, apparently perceived by some Australian men as compliant, acquiescent and subservient wife material, are brought to Australia as brides or fiances and find themselves in difficulties when their Australian husbands use violence against them.

These women are frequently isolated in society without family support: isolated by lack of language skills; by culture; by education; and occasionally by location in country or rural areas. However, many of these women are considerably better educated than their husbands and they speak English very well. Filipino-Australian marriages are likely to be as successful as marriages generally. They could well have a lower rate of breakdown, given that divorce or separation is not as acceptable to a Filipino woman because of her culture and religion.

When a marriage breakdown is precipitated by so-called domestic violence a Filipino woman experiences great personal and social trauma, especially if her Australian husband threatens her with divorce and deportation. The Philippine-Australian Council in Support of Filipino Women has raised a number of particular cases, two of which I will describe here. The first relates to a Filipino woman with a 15-month-old son, who has been in Australia for three years on a fiance visa. She is in a de facto relationship with the same man who nominated her and who refuses to marry her because he claims she cannot get along with his mother. He set the date for their wedding four times and four times he changed his mind. Every time she told him she would leave him, he told her he would have her deported. She is scared for herself and her baby's health because she cannot get a Medicare or health card from the Department of Social Security.

In the second case a Filipino woman in her early thirties was asked by her husband to leave him because he said that he would have more money as a single person on a pension-he is a handicapped person-than having a family to support, with a family pension. She left her husband after endless arguments and fights and went to live with a friend while waiting for her application for housing. In both cases the Council was able to help the women.

There have been many instances when Filipino women have returned to violent husbands because of these threats, because of their own isolation and because such husbands have had the protection of privacy. The same council-the Philippine-Australian Council in Support of Filipino Women-has identified some instances. In these cases two Filipino women with two children each were victims of domestic physical violence. Both left their homes with their children and were taken in at a women's refuge, but both went back to their husbands due to problems that they encountered in the refuge. In another case, a Filipino woman repeatedly abused by her husband left him to stay with a friend. She had to go back to him because of the lack of support from her friend, and also because she was afraid to live alone.

Few of these women avail themselves of services that may help and protect them. This could be because they are unaware that the services exist or because the husband has so isolated the woman socially that she is totally dependent on him. When a Filipino woman does approach the bureaucracy of our agencies and social services she often finds that the staff lack sensitivity to her own particular dilemma, not because they are unfeeling but because they have little or no appreciation of the utter dependency of these women on their husbands or of their difficulties with the language. Although they speak English and speak it well, many of them have difficulty understanding the Australian vernacular. It takes a woman of great resolve to make a break with what little security she has in her marriage and face almost inevitable deprivation, humiliation and possible deportation. I would like to outline the case of one such woman.

In August 1988 Willy Rohrbacher, aged 57, married Susana, aged 30, in the Catholic Church at Grafton. He had met his bride when she came to Australia to visit her sister, a friend of his adult daughter who is only four years younger than Susana. When Rohrbacher was introduced to Susana, and hearing that she was a registered midwife in the Philippines and therefore a professional and capable of earning money, he immediately bought an engagement and wedding ring and proposed on the spot. Susana was not on the bride market and was not prepared to grab what might have appeared to be an opportunity to set herself up in this country with house and husband. She put off the decision for three months.

After her marriage Susana became Rohrbacher's housekeeper, nurse and chauffeur since her husband was unable to drive. I believe she also tried to teach him English since he was not able to read or write English. She cleared land and mowed the lawns on his large block of land at Grafton while attending the technical and further education (TAFE) computer data processing advanced certificate course to prepare herself for employment. Her husband had made it clear to her that he expected to recover all the expenses that he had incurred since the wedding. Meanwhile he gave her sufficient money only to buy food. He then forced her to apply for a job as a cleaner at the Grafton Base Hospital, clearly a job that was considerably below her expectations and training.

A letter from Susana's godparents, Valma and Charles Burke, both justices of the peace, describes how Rohrbacher treated his newly wedded wife. In a letter to the Department of Immigration, Local Government and Ethnic Affairs they wrote:

She wasn't allowed to read her Bible which is very important to a catholic Filipina. He tried stopping her from going to church on Sunday mornings. Several times I-

that is, Valma Burke-

had rang her and he would be shouting and abusing her in the background while I spoke to her. He would not allow her to come to the Filipina gatherings as they will all come together once a month as a family group and have a barbecue and have a lovely day, singing and talking and playing with the children.

Early this year Rohrbacher started beating Susana, hitting her repeatedly on the head. He threatened that if she kept answering him back he would make her a cripple. In May she received a serious beating and sustained severe head injuries. She was admitted to the Grafton Base Hospital on this occasion, complaining of severe headache, dizziness, nausea and vomiting and later was transferred to the neurosurgical ward for examination and kept there for three days. Whilst she was in the hospital she decided not to return home but to go to the Grafton women's refuge. When he discovered this, Rohrbacher harassed her in front of other patients and on the phone. Although a restraining order had been granted on 17 May, he went to the TAFE college and verbally abused her in front of her fellow students in the class.

Although the application for the restraining order had in itself caused Susana much distress because of her views on marriage, she decided nonetheless to leave her husband. She left without money, she left without the right to be employed in order to keep herself, and she left knowing that her husband's threat to have her deported could be realised. In response Rohrbacher withdrew his sponsorship for Susana's application for resident status. Had Rohrbacher been able to batter her into being a subservient, socially inept and isolated wife he might not have withdrawn his sponsorship.

I was told of Susana's dreadful situation after visiting the women's refuge at Grafton several weeks ago. I informed the social workers of the Filipino community and welfare services of her plight and they subsequently assisted her in finding accommodation out of Grafton and out of the reach of her violent husband. She now waits in Sydney in hope of a favourable consideration of her application for resident status. She does not want to violate restrictions on obtaining paid employment and so has no way of supporting herself. In the meantime she lives on special benefits of about $120 per week and pays $60 a week to share accommodation with another woman. She still requires medical care for the effects of her injuries but has no Medicare card and no money to pay for medical treatment. She had to discontinue her studies when she left Grafton but she has already commenced another computer course. She told me this evening she was the top student in her midwifery course in the Philippines but now her memory has been very badly affected by the beatings she has received. I believe that if she were to be allowed to stay in Australia she would make a valuable and positive contribution to the community.

There are, however, for many women like Susana real difficulties if they contemplate returning to the Philippines. The Burkes describe the situation in the same letter to the immigration department. Filipinas will put up with more abuse and assault than Australian women to try to save the marriage and save face, as their marriage is very sacred. If this little Filipina is deported, she would rather end her life than go back to her country after getting married. She would be disgraced and would lose face and faith. She would rather die than go home and face her family disgraced. This is a well known fact. Please give her case very careful consideration as there are two sides to this story. Because of strong humanitarian and compassionate grounds, Susana should be allowed to stay.

The work of many women's refuges such as the well run, clean and happy place at Grafton is essential in providing women like Susana with the help she needs to get out of a marriage that has become a living nightmare. Had it not been for the assistance of Kay, Colette and Fay, Susana may have become discouraged by her prospects and returned to a life with Rohrbacher. As for Rohrbacher, he deserves to be not only charged with assault, as he has been, but also shamed publicly. He has not only abused a normal human relationship but also brutally assaulted someone who is particularly vulnerable as a newcomer to this country, someone who only months before he promised to cherish and care for. He deserves our condemnation. Perhaps he should seek therapy.

I would tonight also like to draw attention to the services considered necessary by the Philippine-Australian Council in Support of Filipino Women. The Council is calling for more information on employment, welfare, health, education, immigration, housing and legal aid. In particular, it recommends that more Filipino community centres should be set up to assist the settlement needs of Filipino immigrant women, particularly in areas where they are highly concentrated-Blacktown, Baulkham Hills, inner Sydney, Fairfield, Liverpool, central western Sydney, Canterbury-Bankstown, Wollongong and Newcastle. Furthermore, it is also calling for the employment of more Filipino community migrant workers who could give relevant information, support and settlement assistance in English as well as in the Filipino language.

The Council recommends that pamphlets and other materials relevant to immigrant assistance on employment, housing, health education, social security, et cetera, be translated into Filipino for the Filipino migrants. It recommends that there should be more Filipino interpreters. It recommends that there should be a more equitable process of overseas qualifications assessments for those Filipino migrants who have had eight to 10 years university training and several years of work experience and that appropriate bridging courses be offered to those whose qualifications do not meet the requirements for full recognition. It stresses the necessity for pre-departure counselling sessions in the Australian Embassy in the Philippines to cover the matters I have mentioned and for information seminars and sessions on cross-cultural values to be given and organised by specially trained officers of the Department of Immigration, Local Government and Ethnic Affairs for Australian men and Filipino immigrant women who intend to marry in order to encourage understanding of their cultural differences.

I commend the Government and the Office of the Status of Women for the national education program to reduce domestic violence, but let us go further. Let us not abandon the victims of this violence, particularly because, through no fault of their own, they have not yet become Australian citizens. At the same time, let us remove the protection that the convention of domestic privacy gives to wife bashers like Willy Rohrbacher. Domestic violence is criminal behaviour and criminal behaviour should never be condoned as a private domestic matter.