Female New Zealand Parliamentarians Stage A Walk-Out Over Comments About Rape

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This is an important story which needs to be shared more in the media. This is an example of what it looks like when politicians with a conscience stand up for those who have no voice in society, risking the scourge and disdain of present leadership. The topic at hand? How victims of sexual assault and rape are continually silenced in public spaces in favor or maintaining “order”.

Here’s a little context for the situation. There is currently a controversial immigration crisis happening in Australia, where refugees and asylum seekers are being held on certain islands just off the mainland, such as Nauru, McManus Island and Christmas Island. The major concern from opposition members is that these locations have gone from what was supposed to be a temporary holding place to a permanent detention center riddled with human rights abuses for people seeking a better life.

Aside from the ongoing reports of child abuse, sexual assault and other crimes that are seemingly being overlooked and ignored by the Australian government, a new law called the Border Force act was introduced mid-2015 which placed a gag order on the doctors who came to treat the refugees. The new law stated that if a doctor did not report what he or she saw through the proper channels (meaning through the government who had a chance to cover it up, as opposed to reporting human rights violations directly to the media) they could face up to 2 years in jail.

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Many doctors collectively raised their voices against this egregious law by stating they were willing to go to jail because they do not believe the Australian government is acting in the best interests of the people. Recently, a Somalian refugee became pregnant due to rape and requested a termination of the pregnancy which required her to be flown to the mainland. In the end she was denied the procedure and flown back to Nauru. There have been numerous reports of pregnant women not being given adequate treatment which have prompted numerous protests and outcries from Australian citizens to close down the camps. As a result of these reports coming from Australia, the country now faces a backlash from the United Nations whose members are holding the country accountable for many human rights violations, taking this issue up a new notches on the international stage.

Aside from refugees and asylum seekers, there are also a number of New Zealand detainees. The Australian government introduced a retroactive law requiring the deportation of overseas citizens convicted of crimes carrying a custodial sentence of more than a year, which means some New Zealand nationals who have lived in Australia for a few years are now having to appeal impending deportations.

This became a heated topic of conversation in a parliamentary session early November where Prime Minister John Key and members of the opposing Labour and Greens parties did not see eye to eye about how to deal with the situation of their constituents facing deportation from Australia.

Many NZ politicians believe the bulk of the people facing deportations are not rapists, gang members or violent offenders, as the NZ immigration minister Scott Morrison told the press, but in fact they are petty criminals (traffic offenses and shoplifting) and are having their visas cancelled. But Prime Minister John Key was not willing to listen to reason, and accused opposition leaders of being on wrong side when it came to dealing with what to do with these people after they were deported.

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“Some of the [detainees] are rapists, some of them are child molesters, and some of them are murderers. These are the people that the Labour party are saying are more important to support than New Zealanders who deserve protecting when they come back here. If you want to put yourself on the side of sex offenders, go ahead my son, but we’ll defend New Zealanders,” said PM John Key in a heated statement. He is not wrong to want to protect people from dangerous criminals, but it is his callous and insensitive approach to the topic that got many female MPs pissed.

Nearly three quarters of Labour and Greens members walked out after his brash comments, which took place on Tuesday November 10. On Wednesday when Parliament resumed, a large group of women decided to use their time at the podium to stand up against the PM’s comments, pointing out how insensitive they were not only toward NZ detainees who shouldn’t fear being deported for petty crimes, but also to sexual assault victims.

One by one, as they approached the microphone, they recounted their own personal stories of sexual assault and rape, before having the mic turned off by Speaker David Carter who then dismissed them from the house for being out of order. The motivation for them speaking up about their experiences was to force an apology from the Prime Minister, who never rescinded his statements.

“As the victim of a sexual assault, I take personal offense at the prime minister’s comments, and ask that you require him to withdraw and apologize,” said Green party co-leader Metiria Turei.

She was followed by Green MP Catherine Delahunty, Labour’s Nanaia Mahuta, Clare Curran and Megan Woods, Green MP Marama Davidson, Green MP Marama Davidson, and MP Poto Williams. They were also joined by 4 male MPs who stood in solidarity with the women demanding the Prime Minister apologize for his comments. The speaker of the house accused the women of “flouting the rules” by using their time to talk about sexual assault and said it was “too late” for John Key to apologize.

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“We’ve walked out because every woman in this country needs to know that women parliamentarians will not put up with this. We will not stand by and allow this to be bandied around parliament – this kind of abuse of people and way of approaching rape is simply unacceptable, and the prime minister has to be held to account,” said Catherine Delahunty of their motivation to “flout” the rules in order to educate certain politicians about this issue.

It was the deliberate attempt to silence a group of women from speaking out about something that is often overlooked or treated with carelessness by legislators and the media alike. What’s even more startling is that some of the women who stood up and spoke out had never even admitted their assault or rape to anyone before publicly announcing it to the nation, and subsequently the world.

“He said I supported the act of rape and rapists. That’s how it felt. And other victims would have heard those words directed to them too,” said Poto Williams to the New Zealand Herald on the reason she chose to raise her voice. The Labour MP says she was in an abusive relationship for 5 years in her early 20s.

“There’s a point at which you have to disclose some details to genuinely represent the people who sent us here,” said Green Party co-leader Metiria Turei who believes John Key trivialized rape for political gain. She was once assaulted in the back of a taxi by a stranger but never reported it to the police out of fear of not being believed.

MP Catherine Delahunty said she was abused by an older man when she was 15. By the time she built up the confidence to take action, her abuser had died.

The women said their treatment in Parliament yesterday reflected the treatment of abuse victims in New Zealand, which is why their protest and subsequent ejection from Parliament is most significant. There is still a lack of understanding and empathy toward the victims of rape and sexual assault which has become more and more evident over the past few years in certain high profile cases.

By now we’re all familiar with the story of ex NFL player Ray Rice who was caught on CCTV physically assaulting his wife in an elevator, but when she chooses to stand by his side there was a lot of talk about why she didn’t “just leave”. While that may be the narrative from that particular story, there are many other women who do choose to leave and who do find the courage to speak up, but who are accused of making up a story or telling lies.

It took over 30 women, the majority of whom do not know each other, for the public and the judicial system to believe a celebrity like Bill Cosby was capable of sexual assault and rape. But sadly, there are many who would still like to say that these women are out for money, fame, you name it. Would the case even have gone to court if it was just one woman? Would the world even care?

These opposing reactions prove we still have a long way to go in understanding the deep and complex problems that arise when a sexual assault happens. Every case is different, and it hurts the victims when the media or social commenters decide what the dominant narrative should be.

We need to evolve as a society and become comfortable with hearing sexual assault and rape victims share their experiences. We need to not be so quick to find ways to silence them with opinions, judgements and shame. The courage the New Zealand female politicians displayed shows we still have a long way to go, but also how important it is there are men and women not afraid to raise their voices. Let’s be a culture that applauds and encourages understanding, not silence.

Watch the incident from New Zealand parliament below:

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