Moving overseas to study can be fraught with obstacles: navigating a new language, deciphering a strange culture, forging support systems thousands of kilometres away from friends and family.
But for Nisha Sharma* the experience was more difficult than most. When Sharma, 29, relocated to Melbourne from Nepal in 2013 to study at the Australian Catholic University, she bypassed student housing to live in the family home of a Nepalese friend Raj* she knew from back home. She didn’t anticipate how this trust would be misplaced.
Within a few months of arriving in Australia, Nisha was sexually and physically assaulted by Raj.
“When you come to a new country and have people you know there, you would expect them to support you and [make you] feel safe,” Sharma tells SBS.
“I was living with someone I knew from Nepal. I trusted him and when I came here, I thought he would treat me like a sister. This person used to yell at me all the time and I felt like I wasn’t allowed to express my opinions. There was violence. I’d only been in Australia for a couple of months before he started abusing me. He took advantage of my innocence and my vulnerability. [If you] share a story of sexual assault, you feel like you are going to be judged by people. Not being in your own country makes a big difference.”
The University of NSW Human Rights Clinic report 'No Place Like Home' published on Tuesday found a lack of student housing and a tight rental market made international students more vulnerable to landlord abuse. The Red Zone Report, produced earlier this year by End Rape on Campus Australia also found international students feared lodging a police complaint could impact their immigration status. For Sharma, this worry fuelled her anxiety.
“I got kicked out of the house and didn’t know where to go – I stayed in a hotel for two days and at that point my visa was going to expire in one month and I didn’t know what to do,” says Sharma.
The Human Rights Commission Change the Course 2017 report found that around 51 percent of all university students were sexually harassed in 2016 and 6.9 percent were sexually assaulted in 2015 and 2016. Women are almost three times as likely to be affected. The report also found international students were less likely to know where and how to report assault, and experience embarrassment and shame in doing so.
Social isolation, language barriers and cultural stigma exacerbated the difficulty of disclosure, with international students also facing additional concerns around visa and residency, despite contributing 32 billion dollars to the Australian economy.
“I reached out to a few people and they told me, ‘you are studying in Australia, you know about the laws so why didn’t you take action?’ But it’s not just about taking action it’s about being mentally sound to take action. I felt like the weakest person on the planet. [Eventually] I went to counselling and realised that it’s not so easy to share what you’ve gone through – if you don’t have the support from your community, it’s going to be very difficult.”
International Students Australia Council women's officer Belle Lim says it’s critical that international students, who already feel the pressure to assimilate into Australian society, don’t feel their differences are part of the problem.
“In Australia, we have a culture of victim blaming and international students also face cultural stigma – they may feel they’ve brought it on themselves,” Lim says. “I urge universities to take these reports seriously because it is very under-reported and often, there is no action. I also don’t want international students to feel that because they are from a different culture it is their fault.”
Although 26 Australian universities and 16 residential colleges now offer students an online training module called Consent Matters - this initiative is only offered in English and inaccessible to many international students, whose first language isn’t English. The complexities of being unfamiliar with Australian culture and a precarious immigration status can also make international students more vulnerable.
In Queensland, author Bri Lee and academic Jonathan Crowe have been leading a campaign against the state’s mistake of fact defence - a controversial legal loophole that allows accused rapists to walk free if they mistakenly believe their victim had consented. Experts argue this legal loophole could doubly disadvantage complainants who face language barriers. The Queensland government recently announced the law was under review.
While the current research around international students and sexual violence revolves around campus incidents, Sharma says there needs to be an investment in awareness programs and better services on a structural level.
“As a student, you go through culture shock, you have to get used to being away from your parents and when you are being abused by someone in a foreign country it is very traumatic,” Sharma says. “International students want to fit in and go with the flow but there needs to be more education about sexual assault and communities because within communities it is more hidden. Now I’ve empowered myself and found ways to make myself happy. I don’t know how I’ve survived but I’ve come a long way.”
Neha Kale is a freelance writer. You can follow Neha on Twitter @neha_kale.
If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault, domestic or family violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800737732 or visit www.1800RESPECT.org.au.
*pseudonyms have been used.