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Hunter, Rosemary --- "Gender, 'Race' and International Relations: Violence against Filipino Women in Australia by Chris Cunneen and Julie Stubbs" [1998] SydLawRw 29; (1998) 20 (4) Sydney Law Review 647

GENDER, “RACE” AND INTERNATIONAL RELATIONS: VIOLENCE AGAINST FILIPINO WOMEN IN AUSTRALIA, by Chris Cunneen and Julie Stubbs, Institute of Criminology Monograph Series No 9, Sydney, 1997, x + 150pp


The formula involving gender, “race” and international relations set out in this monograph is simple and deadly: white, first-world (Australian, American) men are repelled by feminist-influenced first-world women and attracted by the image of submissive, compliant, loving, loyal, sexually accommodating third-world (“Asian”/Filipino) women. The relative economic status of first-world men and third-world women enables the former to “purchase” and import the latter to their home countries as brides or fiancees. But things don’t always turn out as planned. Failures of submission, compliance, love, loyalty and/or sexual accommodation are met with violence. Disproportionately, that violence is fatal. At this point, different images of Filipino women – as provocative, promiscuous, demanding, gold-digging – take over to excuse men’s violence, reduce charges of murder to manslaughter, and produce light sentences for convicted killers. Too often, the violent former partners of Filipino women return to the internet, the dating agencies, the Philippines to find another girl.

Chris Cunneen’s and Julie Stubbs’ analysis convincingly demonstrates that the abuse of Filipino women married to Australian men is a product of intersecting gendered and “raced” representations, underpinned by economic power/ dependence. The Web sites they reproduce in an appendix make the point equally well. For a relatively small cash outlay, men can gain access to women from many economically vulnerable parts of the world – Russia, Latin America and Asia. Within the “Asian” group, Filipino women are the most popular. As the authors show, this is partly to do with histories and practices within the Philippines, partly to do with histories and practices within Australia, and partly to do with the interrelations between them. One of the challenges of the monograph was to explain why Filipino women have become particular objects of desire for white, first-world men, and why this group is so markedly over-represented as victims of homicide in Australia. It does this very well.

The monograph arose from a research project originally undertaken by the federal Race Discrimination Commissioner, at the instigation of the Centre for Philippine Concerns–Australia (CPCA). It is interesting in itself that the CPCA chose to take its concerns about the level of violence to which Filipino women in Australia appeared to be subjected to the Race Discrimination Commissioner, rather than to the Sex Discrimination Commissioner (in the absence of any state institution with a clear brief to deal with intersections of “race” and sex) or the Human Rights Commissioner. Preliminary research by the Race Discrimination Unit into Filipino women as victims of spousal homicide was then supplemented by further and contextual research by the University of Sydney Law Faculty’s Institute of Criminology. The result is a comprehensive report, which addresses and connects a wide range of issues bearing on fatal violence against Filipino women. Part one of the monograph fills in the detailed background to domestic homicides of Filipino women, including discussion of the migration of Filipino women to Australia, serial sponsorship, domestic violence against Filipino women in Australia, and the legal system’s response to that violence. Part two deals with case studies of all the deaths and disappearances of Filipino women and their children in Australia documented by the CPCA. These span the years 1980–1995, and the authors note that the list is very likely incomplete. Part three discusses the role and nature of representations that produce and excuse violence against Filipino women.

Another challenge for a book such as this is how to write about the catalogue of deaths with which it deals, particularly in the case studies section. The strategy adopted by the authors is to describe each of the (27) homicides/disappearances of women and children in a fairly flat style – “just the facts”, largely leached of emotion or judgment. This makes sense on several levels. It allows for sober reflection on the cases in an accepted academic manner, and it provides the reader with a kind of psychic defence mechanism, enabling her to cope with rather than be overwhelmed by the enormity of what is being described. On the other hand, emotional engagement rather than academic detachment might be a more appropriate response to these stories. Clearly, it was fear and anxiety rather than the desire for a disinterested inquiry that originally prompted the CPCA to approach the Race Discrimination Commissioner. For this reader, the subjects of the case studies weren’t quite brought to life sufficiently to enable the stories of their deaths to have a real impact. An obvious comparison lies with another book dealing with domestic homicides, Blood on Whose Hands? (Women’s Coalition Against Family Violence, 1994), which in my view did manage to convey both the “facts” and the feelings surrounding the deaths of women and children – partly by the strategy of including in the murder descriptions quotations from family members and/or friends of the victims.

There is an interesting issue here not just of how to write narratives of women’s lives (or deaths), but also of the relationship between research and activism. Does academic research assist or deflect activism? This is a perennial subject of debate in the women’s movement (and elsewhere), although the research/activism dichotomy is also one that the authors might, with some justification, reject. The monograph is itself “activist” in several senses. It provides a valuable source of information for future lobbying efforts and policy development. It includes a series of recommendations for ways to improve the prevention of and responses to violence against Filipino women in Australia (although the recommendations are downplayed somewhat by being relegated to the final appendix, and set out in unnumbered paragraphs).

Most saliently, the authors are legal activists, setting out clearly the shortcomings of legal protection – both institutional and doctrinal – for abused Filipino women, and both implicitly and explicitly advocating legal change. This point leads back to the case studies, which were described above as presenting “just the facts”. Nevertheless, the facts presented include matters, where known, such as the woman’s family circumstances, how she came to meet her Australian partner, whether there was a history of violence in the relationship, the character, views and actions of the accused or suspected killer, and his prior or subsequent dealings with Filipino women. These are facts which, as the authors show, are often considered irrelevant and/or inadmissible when men accused of killing their partners or children are put on trial. In their place, there appears to be ready acceptance of “stock stories” and excuses from the perpetrator’s point of view, which are used to establish a defence such as provocation or diminished responsibility, and/or are taken into account in mitigation of sentence. In the authors’ words:

The failure to consider previous domestic violence, the escalation of violence leading up to the killing and the level of prior planning involved, allows the homicide to be presented as a spontaneous and out of character use of violence (p125).
The authors’ insistence on including facts about previous violence and premeditation in their case studies thus makes an argument for an expansion of the categories of relevance and admissibility in domestic homicide trials, in order to do justice to the victims, their families and friends, and to help prevent other women and children being victimised.

As well as its broad arguments, the monograph presents a number of important insights into the dynamics of the “mail order bride” phenomenon and its sometimes tragic consequences. For example, Filipino immigrants to Australia have higher educational qualifications than Australians generally, with approximately two-thirds of Filipino women being educated beyond the age of 17, compared with approximately one third of Australian-born women (p13). Over 90 per cent of Filipino women who migrate to Australia speak English well (p13). Despite their language skills and qualifications, Filipino women also have a high rate of unemployment (17.3 per cent at the time of the 1991 census), and often, very low incomes (47.6 per cent of Philippines-born women reported incomes of $16 000 or less) (p14). These data point to a situation of limited economic opportunities and enforced economic dependence for Filipino women in Australia as well as in their country of birth. In Australia, however, their situation appears to be related directly to ethnicity.

Secondly, there is a notable age difference (an average of 12 years) between Australian men sponsoring Filipino women as spouses or fiancees and the women they sponsor (p87). This age difference was clearly reflected in the homicide case studies (p87). The most extreme case study in this respect is summed up by the authors as follows:

[RS] was 15 years of age when JS married her in the Philippines. He was 23 years older. By the time she was 17 years of age she had moved to Australia, given birth, been subjected to domestic violence, left her husband and been killed (p87).
The average age of perpetrators in the case studies was also considerably higher than that of offenders in Australian homicide studies generally (p87). Moreover, the fact that none of the male suspects/accused in the case studies was Filipino reflected the findings of a previous study that violence against women from non- English speaking backgrounds in Australia is generally perpetrated by male partners of the same ethnicity, except in the case of violence against “Asian” (other than Vietnamese) women, when the perpetrator is more likely to be non-Asian (p86). Differences of age and ethnicity in turn reflect the kind of expectations held by male sponsors, based more on essentialist representations than on reality. Such differences may also contribute to relationship breakdown and accompanying violence. The authors point out that there is no evidence that marriages between Filipino women and Australian men are more likely to end in separation than other marriages in Australia (p87). However, they also decry the failure of official violence statistics to include data concerning race/ethnicity, which means that there is no way of telling whether Filipino women are more likely than other women to be subjected to domestic violence (pp32–33).

One of the monograph’s recommendations, then, is that government departments and other agencies providing services to women experiencing domestic violence should collect data concerning race/ethnicity (as well as gender and other relevant details) (p149). It also recommends the removal of the anomaly in the domestic violence provisions of Australian immigration law, whereby women who are forced to leave a relationship due to violence are protected from deportation if they were married to the perpetrator, but are not protected if they entered Australia on a prospective marriage visa and have not yet married. This obviously places fiancees in an extremely vulnerable position. The law needs to be amended to ensure their safety.

Likewise, migration legislation and the Department of Immigration could do considerably more to restrict the activities of violent serial sponsors. This is the monograph’s lead recommendation, and has also been the subject of recommendations by community organisations and the Australian Law Reform Commission (see pp22–23). Although data on the prevalence of serial sponsorships is limited, there is clear evidence that relationships with serial sponsors pose particular dangers for the women involved (p21). To date, however, the Department has specifically rejected proposals that sponsors be required to disclose their criminal and protection order records on the grounds of privacy and “the rights of Australian citizens and residents to marry the partner of their choice” (p23). As the authors point out, this has the effect of subordinating women’s rights – to make a full and informed choice about marriage and, most importantly, to be free from violence. Thus, they reiterate calls for the Department to collect information about a sponsor’s previous sponsorships of spouses or fiancees, and any record of violence where there has been one or more prior sponsorships. They further recommend that sponsors who supply false or misleading information should be prosecuted, and that information on past violence or previous sponsorships should be given to the prospective wife/fiancees in an individual interview and in a culturally appropriate manner. The reluctance of the Department to address this issue – indeed its wilful failure to respond to a situation of foreseeable risk – adds to the overall picture of the commodification of Filipino women.

In conclusion, although the monograph appears to deal with a narrow and specific topic, its wide range gives it wide relevance. It makes a valuable contribution to scholarship, and also constitutes a valuable teaching resource, in the areas of criminal law, criminology, migration law, international relations, gender studies, feminist legal theory, critical race theory, and violence against women. The fact that the authors were able and willing to bring such a breadth of disciplinary and theoretical reference to the topic, and their strong advocacy of reform to improve the situation of Filipino women in Australia, makes this an exemplary study.

[*] Senior Lecturer, University of Melbourne

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