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The rape and murder of Aya Maasarwe near her La Trobe University accommodation shocked the world. But absent from the headlines was acknowledgement of the increasing prevalence of sexual assaults on international students. By Nina Funnell.

Risks to foreign students on campus

Candles and floral tributes left at the site where the body of Palestinian Arab student Aya Maasarwe was found in Bundoora, Melbourne, last month.
Credit: AAP Image / Ellen Smith

The campus was in turmoil when Aya Maasarwe arrived at La Trobe University to start her yearlong study exchange. That same month the university’s student Liberal Club had been readying itself to host Bettina Arndt’s “fake rape crisis” lecture, while other students advocated the conservative commentator be barred from speaking on campus. In an article penned in the lead-up to the La Trobe lecture, Arndt had declared that the issue of sexual assault had been wildly exaggerated by a feminist “conspiracy” between universities and the mainstream media, adding that female students had little to worry about and that the level of rape on campus was “positive news”.

Research by the Australian Human Rights Commission directly disputes Arndt’s view. Of the 39 Australian universities that took part in the 2016 AHRC survey of student safety, La Trobe students experienced the second-highest rate of rape and sexual assault in the country. Its students were found to be at the highest risk in Victoria. More than 11 per cent of female students at La Trobe were raped or sexually assaulted across 2015 and 2016 – and about a fifth of those assaults occurred on campus.

Arndt’s first attempt to speak at La Trobe last year was cancelled after widespread backlash from students. By the second time around, tempers were at boiling point. As Arndt took the stage, sexual assault survivors and other La Trobe students protested loudly, banging on the auditorium’s doors and chanting. The university’s student union issued a statement condemning both Arndt and her views on campus sexual assault. It was “especially shameful”, according to the union, that La Trobe University had authorised the event “given the current issues surrounding sexual assault and harassment issues on our campus”. Inside the lecture hall, though, Arndt stood firm. According to attendees, she dispensed advice to those in the audience, including that “no doesn’t always mean no”.

As this drama was unfolding at La Trobe, Aya Maasarwe was just settling in to her new life in Australia. On exchange from her university in Shanghai, she’d come to Australia to study because it was a country her family believed to be safe. Statistically, her story should have been unremarkable – she was just one of the 500,000 or so international students who come to Australia every year.

But two weeks ago, Maasarwe’s body was found just a short distance from her La Trobe University accommodation. As has been reported, by some in detail too brutal to bear, she had been attacked on her walk home from her tram stop, sexually assaulted and murdered. The news of her death has made headlines around the world.

Lost in the swirl of shock, horror and outrage surrounding Maasarwe’s death, though, has been discussion of how common sexual assault has become for international students studying in Australia. According to the AHRC data, 6.1 per cent of international students – male and female – at La Trobe University were raped or sexually assaulted in 2015 and/or 2016. With more than 5000 international students attending La Trobe, that equates to nearly one international student being raped or sexually assaulted every second day.

Nationally, the AHRC found one in every 20 international students studying at an Australian university was raped or sexually assaulted in 2015 and/or 2016.

According to Sharna Bremner, the director of End Rape on Campus Australia, the true figure may be even higher.

“The survey was not made available in any languages other than English and the survey was not tested for cultural sensitivity,” she says. “Sexual assault is a very taboo subject in many cultures and international students are often highly reluctant to discuss sensitive subjects in surveys, especially if they worry about confidentiality.”

Belle Lim, the national women’s officer for the Council of International Students Australia (CISA), agrees and says international students who experience rape or sexual assault are often highly reluctant to report or seek help.

“Many people don’t come forward because the last thing they need is to be scrutinised. Moreover, the disciplinary actions that universities and institutions take are simply not firm enough,” she says.

Bremner says these aren’t the only barriers to reporting faced by international students, who are often seen as “soft targets” by sexual predators because of their social isolation and lack of knowledge about their legal rights in Australia. Some international students are from countries where they have not had any sex education, and where talking about sex – let alone rape – is taboo. There are other concerns, too – a desire not to cause distress or shame to family back home, fears about losing their visa, distrust in local authorities and language barriers.

“It’s hard enough disclosing rape in your own language in a system you have been brought up in, let alone disclosing rape in a second or third language in a foreign country while your family and supports are thousands of kilometres away,” says Bremner.

Complicating things further is the fact politicians and university officials are also loath to discuss the rates of assault faced by international students for fear of jeopardising the huge income generated by international education. In comparison with their domestic peers, international students pay fees three to four times higher for their degrees. With half a million international students currently enrolled at our universities, they are also a boon to the local economy, spending significantly on accommodation, food and services. When family visits, there’s a further boost to the tourism industry – to the tune of almost $1 billion a year. In October 2018, federal education minister Dan Tehan revealed international education is now worth a staggering $32 billion to the Australian economy – after iron ore and coal, it is our third-largest export industry and creates up to 240,000 jobs.

However, international education can be a fickle industry as countries compete for students. After a spate of attacks on Indian international students in Melbourne in 2009, and the stabbing death of Nitin Garg in 2010, Indian student numbers in the city dropped by 70 per cent – from 65,000 to 7300 in just two years. Again in 2014, India’s biggest newspapers reported on the gang bashing of Manrajwinder Singh, who was beaten and robbed at Birrarung Marr.

In 2016, Chinese student Mengmei Leng made news after her uncle Derek Barrett took naked photos of Leng, his niece, before stabbing her more than 30 times and dumping her body in a blowhole on the Central Coast of New South Wales. In 2017, a Canberra court sentenced a former University of Canberra law lecturer to four years’ jail for raping one international student and making unwanted advances towards two others. Arthur Marshall Hoyle, aged in his 60s, committed the offences in his office in April 2015 after inviting the students in to discuss allegations of cheating in their essays. The victims were all women, and all international students.

“These cases make the news because there was something exceptionally sensational about them,” says Sharna Bremner. “But in our experience, most international students who have been sexually assaulted do not ever want anyone to find out. And university leaders are equally keen to bury the issue or distance themselves from the story.”

A spokesperson for La Trobe University responded to a request for comment from The Saturday Paper stating, “Aiia’s murder, which took place close to a tram stop and shopping centre in Bundoora – not on our campus – highlights serious community issues around public safety and societal issues around violence against women.

“While public transport is not the University’s responsibility, we are partnering with Public Transport Victoria, transport operators and Victoria Police to do what we can to encourage greater safety for our students and the wider travelling public.”

Since Maasarwe’s death, the university has also beefed up its on-campus security and continues to invest in CCTV monitoring and campus lighting.

The La Trobe University Liberal Club, which invited Bettina Arndt to speak on campus, has not responded to requests for comment and has yet to acknowledge the murder of Aya Maasarwe.

“It is absolutely irresponsible for La Trobe Liberal Club and Bettina Arndt to make public statements [disputing the level of rape on campus],” says Belle Lim, referring to Arndt’s September lecture. “Furthermore, refusing to apologise in the face of this sad but real evidence [of Aya’s murder] is plainly disgraceful.”

For her part, Arndt has acknowledged Maasarwe’s death, writing on her Facebook page: “All the usual male-bashing from Daniel Andrews over the dreadful Maasarwe murder” and accusing the mainstream media of failing to report on the race of her alleged killer.

At a federal level, Dan Tehan has also shelved a proposed taskforce intended to examine university responses to sexual assault, including the sexual assault of international students. In the wake of student protests against Arndt at both La Trobe and the University of Sydney, the Liberal government has defended Arndt by condemning student protesters and announcing a review into free speech on campus.

Tanya Plibersek, the shadow minister for education and shadow minister for women, has criticised the move, stating that if elected Labor will establish “an independent taskforce with strong powers to crack down on sexual harassment and assault at universities and residential colleges”.

“It is disappointing the Liberals refuse to take serious action to address this,” she said. “They are turning their backs on vulnerable students, victims and survivors of sexual assault. Everyone on a university campus has the right to be safe, and of course that includes international students.”

Lim said urgent steps are needed to address the rape of international students.

“Sexual assault and violence against women are more prevalent than we thought. It happens around us, to us … Schools, universities and authorities need to actively have firm disciplinary actions now that send a clear message. We need to call out any inappropriate words and actions when they are ‘harmless’, re-educate our students, friends and family,” she says. “It is heart-wrenching for the world to lose [Aya’s] bright personality. Moreover, it is horrifying for all of us in the same position as Aya – pursuing our education and future in a foreign land – to hear such news that happened so close to us. We continue to advise our students to be alert, but we hope that one day we can stop telling our girls to be scared.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 2, 2019 as "In the shadows". Subscribe here.

Nina Funnell
is a journalist, author and anti-sexual assault advocate, and the creator of the #LetHerSpeak campaign.