KASAMA Vol. 8 No. 3 / May-June 1994 / Philippines Australia Solidarity Group Queensland


by Anthony Brown

IN the early hours of Sunday, April 4, 1993, Bruce Hughes was in his former partner's unit in the Brisbane suburb of Morningside. Deaf and mute since birth, Mila Bordador Wills, a 36 year-old Filipina, could not scream when he lashed out at her in the bedroom. Neighbours later said they heard nothing.

Mila and Bruce had separated in November 1992 after an 18-month relationship. Mila gave birth to Hughes' child, Marissa, in January 1993. She had another child, Melissa, by her first partner, Harry Wills, who she met in 1982 when he was studying in the Philippines. They had separated in 1990.

Hughes, 38, an unemployed plumber, found a piece of wood in Mila's bedroom and hit her, he later told police, "a half-dozen times around the head." When police found her, they initially thought she was the victim of a frenzied stabbing. Her body and the bed where it lay were soaked in blood. Hughes bashed her so ferociously that a doctor likened her head injuries to those that could be caused by a car accident. Mila died without regaining consciousness the following day at Brisbane's Princess Alexandra Hospital. Hughes later confessed to killing her and is currently serving a life sentence.

Mila Wills was one of 16 Filipino woman and 3 children to have died violently in Australia since 1980.

Three other women and a child are listed as missing and feared dead. Four women were repeatedly stabbed or slashed, three were strangled, three drowned, one was shot several times, one was savagely beaten with a heavy instrument, two died of carbon monoxide poisoning, and another two were found cause of death unknown. Two sisters, aged 5 and 12 years, were strangled and an 11-month old baby died of repeated blows to its head with a hammer - the mother survived the attack. In nearly all cases their Australian partners were implicated.

Joseph Sokol, 40, from Blacktown, New South Wales was convicted in 1987 of the murder of his 17 year-old Filipina bride, Rowena. Sokol, who tried twice to commit suicide after being arrested for her murder, visited her one afternoon and shot her five times with a rifle in her front yard.

In 1990, Charles Schembri, 41, an unemployed truck driver from Melbourne, was jailed for the manslaughter of Generosa Bongcodin, 25, a hairdresser. Schembri had met Generosa three days after arriving in Manila in 1981 and married her within a month. Two days before he choked her to death, Schembri sent her a newspaper cutting about the killing of Rowena Sokol on which he wrote words of approval.

Ivor James Haynes, 63, strangled 5 year-old Elizabeth and 12 year-old Yohana in 1993 during their access visit. Found guilty of manslaughter, he will serve a term of six to 12 years in prison.

Of the estimated 80,000 Filipinos living in Australia, about 20,000 are married to Australian men, making them the ethnic group with the highest number of inter-cultural marriages in the country.

The Centre for Philippine Concerns Australia (CPCA) believes the high incidence of violent deaths and disappearances of Filipino women in Australia is an extreme part of the domestic violence spectrum these women face. Although recognising that most Filipina-Australian marriages are successful, the CPCA believes there is a growing body of evidence that a disproportionately high percentage of Filipinas who come to Australia on sponsorship arrangements become the victims of domestic violence.

Certainly social workers agree as they are reporting increasing cases of domestic violence, depression and loneliness amongst Filipinas married to Australian men and a growing demand for services. One Sydney social worker reports she has seen 20 Filipinas a month since 1988 with serious marriage problems, mainly domestic violence.

Australian lawyer, Dr. Jocelynne Scutt, in The Sunday Age (July 4, 1993) said that male preconceptions of Filipino women as submissive could contribute to their being beaten and ultimately killed. "The implication is that if you get a woman from the Philippines she will be perfectly submissive, a servant if you like."

CPCA's national co-ordinator, Melba Marginson, says the practice of seeking Filipina wives is based on the myth of Asian women as domesticated, docile and economically vulnerable and dependent. She says these men believe that as the women come from developing countries, they have saved them from a life of poverty and they expect the women to be grateful and repay their gratitude by fulfilling their every desire.

"These are men who usually cannot get partners in Australia, who cannot relate with strong women, and so they go out of Australia and get women who they think are meek, humble and domesticated. But eventually, once they bring them here and they find out they are strong and independent, they start using violence."

Ms. Marginson believes this myth about Asian women is rooted in sexist and racist attitudes. She resents media images of Filipinas in Australia as "mail-order brides" or "thrillers from Manila" and says these reinforce the myth about Asian women and portray Filipinas as inferior intellectually and socially to their Australian partners. The fact is the majority of Filipino women married to Australian men are well-educated.

In a 1990 study of Filipina-Australian marriages, two-thirds of the women sampled had completed undergraduate or postgraduate studies, whereas most of their husbands had completed vocational or technical training courses. The same study also indicated that of the groups surveyed, Filipina-Australian marriages were less likely to succeed given the education, cultural, and age differences. (Intermarriages in International Contexts: a Study of Filipina Women Married to Australian, Japanese and Swiss Men, Scalabrini Migration Center, Quezon City.)

As for the "mail-order bride" tag, a 1986 University of the Philippines study of how Filipinas met their Australian partners showed that although 30% used formal mail-order institutions, the majority met their partners through informal networks of relatives, friends, and travel. The study found that although introduction agencies, pen-pal systems, bars and brothels served initially as the major means by which Australian men met Filipinas in the 1970s, by the mid to late 1980s, enough women had arrived in Australia for the informal networks to become the major means of finding a partner.

Emere Distor from the Brisbane branch of the CPCA says, "I think women in the Philippines have become commodities, and this is to blame on both the poverty there and on the Marcos tourism campaign. So Filipino women risk marrying men they hardly know and travel to other countries so that they'll earn enough to send money home."

Ms. Distor says because many of these women are poor, they are vulnerable to visiting men who beguile them with promises of an easy life in the west. The men play the part of rich foreigners, often splashing money around to impress the women and their families. Unable to resist the temptation of living in the west, the women enter into relationships which they might otherwise have not, given that the men are usually 10 to 20 years older, the courtships are usually brief, and the men usually have very conservative views of a woman's role in society.

Once the women arrive in Australia, many discover that their kind and wealthy husbands are not what they had seemed. In fact, a number of studies indicate that many are on pensions or in low-paid employment.

Theresa Gatbonton, Acting Coordinator of Brisbane's Migrant Women's Emergency Support Service (MWESS) says financial abuse is common in many relationships and she has come across cases where the women were given next to nothing to feed themselves and their families. "I know of one woman who was given $50 a week to pay the family bills and buy groceries. She has three children. How can you survive on that?" She says the men often hide how much they earn.

Aurea Payumo, also an MWESS worker, says it's common for these women to accept outside laundry and ironing at home just to bring in some extra income to feed themselves and their children.

Ms. Gatbonton believes that Australia's refusal to recognise the skills and qualifications of migrant women contributes to their being abused. If their skills and qualifications are recognised, then many may be able to get relevant employment and be financially independent of their spouses.

In the Philippines, women often control the family budget, so Filipinas are shocked to discover that the men control the purse-strings in Australia. As for sending money home, Australian men often have a different view of family responsibilities and refuse to give the women money to send home to their families. This can lead to conflict as the women argue for the right to support their families.

"You are expected to send money home. In the Philippines families support each other and the family has all sorts of expectations about the women moving overseas because of the colonial mentality that anything overseas is much better. They think these women are living lives of luxury in the west," Ms. Gatbonton says. "The women often feel ashamed that they are unable to send money home regularly and they have let their families down. Many become severely depressed."

Besides the economic abuse, many women end up isolated both geographically and socially. This can be terrible for these women who usually come from large families and an environment where communities are an integral part of life. Ms. Gatbonton says that if the women live in isolated areas it also means that they do not have ready access to support services.

She says that although Filipinas who leave violent relationships can now remain in Australia, many are not aware that they can and the men play on this fear of deportation. The men use this to keep the women in line and so many feel trapped. Up until recently, Filipinas who left such relationships could be deported. If a Filipina now leaves a violent situation, once she has obtained an Apprehended Violence Order against the man, or he has been convicted of committing criminal assault against her, she can get permanent residency.

A 1992 report by the University of Wollongong noted that an increasing number of Australian men were serial sponsors of Filipino women. These are men who, having tired of their first partners, separate from them and return to the Philippines to find another. The most extreme example is of a South Australian man who had seven Filipino brides.

Ms. Gatbonton says although this report came out two years ago and was commissioned by the Federal Department of Immigration, Local Government and Ethnic Affairs (DILGEA), none of its recommendations for checking serial sponsorships and domestic violence have been implemented. "The South Brisbane Immigration Legal Service, the Bureau of Ethnic Affairs and ourselves [MWESS] have convened a group to monitor the recommendations of the report and collect more information."

She would like to see all sponsors legally required to provide their intending spouses with personal details, including abuse or assault records and any history of protection orders issued against them. However, under Australia's Privacy Act (1988), government is not allowed to collect and reveal personal information.

Ms. Gatbonton says the irony here is that when a Filipina applies to come to Australia, the Immigration Department scrutinises her. "She's got to have health checkups and supply personal details about herself and her family. And yet, there are no details required from the men. It's not a balanced view. What about the rights of the women to know about the men?"

From her experience, alarming numbers of women from a wide variety of non-English speaking backgrounds are suffering abuse and government agencies generally tend to ignore them. "Non-English speaking background and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women are always on the bottom for receiving services and funding. You can see it's not a priority. We're always put in a box and stereotyped as if our concerns and what happens to us are not really important."

In the meantime, these women suffer. They are beaten, raped, psychologically and economically abused, and isolated. Some are killed.

In February 1994, two children discovered the half-naked body of Filipina, Elma Rebecca Young, 42, in a gully at Munruben, south of Brisbane, while waiting for their school bus. She had been strangled to death. Her police officer husband has been arrested. He will appear at Beenleigh Magistrates Court for committal proceedings on July 4.

Elma Young was the 16th Filipino woman to have died violently in Australia since 1980. HOW MANY MORE MUST DIE?