Last week I shared stories about two women who experienced rape and sexual abuse who found the system so traumatising they couldn’t go through with a court case.
I talked about the need for judicial reform. About the urgency for a legal system that prioritises victim care.
That system isn’t a pipe dream. It’s operating successfully in New Zealand. As someone who has been through the NZ courts, Shelley Oldham is a woman who knows this firsthand. She believes that fundamentally how the courts treat victims is not isolated, it is ‘a core reflection of what is important in your society.’
‘The Australian system and many others are about protecting the integrity of the justice system. The New Zealand system is about protecting the integrity of the victim.’
Shelley was working on an international assignment and was raped on the way to work.
At the time she was a senior executive for an international company that employed 165,000 people. She was one of the top three female senior vice presidents in the company. As Shelley says, ‘I wasn’t a wallflower.’
Rape can happen to any woman. In fact one in five women experience sexual violence, with only 1.5 per cent of assaults ending in conviction.
After her rape Shelley went straight to the Wellington Police Station. ‘The whole way I was thinking “please let there be a woman on the front counter”.’ There was. Things progressed quickly and with enormous care.
‘I said: “I think I have been raped”. In a split second they wrapped me in a wooly blanket, I had a cup of tea, had my back rubbed – there was enormous kindness from two detectives sitting with me taking my statement. Behind me were two other detectives, both in action mode.’
‘As every piece of my statement was delivered they went in and out of the room creating an arrest warrant. There was never a moment of doubt or of not being believed. The accused was arrested within 30 minutes’ of me turning up at the police station.’
Next, Shelley was transported to a forensic facility.
‘In New Zealand these are in concealed locations, I was taken to what looked like a factory, but was a lab. Every step was constructed to support and believe the victim.’
The care continued throughout the reporting process. Shelley remembers the social worker taking her home and spending the night.
‘The next day I was booked to do my evidence statement. Still in a daze, as you so often are after trauma, I stupidly went to work the next day. The police picked me up and took me to another discreet facility. I was there four to five hours where I gave my statement. There were cameras hidden in the walls filming my evidence. The woman I spoke to slowly unpacked everything that happened. Then they took me home and the support worker made me food. That recorded material became my statement in court.’
Over the next two weeks Shelley attended a daily appointment with a government appointed psychologist. The support continued when she returned to Australia with a social worker touching base every few days.
‘It wasn’t a manipulated construct to use in evidence in court’, says Shelley,’ it was a genuine check I was okay.’
As the case unfolded, 13 other women came forward. Some made statements, some continued, and some withdrew.
‘I never once found information that was painful to me in any other way except from the lead detective. Everything was about protecting me.’
When the time came to go to court the level of care continued.
‘When you go to court you don’t go through the front door, you go through the back doors with a social worker. I was assigned a number and only referred to by the number. The only person who knew the number assigned to my name was the detective running the case.’
‘There is a ban on media disclosing who you are. The courtroom is closed for every sexual assault case.’
Instead of having to give her statement in such a highly charged environment, the court is played the video evidence, taken at the time of the reporting. This makes the evidence of the key witness authentic and compelling.
‘There is a screen up so you can’t see the perpetrator,’ says Shelley.
‘There are no questions allowed about your sex life or character. They are only allowed to question what is in the video statement.’
Shelley’s rapist was convicted and received a long sentence.
One of the common criticisms of reforming our justice system to better protect victims of rape and sexual assault is that it will somehow undermine the presumption of innocence for the alleged perpetrator. As someone who experienced a more compassionate system, Shelley sees it differently.
‘You’re not questioning the justice system by putting in frameworks to support the victim. What you’re doing is acknowledging you are not a patriarchal misogynistically-led society, and that what happens to women matters’.
As someone with lived experience of rape and sexual assault, Shelley believes, ‘We all have to stop Brittany Higgins being damned. From the place she worked in, to the way this has played out.’
Rape is traumatic, but it is not being believed that Shelley says causes lasting damage to victims.
‘Not being believed dismisses the greatest experience of violation a person can have.’
Brittany Higgins held a mirror up to the sexual culture and entitlement of parliament house.
‘It frightened the shit out of white Australian men who walk the halls of parliament. They don’t want to get caught. She had the courage to put it on the front page. She is so brave.’
If only we had a system like New Zealand. Then, a young woman like Brittany would have had the support, and potentially the justice, she deserved.
Many thanks to Shelley Oldham for sharing this powerful and important story. When we speak up we challenge the corruptions of institutions that have thrived on our silence.
I can hear the foundations rumbling.
The silence has broken. We are telling.