Beyond Borders

By Native Affairs
  • Australia

Rebecca Masterton and her sister Gina are fighting for the rights of victims of domestic violence who have moved countries for their protection.

The Australian sisters lived together in the US with Rebecca’s husband and their seven-year-old son Cody.

 “We really kind of were leading separate lives even though we were living under the same roof, and it wasn't until we were on the Qantas plane coming back to Australia that Rebecca broke down and I said, what's wrong?”

In 2013 the sisters, along with one-year-old Cody, boarded a plane home to Australia to seek medical treatment for their ailing mother.

It was only as the wheels lifted that Rebecca says she felt safe to reveal the horror that had been unfolding behind closed doors in their family home.

“I guess once I was up in the air and knew that I was safe and he couldn't hear me, I just had to be honest with my sister and just talk to her about things that I hadn't been able to talk to her about for a long time,” says Rebecca.

Rebecca says her husband had been abusing her for two years.  She claims he began by controlling her finances - refusing to give her money for toiletries and basic needs before becoming emotionally and physically abusive.

The sisters decided it was safest for Rebecca and Cody to stay in Australia.

Gina, a lawyer, knew there'd be legal consequences but she didn't know the full extent until authorities tracked down Rebecca a few months later.

Rebecca is believed to be the first Aboriginal woman to be served under the Hague Convention - an agreement between more than 80 countries, adopted in 1980 to deal with international parental child abduction.

It provides an expedited process to quickly return the child to their home country, where custody matters can be dealt with but generally fails to take domestic violence into account.

A court may choose not to return the child if there's a grave risk that it would expose them to physical or psychological harm. But in the overwhelming majority of cases, courts don't consider domestic violence against a parent to be a grave risk to the child.

“The mothers, because of what they've done and because they've taken a child, even though it's out of a horrendous situation, they are treated like garbage with no respect and with no consideration at all,” says Rebecca.

In August 2013, Cody returned to his father in the US.

The sisters followed, spending a harrowing three months negotiating with Cody's father before he finally relented, allowing Cody to return to Australia.

Now, Rebecca and Gina have dedicated their lives to reforming the law to protect victims of domestic violence.

 “My number one goal is to have a domestic violence defence put into the Hague regulations,” says Gina.