In 2001, Kay Danes and her husband, Kerry were jailed in Laos for 10 months falsely accused of gemstone smuggling and only released following Australian Government intervention. Despite her ordeal and suffering post traumatic stress disorder after her release, Kay Danes has since worked as a human rights advocate, and this year received an OAM for her work. She is a Patron of the Gold Coast Writers’ Association, and will be a keynote speaker at their Literary Luncheon in June.
Congratulations on your Medal of the Order of Australia. Can you tell us about your humanitarian work that led to this honour?
I was awarded the Medal for the many years I have worked in Australia and overseas, raising awareness of human rights and social justice. I have always held a strong interest in assisting vulnerable communities, particularly where the rights of women and children are at risk. I have participated in numerous development projects based on the UN Millennium Development goals (promoting gender equality, improving global health standards and education, eradicating poverty and infectious diseases.)
I was recognised for my contributions to social justice, particularly in relation to raising awareness about issues concerning political prisoners, victims of extra-judicial abduction, forced disappearance and torture. I also campaign to improve literacy among Indigenous Australians, and I contribute to Defence and Defence related charities to support soldiers affected by Post Traumatic Stress.
How did you come to be patron of the Gold Coast Writer’s Association?
I first came into contact with the Association as a guest speaker at one of their monthly meetings. At the time, I was speaking at quite a few GC events promoting various humanitarians causes. The GCWA gave me tremendous support as a writer and from there our relationship grew. I haven’t lived on the GC for a number of years but I have a property at Tallebudgerra which I hope one day to return to. Being named a Patron of such a premier association is a real honour: they have a wealth of talented writers and the committee are fabulous. They have created a professional environment for writers to harness their creativity, exchange ideas, broaden their horizons and explore a range of opportunities that exist in the ever-changing world of publishing.
You are currently living in Saudi Arabia while your husband Kerry is on deployment there with the Australian Defence Force. What projects are you involved in whilst there?
When I first arrived in Saudi three years ago, I was contracted as a Human Resources Manager for a British agency until their staff member arrived. When that contract concluded I was offered a contract as a Special Projects Officer with an Australian agency. I made a decision to leave the workforce in favour of focussing on completing my Masters degree in Human Rights (International Affairs) online through Curtin University (WA), and to take advantage of the travel opportunities of the middle-east region. This allows me to broaden my understanding of middle-eastern cultures, language and human rights in the region. There have been some significant developments in human rights here and its very exciting to be in a position to witness it first hand. I also contribute to local aid initiatives, mostly in support women and children.
While Kerry was on a tour of Afghanistan, you travelled through the war torn countryside and the result was the book Beneath the Pale Blue Burqa. Tell us about the plight of Afghan women and girls then, and what the future holds for these women.
It was an amazing experience travelling throughout Afghanistan with our team of Rotarians delivering humanitarian aid, food supplies and learning materials to people who were completely devastated by war. We helped build learning centres, drinking wells, conducted health and education seminars and developed small projects designed to build sustainable income for Afghan families.
Despite all its shortcomings, Afghanistan is a promising country with an abundance of good people. Education is the key and there has been significant change there when you consider that in the early 1990s less than 1 million children had access to education – mostly boys. Since then around 6 million are now in school, 36% of students are girls. Gender inequality remains a concern for many but Afghan women are courageous and resilient. Much of their hope lies on getting a government that will be more willing to embrace change. For the first time, a woman, Habiba Sarobi, is running for Vice-President. This has given many Afghan women a great deal of hope for a better future.
How does this compare to the future for women in Saudi Arabia?
I find it quite exciting to observe the ongoing discourse between the Saudi Human Rights Council and the Saudi Government. There is a real willingness to exchange ideas and there have been modest reforms that have impacted on women’s rights. For years the west has been saying women in the middle east need liberating because of the way they dress but many Saudi women have told me that the focus should be on creating opportunities to advance their social status, which relates to everything other than dress.
Many are active participants in areas of government and private enterprise. Women here are involved in development issues relating to gender equality, furthering the discourse on family, safety and education.
When one focuses on the issue of how a woman dresses then other vital conversations are diminished. As for other life achievements, there have been many Saudi women breaking the glass ceiling. In 2013, a Saudi woman became the first woman in her country to climb Mt Everest. Earlier this year, the Government granted permission for the very first Saudi women’s law firm, to represent women on issues relating to labour cases and business disputes. Saudi women work as cashiers in shopping malls now which is a significant step and 39% of women are government employees. The Princess Noura University is one of the biggest all female universities in the world covering 800ha of land, offering free education to all who attend. It has state of the art facilities, a solar farm, and even its own 4.5km campus monorail system with free wifi.
You work with post traumatic stress disorder support groups for defense members and families through organisations such as Soldier On. How can Australia improve its support for returned servicemen and women?
A complex question which requires an in-depth response but the short answer lies in the way in which soldiers are treated following diagnosis.
Those subjected to forced medical discharge often struggle with this transition. Many feel completely isolated from mates and a familiar environment. A forced medical discharge may also prevent later service in the Defence Force Reserves, once a return to health has been established.
Creating a transition that maintains a soldier’s dignity and allows them to remain useful, even after service, is critical. Soldier On aims to help wounded soldiers find meaning in their lives, to help reconnect them during this often difficult transition period but they need funding to establish recovery centres nation-wide. Recognition for service is important too which is why I continue campaigning to seek official recognition to honour fallen soldiers and have raised over 32,000 signatures to support a proposal to support that initiative.
You must have suffered immense trauma whilst in Phonthong Prison in Laos in 2001. How did you and Kerry deal with that trauma upon your return to Australia?
It took me quite a few years to recover from our ordeal having been diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder and chronic depression. I found myself on a slippery slide of prescribed medications.
Eventually I turned towards alternative treatments: meditation, fitness training, counselling. I found these worked better for me and eventually recovered.
It helps to have a good network of supporters, family and friends in place because the effects of post traumatic stress can be exhausting. Sometimes life throws us challenges that we think are unbearable. There is no magic formula to surviving adversity and it may sound cliché I know, but you really just have to keep fighting to get up whenever life knocks you down.
How did you come to support Gold Coast woman Shapelle Corby in Kerobokan Prison, Bali?
I do a great deal of social justice advocacy with the Foreign Prisoner Support Service and it was through this that I first came into contact with the Corbys.
I tried to offer advice to Schapelle’s legal team in the hope of impressing upon them some of the challenges they would encounter dealing with a foreign jurisdiction. Many other academics and legal human rights experts also with experience and runs on the board, tried to give their best advice but none of it made any impression on the Corbys. They wanted to do things their way which is their right but my advice for anyone who intends to travel overseas is that they need to know that they leave behind their country’s legal support systems.
If arrested overseas, regardless of innocence or guilt, you should engage experienced legal representatives who can offer sound legal and media strategies combined with diplomatic solutions to secure best outcomes. Amateur online campaigns, fist waving and sensational media exclusives do nothing to improve a prisoner’s situation.
Does the Foreign Prisoner Support Service work with Queenslander and Al Jazeera English journalist Peter Greste, while he is in prison in Egypt?
Our advocates continue to support this campaign in the hope that concerted efforts will achieve a good outcome for Peter and his family but such issues are complex and in this case, highly political. It is important to allow the judicial process to play out and for everyone to make sure their comments are not inflammatory.
Are we likely to see the film The Bodhi Tree about you and your husband’s imprisonment in Laos anytime soon? What is your involvement?
The treatment for the film has recently been completed and sent off to some A-list film producers. There’s still a great deal of work to be done and funding to be raised. I am a consultant and my contribution is limited to describing events that took place both leading up to our unlawful detainment, during and post release. I am really excited that our former Foreign Minister Alexander Downer has agreed to also consult on the project. I’m also very pleased to nominate Soldier On – Helping Wounded Soldiers, as a benefactor to the film. The support from the Defence community during our captivity really did help us endure until our freedom could be secured.
What does the future hold for Kay Danes?
This is my final year of living in the middle-east and I’m not sure what I will be doing when I return to Australia but I aim to continue advancing the human rights conversation, particularly in the hope that it can become a normative element of our school curriculum. Human rights are the foundation of civil societies and set the guidelines on how we ought to act towards one another. I hope that my experiences abroad will value add to those conversations and benefit our community in some way!
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Read about Princess Naura University at pnuproject.com/.
Read about Soldier On at soldieron.org.au.
Get informed about Peter Greste’s case at tinyurl.com/blankGRESTE or at the Free Peter Greste FB page.
See Kay Danes at the Literary Luncheon on 15 June. Visit goldcoastwritersfestival.com.au for all the details.