Career

Hayley Browne's 5 year fight for justice after being abused in the navy

This formidable woman took on two governments to make sure that no woman ever had to go through what she endured.

By Fiona Fraser
The world little Matilda Browne will grow up in is likely to be a significantly safer, fairer and better one thanks to the courage and commitment of her mother Hayley.
The 34-year-old is a true fighter – someone who believes wholeheartedly in doing the right thing, and someone who has spent the last five years battling two governments who completely let her down.
"All I ever asked for," begins Hayley, relaxing with Matilda nestled in her chest at the Napier home she shares with her husband Dan, "was to be treated with the most basic of human rights – respect."
And, finally, following hundreds of hours in court-rooms, mediation, lawyers' offices, and in therapy, and countless tears, frustration and traumatic flashbacks, the former naval offficer has been given the respect she has deserved – and demanded – for half a decade.
Hayley Browne, nee Young, was serving in the Royal New Zealand Navy in 2009 when she experienced sexual harassment and abuse at the hands of her colleagues while on deployment to the United Kingdom. She also alleges she was raped by a British colleague.
The marine engineer decided not to press charges against the man she says raped her – but she did quit the navy, and penned a letter to the New Zealand Defence Force outlining her deep concern at the culture that saw her objectified, harassed, mistreated, and she and other women characterised as "conquests" that their male colleagues bet buckets of KFC on "winning".
"People use violence – including emotional and sexual violence – to gain power," says Hayley. "Unconsciously, I believe, these men didn't like a woman having authority over them. Violence was their answer."
The marine engineer (pictured at the Waitangi Day parade) was let down badly by the navy.
To rub salt in the wound, a photograph of Hayley was used in an NZ navy advertising campaign without her knowledge or permission, which – given her negative experiences there – deeply disturbed her.
Now, she finally has what she's repeatedly asked for – a full written apology from the Defence Force, issued earlier this month, and an invitation to meet with the Chief of Navy and other top brass to discuss how to shift the culture and make the navy a place where everybody, regardless of their gender, is safe.
"I'm really looking forward to it," says Hayley with a wide smile. "I feel I have a unique insight to share and, as an engineer who likes to solve problems, I've spent a long time thinking about what the navy could introduce to improve things. I've made about three pages of notes already," she laughs.
An exercise in officer training and at Devonport Naval Base, Auckland.
Best of all, she tells, she's had "plenty of time to heal, lots of therapy and I'm not going in there as a broken person. I'm going in to help the navy with their understanding of the things that happened to me, but objectively and without emotion. I hope they will feel comfortable enough to ask me questions about whatever they need to know to move forward."
Hayley, who began her legal journey as a single woman, is no wallflower. Her drive and determination is extraordinary, and she readily admits that any man in her life needed to be "OK with my Hayleyness!"
She has met her match in Dan Browne. The 29-year-old owns a video production company and first laid eyes on his future wife in 2014, when she approached him about creating some content for her.
While it wasn't exactly love at first sight, Hayley later received the company's Christmas video message – featuring Dan wearing a leotard and dancing to Beyonce's Single Ladies. She was sold.
However, Hayley had already embarked on legal action against the Defence Force and falling in love wasn't on the agenda.
"I was taking on two governments," she explains. "It takes quite a man to be OK about that. So although I had feelings for him, I put him in the friend zone for about six months.
"In fact, I asked him to be my support person, thinking that would be a really good way to keep things platonic while I dealt with my legal battle. That lasted about two weeks," she laughs. Hayley was open about her traumatic past from the very start, and Dan took it all in his stride.
The couple married last year. "We walked up the aisle together as a couple, choosing to enter into the marriage as equals," says Hayley, who has always had Dan's support.
Dan tells, "Right before I met Hayley, I'd been watching a documentary called The Invisible War which tackled sexual assault in the US military. So when Hayley told me the navy hadn't been a nice place to be, I guessed at what she was alluding to.
"We spoke about what she had been through. I knew it was horrible for her, but I could also see she was strong, that she was recovering and that she would make the best out of her life."
Dan quickly fell for Hayley, proposing unexpectedly – even to him – during a road trip to Invercargill, Hayley's hometown. "We were in a campervan, parked outside a funeral home, and Hayley said, 'Wouldn't it be nice if you proposed to me before we left so I could tell my grandparents?' I said, 'OK then, will you marry me?' It was totally unplanned."
They wed in February 2018, in old-Hollywood style, full of glamour, laughter and a few new traditions. Explains Dan, "I'm a feminist and a devout atheist, so we wanted to be sure that any of the normal wedding tropes made sense to us."
For instance, there were no bouquets because, as Hayley tells, they were once used to mask the smell of the unclean bodies of the bride and her wedding party.
Hayley wasn't keen on being given away, either. "So we met in the centre and walked up the aisle together as a couple, choosing to enter into the marriage as equals," she recounts.
Dan says Hayley spoke of her desire for a family "from our first date".
She's one of four – her own father is one of 12. And their beautiful daughter Matilda Rose is the – wait for it – 103rd in a clutch of Young family grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
"We're lucky I didn't get started earlier," laughs Hayley, gazing at the daughter she says has "melted my heart".
Matilda, who was born on May 23, 2019 weighing 3.34kg, is a joy, with inquisitive eyes and a mop of dark hair. "Her name means 'strength in battle', and I think that's fitting," shares Hayley, who says the stress of her unresolved case took a toll on her pregnancy.
"It should have been a beautiful, miraculous experience, but I was having mediation right up until three weeks before she was born," she recalls.
"Then I got cholestasis, which is when the pregnancy hormones interfere with your liver and bile builds up in the blood. It can be potentially toxic for the baby and I had to be induced. It took about 15 attempts to get the epidural needle in and I went into shock."
Dan – by her side and sending hourly updates to worried family – helped by unwrapping boxfuls of muesli bars "and making sure there were some sweet beats on the UE Boom. All the nurses commented on how badass my playlist was!"
Now that the little family is home, Dan's making himself just as useful. "I'm probably more routine-oriented than Hayley is," he reveals. "I have four laundry baskets on the go – one for the baby, one for everyday, one for a high temperature hygiene wash and another for woollens."
Hayley smiles, recalling how practical Dan made those long days of battling the defence force bearable. "He took a huge amount of the burden from me. When it got tough, I'd struggle with dishes, laundry and cooking meals, so he'd make sure I was eating well and taken care of."
Hayley says although the reality that her fight is over is "still sinking in", she's incredibly thankful to high- profile employment rights lawyer Jol Bates, for taking her case after a raft of others turned it down.
On the opposite side of the world, the British Government had a legal advisor with an even more impressive profile – Amal Clooney. Hayley says that although she'll never know for sure, she's confident that Amal's involvement helped lead all parties to a respectful resolution. "I'd love to have a wine with her one day," she smiles.
As to her future, Hayley is running for a seat on Napier City Council and the elections are in October.
She tells, "I'm over solving mechanical problems and I want to help solve social problems. There is a heap of issues in Hawke's Bay including growing home-lessness and the highest
rates of domestic violence in the country. I feel that many people here are vulnerable, and that a lot of the issues could be solved by giving people basic respect and love."
What will she do if she's not elected? Hayley looks stunned at the suggestion. "Hayley," Dan says by way of explanation, "doesn't really have plan Bs."
And then there's the family. It means the world to the couple to have this special time together, raising another little fighter who will no doubt go on to do great things, just like her mum.
Dan admits the journey has been hard at times, "but there have been so many proud moments. Hayley has had a meaningful impact on something that affects men and women everywhere. It's cool to be able to say that my wife has taken on two governments and changed the world for the better."
Hayley glances over at her loving husband and smiles. "Having Dan in my corner has been really reassuring," she concludes. "He's the reason I haven't lost hope in all men. I know that there are some great ones out there – and one of them is right in front of me."