Karina Martin, Public Health Association of Australia
“We are all here today, not because we want to be here, because we have to be here. We are here because it’s unfathomable that we are still having to fight the same stale, tired fight”, said Brittany Higgins at the Women’s March 4 Justice outside Australian Parliament House in Canberra today.
More than 100,000 people prepared to march today across the country, with thousands attending the event in Canberra, and echoing Brittany’s words, several of the signs held by protesters expressed dismay and exasperation at still having to protest gender-based violence in 2021.
Despite decades of activism for gender equality and the promotion of women’s right to live their lives free from sexual assault and harassment, the events of the past month have shown this fight is far from over. In fact, there is a growing sense that this fight may just be beginning, as the cultures in some of Australia’s most powerful institutions are being called out as toxic and unsafe for women.
Brittany Higgins said today in Canberra, “We fundamentally recognise the system is broken, the glass ceiling is still in place and there are significant failings in the power structures within our institution.” Another supporter commented ‘It’s about power and the abuse of it – a power wielded around workplaces in the country every single day”.
Brittany Higgins has been joined in the public sphere in recent weeks by other women such as Grace Tame, Dhanya Mani and Chanel Contos, who have all deplored the culture of sexual violence that results from abuses of power and discrimination against women in their schools and workplaces. Many more women have also recently come forward on social media bravely sharing their stories as survivors of assault, refusing to remain faceless and silent, often after decades of having kept their experiences to themselves. Higgins commented that she stood up today to help speak for “Those who have lost their sense of self-worth and are unable to break their silence“.
These stories – by prominent figures but also by everyday women – have led to a national outpouring of support for women’s equality and their right to live, work and learn free from sexual violence.
But there is also anger and deep frustration.
Questions asked at the March 4 Justice rally today included, “Australia passed the first Sex Discrimination Act in the world in 1984. What the hell happened?”.
Supporters at the rally also lamented Australia’s poor ranking on gender equality in comparison to other wealthy countries. Last year, Australia fell to a ranking of 44th on the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index (it ranked 15 in 2006), women continue to be under-represented on boards, in government and in leadership positions, and 1 in 6 Australian women have experienced at least one sexual assault since the age of 15. The list goes on.
While information on national sexual assault figures, federal sex discrimination laws and global equality rankings provide broader pictures of the state of women’s equality, less measurable factors also matter.
As one supporter stated at the Canberra March 4 Justice today, “Without listening to lived experience we will never achieve justice”. Listening to survivors and having these conversations at a national level is vital.
Lisa Wilkinson commented today that “Finally we have been having the conversations we have been aching to have for far too long”.
“Every single day survivors disclose violence to a system that doesn’t care enough to bring them justice…for too long, a culture of male entitlement, gender inequality and disrespect has enabled men to perpetrate horrific gendered violence against women and girls across their life span. And for many, this injustice is compounded by intersecting discriminations”.
These intersecting discriminations are critical to address in the fight for all women’s equality. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women’s voices and experiences of sexual violence continue to be silenced, despite one in three experiencing sexual assault in their lifetime.
The abuse that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women experience within a system that is already hostile toward them is also powerfully condemned in a letter by senior Aboriginal academics calling for the rights and concerns of Indigenous women to be central to national discussions about violence against women.
Sexual violence affects different groups in different ways and to different degrees, and some women are inherently more vulnerable. Whether they are from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, have a disability, are younger or older, live in institutional care, are in prison, in insecure jobs, are trans or gender diverse, these women face unique threats of gender-based violence and have less access to protections for their safety.
While gender equality is something to be practiced by individuals every day, it is only possible when the principles of respect and the right to safety by all people are upheld and promoted by institutions.
Women in Australia feel let down by these institutions, and the systems within them which are not designed to adequately protect them. When women come forward with allegations of assault, their claims are too often dismissed, and the burden of evidence is consistently placed upon them. After already surviving a traumatic experience of sexual assault, women often face disbelief, even from those they trust, and in many cases are silenced, or publicly humiliated. Rape and other acts of gendered violence have deep and lasting consequences for survivors, often including physical disabilities and mental health conditions.
This can’t go on. As thousands of women across the country asserted today, enough is enough. We must tackle the structural inequalities which enable this violence, demand accountability for misconduct, provide better support to survivors and we must strengthen our systems for preventing sexual assault.
Prevention is key, as with any public health issue. There is an enormous spectrum of systemic change that must be undertaken to dismantle gender inequality and discrimination of all kinds, ultimately helping to prevent gender-based violence.
As a starting point, the Public Health Association of Australia calls in its policy position statement on gender-based violence for the National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children 2010-2022 to be fully implemented.
With strong, targeted and evidence-based policy, it is possible to change the current situation. We can significantly reduce the number of women and girls who are assaulted and traumatised, and take steps to ensure they are safe and supported in their schools, workplaces, homes, and every other place. But for real change to occur, we need to first start listening to survivors, and to women everywhere who are no longer remaining silent.