Break the silence on sexual violence

March 2, 2021
International Women's Day march in Sydney, 2020. Photo Zebedee Parkes

When one of the keynote speakers at an International Women’s Day (IWD) function in Parliament House turns out to be the male prime minister sitting on a powder keg of sexual assault allegations against members of his own party, things appear to be bleak. (For “balance” the other keynote was the male Opposition leader.)

PM Scott Morrison used that occasion on February 25 to say he believed women should be respected. Wow.

He used the fallout from the previous week, when Brittany Higgins went public on being raped in a minister’s office, to recalibrate his message away from “I asked Jen [his wife]”, to “I oppose discrimination of any kind against women”.

He also asked for sympathy, saying it had been a “traumatic few weeks” for those who work in parliament. Maybe he was thinking of defence minister Linda Reynolds, who had to be hospitalised after he dressed her down very publicly? Maybe he was thinking about the cabinet minister who has been named by friends of a woman who took her own life last year after being denied that justice over an alleged rape decades before by that current minister?

Morrison has form when it comes to being brazen. While he has been quick to set up inquiries into Higgins’ case and workplace culture, he has refused to ask the cabinet minister to stand down while the police investigate. He has also refused to authorise an independent investigation, which Centre for Public Integrity director Geoffrey Watson has urged him to do.

As if to rub salt into the festering wound, Morrison has also appointed renowned anti-feminist MP Celia Hammond to review the process for workplace allegations. A former vice-chancellor of Notre Dame University, Hammond is on record as saying “feminism … was associated with man-hating, anti-everything agitators”. In 2013, she was worrying about women's “sexual freedoms”.

On the other hand, we are witnessing the emergence of a broad and public push-back to the parliamentary protection racket.

Women, self-organising over the internet, have decided to take their anger and calls for change directly to federal parliament and are organising to surround it on March 15. #WomenWontBeSilent is building a big following; those who cannot make it to Canberra are urged to organise with others to surround their local parliaments — as misogyny doesn’t start or end in Canberra.

The traditional IWD protests will really take off one week later than usual to coincide with when federal parliament is sitting. It will be an important protest.

An exciting aspect of this broad reaction to the allegations of gendered violence in parliament is how many people intuitively realise that IWD breakfasts, and the like, which focus on celebrating how far women have come, miss the whole point of this important protest date. The system is only working for the few.

But even for those who thought it was working for them, like Higgins, can find their lives shattered by a system that is also prepared to cover up for misogyny.

Higgins’ fight for justice is our fight, as is that of the other young women who have come forward with complaints of sexual assault. We must also fight for justice for the person who took her own life.

Sexual assault is a crime in Australia, but it is not investigated enough nor the penalties strongly enforced. It suits the system to perpetuate the idea that women make stuff up or that only a few bad people commit such crimes. This is, of course, rubbish, as government data based on 2016 Australian Bureau of Statistics data reveals.

Almost 2 million adults in 2017–18 had experienced at least 1 sexual assault since the age of 15; 1 in 3 hospitalised sexual assault cases identified a spouse or domestic partner as the perpetrator; in 2018 the rate of police recorded sexual assault was seven times higher for women as it was for men; and half of all women did not seek advice or support after their most recent incident of sexual assault perpetrated by a male.

We are not living in a post-feminist society. We are living through a moment of upsurge, where women from different generations and backgrounds are finding common cause and saying enough is enough.

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