Ending violence against women will take more than a cultural shift

April 22, 2024
International Women's Day march, Gadigal/Sydney, 2020. Photo: Zebedee Parkes

When Justice Michael Lee found that Bruce Lehrmann, on the balance of probabilities, raped Brittany Higgins in March 2019, women everywhere breathed a sigh of relief.

Many have watched in horror, for years, as the terrible injustices against Higgins unfolded.

Higgins, who worked in federal parliament for the Liberal Party, claimed she had been raped by Lehrmann in a cabinet minister’s office and that a cover-up had ensued.

She was driven to the brink of a mental health breakdown, hounded by lurid corporate media coverage, an aborted criminal trial and seemingly endless civil cases.

Higgins may never receive criminal justice, but a civil court judge, at least, vindicated her allegations.

Her relief was palpable when she thanked the judge for “his trauma informed approach”. She said she hoped he had “set a new precedent for how courts consider the testimonies of victim survivors of sexual assault”.

While a change in how courts treat victims of sexual assault would be welcome, this can only ever be one part of the reform that is urgently needed.

The rates of domestic and sexual violence against women are at crisis levels and rising.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, over 2021–22, 22% of women experienced sexual violence — 1 in 5 women.

Counting Dead Women shows how increasingly deadly the outcomes from these statistics are. As of April 22, 25 women have been killed since the start of the year — 11 more than this time last year.

By the end of last year, 64 women had died from violence; 56 were killed the previous year.

Most of the women were allegedly killed by someone known to them, in most cases an intimate or former partner.

These figures have women, the broader community and politicians calling for action, while wringing their hands in despair. Crocodile tears and entreaties to “do better” will not bring about lasting change for women.

Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus told a family violence symposium in Naarm/Melbourne on April 19 that “We have a crisis of male violence in Australia” and that this “scourge must end”. He said men must “step up” and help stop the crisis.

“It’s our responsibility to educate ourselves, our sons, our colleagues and our friends,” Dreyfus said.

Fine words, but how will this make the change we need?

How are families experiencing the highest cost-of-living rises in many years, and women and their children leaving violent relationships to face poverty and homelessness, meant to bring up their boys to be better men?

Even the Domestic, Family and Sexual Violence Commission (DFSVC), initiated after the Anthony Albanese government came to power in 2022, acknowledged the need for a “national plan” and for “system reform, real action on really obvious red flags”.

It called for “national crisis discussions into the devastating rates of murdered and missing women in Australia”, with particular focus on the over-representation of First Nations women.

DFSVC Commissioner Micaela Cronin said: “The rates of women dying as a result of family violence — women who are murdered, missing, or dying as a result of suicide — in this country is a crisis, and requires urgent, national attention.”

Recognising that men are largely the perpetrators of this violence and demanding change is important, but nothing will change until women are equal under the law.

Women still do most of the unpaid labour within families, including housework, child-rearing and looking after the elderly.

This “domestic labour” has been variably costed and, in Australia, is considered to be equivalent to 50.6% of gross domestic product (although it is not included in the GDP calculation).

Outside the home, women are yet to receive equal pay. The government’s Workplace Gender Equality Agency showed recently that dozens of companies have gender pay gaps of more than 50%.

Despite equal wage for equal work laws, nearly two-thirds of workplaces have a pay gap that favours men, the agency reported.

The national gender pay gap is 19%. This equates to women's median income being $18,461 a year less than that of men.

Estimations on the gender pay gap and women’s unpaid domestic labour indicates where the power in this society resides.

They show the rapacious profits-first system — capitalism — is propped up by the systemic exploitation of women.

Unless these structural disparities are addressed, simply calling for a cultural change will not mean much.

Violence against women is complex, and it does require an integrated, multi-pronged approach, as Cronin suggests.

Men do need to try harder, but that alone is not enough. To stem this national crisis, women need economic and social independence. To get there we need to continue to protest, expose the injustices and organise conferences to discuss strategies.

Talk about cultural change without addressing underlying structural inequality is window dressing.

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