Legislation takes aim at gender-based violence and inequality

‘Fuck the patriarchy’ — protesters at a Sydney International Women’s Day march in March, 2020
Protesters at a Sydney International Women’s Day march in March, 2020. Photo: Zebedee Parkes

The scourge of sexual violence means that many women are prevented from fully participating in society. The statistics on sexual discrimination and gendered violence remain high and are tragic.

Figures from Our Watch reveal that 1 in 5 women over the age of 15 have experienced sexual violence. On average, one woman a week is murdered by a current or former spouse.

Gendered violence often has a disproportionate impact on already marginalised groups: the risk of violence increases for women with diverse cultural, gender, sexual and ability identities.

Gendered violence extends into many workplaces. Marian Baird, Professor of Gender and Employment Relations at the University of Sydney, said in March: “Sexual harassment is a persistent and pervasive feature of women’s experience at work”.

This is borne out by data collected by the Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA), which show that women are more likely than men to experience harassment in the workplace.

The Respect@Work: Sexual Harassment National Inquiry Report, released in 2020, detailed the devastating impacts of sexual harassment in workplaces, including life-changing ramifications for women’s health, wellbeing and career progression.

It has been estimated that sexual harassment in workplaces costs the Australia economy up to $3.8 billion a year.

The Labor government has introduced two new bills aimed at reversing the gender-based violence.

The Anti-Discrimination and Human Rights Legislation Amendment Bill 2022, introduced at the end of September in response to the Respect@Work Report, aims to implement the report’s recommendations, including the introduction of “positive duty” to the 1984 Sex Discrimination Act (SDA).

Kate Jenkins, the Respect@Work Commissioner, said the introduction of positive duty “shifts the emphasis from a complaints-based model to one where employers must continuously assess and evaluate” their adherence to sex discrimination law.

The bill seeks to provide the Australian Human Rights Commission with more power to monitor and enforce compliance with the SDA. It also lowers the threshold to establish that sexual harassment has taken place in the workplace.

While the bill is a step towards eliminating sexual harassment in the workplace, some say real progress requires more policy reform and systemic changes.

Sue Bolton, a long-term Socialist Alliance councillor for Merri-Bek and Victorian election candidate for Pascoe Vale, believes that even with the new bill, more needs to be done to assist vulnerable workers, already at greater risk of sexual harassment.

She said their workplace situation is “unlikely” to change unless the reforms enshrine protection for workers. They include the provision for permanent employment contracts, instead of temporary employment, and increasing security for workers on precarious temporary visas.

Bolton said meaningful strategies to address sexual harassment in workplaces requires progress on gender inequality. This includes a cultural shift to value women’s work.

Responding to the Respect@Work report, Greens Senator Mehreen Faruqi said: “The goal of gender parity will not be achieved unless we dismantle the structures of power, privilege and patriarchy”.

Statistics show that Australia’s gender pay gap is widening and women are under-represented in workplace decision-making roles.

The federal government has released its 144–page National Plan to End Violence Against Women and Children 2022–2032, setting out an action plan to address gender-based violence.

Importantly, it acknowledges gender inequality is a major driver of violence against women and says violence against women and children is a problem of “epidemic” proportions.

The plan ambitiously aims to end violence against women in one generation. It recommends changes to legal and policing practices, such as better training for police and lawyers.

It advocates for trauma-informed support for victim-survivors and includes recommendations to increase financial supports available to people leaving family violence situations.

It explicitly mentions the need to approach gender-based violence in an intersectional way. This includes a separate action plan to address First Nations women’s experience of violence.

Antoinette Braybrok, CEO of Aboriginal Community Controlled Organisation, Djirra, welcomed the plan. However, she said: “To see change, we need long-term investment and Aboriginal led, self-determined solutions”.

Recent moves to criminalise coercive control demonstrate that First Nations voices are being ignored when it comes to informing policy and debate around gender-based violence.

A joint submission by Sisters Inside and the Institute for Collaborative Race Research in July last year criticised the approach that “assumes that gendered power dynamics shape interpersonal relationships, but not policies, laws and institutions … and erases the effects of racialised and heteronormative domination”.

They were responding to the Discussion Paper 1 of the Women’s Safety and Justice Taskforce on coercive control.

Larissa Waters, Greens Senate leader, described the government’s national plan to end violence as “laudable” however, she said that “without an increase in funding or meaningful targets, it offers little relief to those trying to escape family and domestic violence today”.

Calls, including by the Women’s Legal Service in Victoria, have been made to strengthen the plan’s focus on areas that impact the safety of women and children, including family, immigration, employment and antidiscrimination law.

This is particularly important given the ongoing barriers women face in the federal and family courts in cases of domestic violence.

[Join a Reclaim the Night event — Cairns, Illawarra, Newcastle and Sydney — near you to demand an end to sexual violence against women.]