Thousands march to reclaim the night


By Margaret Allum

While the traditional focus of Reclaim the Night marches has been on violence against women, some RTN collectives this year included a broad range of demands relating to women's right. Marches were held around the country on October 30 (October 29 in Parramatta and Wollongong).

Virginia Brown reports from Melbourne that a 1000-strong rally and march protested against the endemic sexism and violence facing women in the streets and, more often, in their own homes.

The theme was "Reclaim the Night: 20 years of struggle". A participant of the first RTN rally in Melbourne, Bebe Loff, remembered the 400 women who first marched against still current injustices.

Annette Xibberus again welcomed the participants to Wurrundjeri land. The Cairns Rape Crisis Centre sent greetings, as did many other Reclaim the Night collectives.

Anne O'Casey from the Heather Osland Support Group spoke of the abuse that Heather had suffered, with little support for her or others like her from police.

Lisa Frankland, a high school member of Resistance, spoke of sexist images in the media contributing to eating disorders. With the loud support of the rally, fashion magazine covers were burned. Frankland proudly declared that young women have not abandoned feminism.

The march paused at Parliament House to condemn the failure of the state and federal governments to decriminalise abortion.

Disappointing was the action of a minority of RTN collective members who distributed unsigned leaflets at the rally, attacking the collective's majority decision that men could be present at the rally and line the streets of the women-only march in solidarity. Despite this incident and some rain towards the finish, the rally was a huge success, ending in a celebratory women-only dance at Storey Hall.

Male participation was also an issue in Brisbane, according to Karen Fredericks, where around 2000 women marched under umbrellas through the city, cutting a noisy, vibrant and brazen path through streets lined with people waving and whooping in support.

As the marchers gathered at King George Square, a list of demands was read. The biggest cheer of the night was for the demand for full funding for the abortion rights centre, Children by Choice, and for legal recognition of the right to free, safe abortion on demand.

Controversially, representatives of the RTN collective called for all men, and boys aged over 13, not to participate in the march or enter the festival site at Musgrave Park. A 13-year-old Resistance high school activist and participant was asked to leave the march because a marshal did not believe he was 13.

A male sound technician who was adjusting microphones fled the stage when an announcement was made declaring the festival a "dick-free zone".

However, the support of a male contingent which lined the march waving Resistance and Democratic Socialist placards — "Stop Violence Against Women: Fight Sexism" — was warmly acknowledged by the vast majority of the participating women.

According to Amanda Lawrence, the march in Canberra was the biggest in several years. Three hundred women and men rallied to hear speakers such as Patricia Easteal, an Australian National University academic who spoke of the lack of justice for women within the legal system.

Helen Leonnard from the Women's Electoral Lobby spoke, as did Agnes O'Shea, an elder from the Ngunnawal people, who pointed out that Aboriginal women are still one of the most disadvantaged groups in Australian society. A performance by the Jarrum Aboriginal Dancers opened the rally, and it closed with a Rape Crisis Centre speaker.

Angela Luvera from Wollongong reports that around 250 women met at Lowden Square and marched to the Wollongong Mall Amphitheatre, fire twirlers and drummers included, asserting, "Yes means yes, no means no, however we dress, wherever we go".

Vivienne Cunningham-Smith discussed the issue of safety hindering women's role in society. Betty Little, an indigenous activist, spoke of her experiences as a victim of sexual assault and as a counsellor.

Amie Hamilton, from Resistance and the RTN collective, commented on the destructive role of the media, the court system and police. "Under the current system property comes before people", she said. "Police don't consider violence against women a priority."

Participants later attended a concert featuring musicians who had made a CD to raise awareness of sexual violence.

In Lismore, Kelli Fox reports, more than 200 women, some with children, enlivened city streets with a noisy rally and march, including music and speakers. Bundjalung elder Aunty Faye Smith welcomed the rally to Bundjalung land.

Counsellor Sally Phillips described the crisis in funding services for victims of violence: two workers covering a huge area with a population of around 200,000 people.

Kath O'Driscoll, from the Southern Cross University women's collective and Resistance, stated that sexual violence is a social problem and not due to human nature. Riteria Nikora also spoke.

Five hundred women and their supporters gathered in Russell Square, Perth, writes Sarah Stephen. Men opposing violence were encouraged to attend the rally wearing white ribbons, and march on the footpath alongside the main march.

The theme included demands around sexist, racist and homophobic violence: support for Aboriginal sovereignty, an end to black deaths in custody and anti-discrimination laws applying to gay men, lesbians, bisexual and transgender people.

A Nyungar woman welcomed people onto Aboriginal land, speaking passionately about her pride as a black feminist. Other women spoke of abuse and the murder of their children at the hands of their male partners, and of domestic violence within lesbian relationships.

A woman involved in the first RTN march in Perth in 1978 recalled the intimidating ordeal of eight women, wearing face paint, marching defiantly down one of Perth's main streets, then being arrested and manhandled by police before cheering onlookers.

On the open microphone, a speaker highlighted the need to stand in solidarity with our sisters struggling against brutal dictatorships throughout the region.

"Hands off — our bodies are ours" was the theme for the 2500-strong rally and march in Sydney. Triple J's Sarah McDonald compered the night.

A central demand was that the government reverse the funding cuts to sexual assault services, and acknowledge the extent and effects of violence on women and children.

A representative from the Sex Workers Outreach Project discussed rape and sexual assault against sex workers.

Annette Heathwood from the YWCA and Margaret Sargent from the Older Women's Network spoke of the effect of assault on young women and older women, respectively.

An Indonesian woman had prepared a speech dealing with rape and violence against Indonesian women, but it was delivered by another woman for fear of reprisals. Senator Natasha Stott Despoja asserted that getting more women into positions of power would achieve change.

Men were allowed to line the march, some male members of Resistance and Democratic Socialist Party making up a large, warmly welcomed contingent of support. Entertainment was provided at First Fleet Park by a range of female performers.

More than 100 women marched from the Cumberland Women's Health Centre Parramatta mall, where they rallied under the theme of "Celebrating Struggle, Challenging Violence".

Four sexual abuse survivors gave accounts of their harrowing experiences. There were speakers from non-English speaking backgrounds, including Ida Pay from the Burmese Women's Association, Rugmini Venkatraman and Jayantha Alewisham from the Pendle Hill Crisis Centre.

Also on the platform were Lisa Nero from the Violence Against Women Specialist Unit and Winsome Matthews, an Aboriginal activist.

Bronwen Beechey writes that more than 400 women marched through Adelaide, chanting "Racist, sexist, anti-queer, violence is not welcome here", and accompanied by the Bangshees drumming group.

Male supporters, including members of Men Against Sexual Assault, Democratic Socialists and Resistance, gathered at Rundle Mall with banners and placards supporting women's right to be free of the fear of violence.

Gabrielle Cotton from the Rape Reform Coalition explained that the coalition has campaigned to prevent the case notes of sexual assault counsellors being used in court, and to change the too narrow definition of consent.

Max Adlam, an organiser with the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union and campaigner for the rights of women in the work force, stressed the need for women to continue campaigning and building a strong women's movement.

Melanie Sjoberg, from Action in Solidarity With Indonesia and East Timor, linked increasing violence against women in developing countries with austerity measures imposed by the World Bank and IMF and called on Australian women to support these women's struggles.

Ella McHenry from Resistance described pressures on young women to conform to artificial standards of beauty. Afterwards, there were fire dancers and the a capella choir Shementempo.

From Hobart, Kamala Emanuel reports that 150 women beat saucepans, yelled, sang and chanted in a vibrant march. "Twenty years of protest — women will not be silenced" was the theme of the rally in Franklin Square.

The RTN collective presented a series of stories highlighting the fact that violence against women and children goes beyond rape and assault and includes discrimination against lesbians, unemployment, the "beauty myth", peer pressure, sexual harassment and the state racism experienced by the stolen generation.

Each participant held up a placard carrying a letter. As the negative aspects of the stories were told, the letters spelled "violence"; as stories of overcoming the violence were told, the letters spelled "strength". People especially cheered the declaration of a woman who had found work: "Now I can tell Centrelink to get stuffed".