Australian Conservatives leader Cory Bernardi must have been furious when, in the space of less than 24 hours, White Ribbon Australia (WRA) back flipped on its decision to drop support for what he claimed was a “radical abortion policy”.
WRA initially redacted its 2017 statement supporting reproductive rights on October 18, with CEO Tracy McLeod telling Buzzfeed that day that the organisation was now “agnostic” on reproductive rights “until our stakeholders tell us it is important”.
McLeod denied the redaction had come about because of pressure from religious groups or Bernardi’s party.
But that didn’t stop Bernardi boasting that his Australian Conservatives had “notched up another win for respecting Australian values”.
Bernardi has long been after WRA: in 2017 he accused it of supporting “late-term abortions” and unsuccessfully moved a motion in the Senate to get senators to demand answers.
The Queensland parliament’s recent decision to legalise abortion must have given him nightmares.
The outcry at WRA’s redaction of its 2017 statement was fast and furious, leading it to reverse its position the next day.
Marie Stopes, a national not-for-profit provider of sexual and reproductive health services, was among the many who demanded to know which “stakeholders” WRA was referring to.
White Ribbon has “left us confused”, a spokesperson for Marie Stopes said on October 23, adding it was also a stakeholder and had not been consulted.
The statement said: “We maintain our current position of not working with White Ribbon until such time as the organisation can demonstrate an ongoing, strong commitment to reproductive rights.
“We know that there is a growing evidence-based link to Intimate Partner Violence, Family Violence and Sexual Violence.
“To address it, it needs to be part of the community response to prevent violence against women.”
The Marie Stopes statement ended by saying: “The most important issue we face with reproductive coercion is the lack of research on the prevalence and various lived experiences of the issue. This research will help all of us working in the sector to appropriately respond.”
Brisbane woman Laura (name changes to protect her privacy) told Buzzfeed on October 22 that she had been coerced into keeping an unwanted pregnancy due to her partner’s “emotional abuse, controlling and harassing tactics, which later escalated into physical abuse”.
“The entire nine months I was trapped in his control, reliant on him and subjected to emotional turmoil.
“The thing is, women try to gain strength and speak up for themselves in situations like this, but it ends in the physical abuse.”
As WRA prepares for its annual White Ribbon Day on November 23, many more are asking questions about its purpose and effectiveness. It has demonstrably failed in its core brief: to end violence by men against women.
The prevalence of violence against women in Australia is rising. The latest recorded death was on October 22, when 24-year-old Toyah Cordingley was found on Wangetti Beach, north of Cairns.
Cordingley had written about violence against women, clearly aware of the danger.
As of October 26, Counting Dead Women Australia estimates that 58 women have been killed since January 1.
Public discussion about this devastating social malaise has risen in recent times, largely driven by feminists with an analysis of structural sexism.
But, while the global #MeToo campaign has fuelled awareness of the extent of the problem, awareness on its own does not translate into solutions.
Ignoring the root cause
This is also where WRA falls down.
A look at its website shows it provides little to no analysis of structural sexism and misogyny.
Its programs are designed to look like it is doing something when there is scant evidence it does.
Appointing high profile “ambassadors”, such as former prime minister Tony Abbott, and asking people to organise and host morning teas, can hardly be considered a serious strategy.
Board appointments have also been questionable at best.
WRA board member Nicholas Cowdery recently resigned following his victim-blaming comments about Keli Lane during his time as NSW Director of Public Prosecutions.
Lane is serving a sentence for allegedly killing her two-day-old daughter in 2010. She was convicted on the basis of circumstantial evidence and the child’s body has never been found. Lane maintains her innocence.
When asked if he considered Lane a threat to the community, Cowdery replied: “She seemed to be a bit of a risk to the virile young male portion of the community.”
This is the problem with government-appointed or influenced bodies such as WRA, which are not connected to real movements for reform.
WRA receives most of its direct funding from donations. It has as partner organisations ANROWS and Our WATCh, which are largely funded by state, territory and federal government grants to the tune of millions of dollars.
WRA should be shut down and the funds redirected to those combating sexism and misogyny on the front line.
This would include groups such as the students behind End Rape on Campus, who produced The Red Zone report into sexual harassment, assault and hazing rituals at Australian university colleges.
They have suggested many concrete reforms for tackling violence against women, which university administrations continue to largely ignore.
To combat sexism and misogyny we need to first acknowledge its institutional nature.
From there, we will find lasting solutions.