- by Matthew Hole
- The Guardian
- Issue #1979
The National Summit on Women’s Safety was held over two days earlier this month, bringing together a range of experts, advocates, service providers and people with lived experience to explore issues faced by women and their children experiencing domestic and sexual violence in Australia. Critics, however, have highlighted that given the government’s recent record on the issue of women’s safety, the summit may be yet another talkfest and risks missing the opportunity to create a platform for meaningful change.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison was correct in his keynote address that the statistics on violence against women in Australia are “a national shame.” One woman a week is murdered by their current or former partner. One in three women have experienced physical violence since the age of fifteen. One in five women have experienced sexual violence since the age of fifteen. Everyone – particularly men, given they are in the large majority the perpetrators – are responsible for changing the culture around how women and children are treated in society to ensure everyone can both “feel” and “be” safe.
GROUNDSWELL FOR CHANGE
The summit was launched on two grounds: A widespread public outcry for change that broke out earlier this year when two separate sexual misconduct allegations involving members of the Australian Parliament came to light – the historical rape allegation against then Attorney General Christian Porter, and the 2019 rape allegation by Brittany Higgins against an unnamed male colleague. Current Australian of the Year Grace Tame, lauded for her bravery in speaking out and providing a platform of support to other survivors, has been a central figure in agitating for change. This activity has coincided with the current “National Plan to Reduce Violence Against Women and their Children 2010-2022” nearing its conclusion, which requires a renewed plan to take its place – this summit was to collate the content of this new plan.
A range of areas were focused on in separate panel discussions: (1) Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander experiences of family, domestic and sexual violence, (2) Financial freedom – creating economic security and escaping financial abuse, (3) Roadmap to Respect@Work, (4) Alter the course – perpetrator interventions, coercive control and early intervention, (5) Violence against women is everybody’s business, (6) Police and justice responses, (7) Preventing and responding to sexual violence, (8) Safety and security for older women, and lastly, (9) Stop it at the start – prevention through advertising.
“THIS IS AN EPIDEMIC, AND OUR CHILDREN ARE AT THE FOREFRONT”
For the upcoming national plan to have greater success than the one it replaces, much more emphasis needs to be applied to prevention measures according to Tame, speaking on RN Breakfast on day two of the summit. When asked if enough is being done with respect to prevention, Tame offers that, “children have not been prioritised. One in ten children will experience sexual abuse before their 18th birthday. The way that we address attitudes is through education, education is our primary means of prevention.”
ACTIONS SPEAK LOUDER THAN WORDS
The government recently appointed Lorraine Finlay – without an open selection process to boot – to the position of Human Rights Commissioner, and her record on a range of issues show she is firmly in the camp of big business. She has spoken out against quotas for more female representation in politics, has argued for her right to offend during the Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act debate in 2016, has pushed back against an Indigenous Voice to Parliament, and most worryingly when it comes to women’s safety, has spoken out against enhancing consent reforms.
Also, within the last few weeks the government passed the Your Rights@Work legislation, but concerningly adopted only six of the twelve recommendations that required changes to federal legislation that were made within the Respect@Work report. Missed opportunities within the recommendations not yet taken up include a positive duty on all employers to take reasonable and proportionate measures to eliminate sex discrimination, sexual harassment and victimisation, as far as possible. The government has commented that it hasn’t rejected these other recommendations, but that more consultation is required. Given the report was published over eighteen months ago, it’s hard to take them at their word.
Australia has a shameful record when it comes to both domestic and sexual violence against women and children. When viewed along with the gap in living standards between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, the treatment of refugees locked up in offshore detention centres, and the abandonment of truth-telling journalists such as Julian Assange, the Australian government has no moral high ground when it comes to matters of human rights in the international arena. Yet that doesn’t stop both our media and politicians from waxing lyrical about alleged human rights abuses in other countries, whether real or imagined. Australia would garner far more respect in the international community if we were to spend more time on earnestly resolving our own problems rather than pointing the finger at others.
The struggle to improve the safety for women and children in Australia is everyone’s responsibility, and the government must play a leading role in ensuring meaningful change. We are all too often reminded that their interests lie not with the people, but with big business; that any small wins will need to be continually struggled for. It is crucial that this struggle continues.