The Guardian • Issue #1997

Ending violence against women and children

Survivors of sexual abuse, Grace Tame and Brittany Higgins have spoken at the National Press Club about the continuing culture which largely ignores or underplays sexual harassment, abuse and violence. Several women across Australia have bravely revealed their traumatic experiences in the home, school, nightclub, workplace and even Parliament house with the knowledge that they may be criticised publicly, face threats, and/or lose their jobs. With International Women’s Day (IWD) approaching on the 8th of March, it is of utmost importance that these serious issues be given thoughtful consideration as to the next steps to take to avoid these crimes being committed in the first place. IWD is a significant day of worker solidarity, as it was historically coined International Working Women’s Day (IWWD) in support of workers who face discrimination on the basis that they are female.

Higgins kicked off the National Press Club address with a vocal ovation from the crowd for her courage to speak out about her experience of being raped in Parliament House, when working as a Liberal Party junior staffer. She had attended a work party and became inebriated, and expected to be taken home, but was instead taken to the Parliament House, past security guard and sexually penetrated while passing out against her consent in a minister’s office. Higgins took years to come forward due to fear of losing her job and career. Other women have since come forward about sexual harassment and abuse by the same man.

However, Higgins’ speech was not focused on these details, but on the culture of silence, platitudes from “fathers of daughters” by Prime Minister Scott Morrison, and action plans to make systemic institutional change that are not necessarily hitting the mark, but are somewhat of a “throat clearing exercise” which have little accountability to real action. Morrison was analysed in his response to the allegations in which he expressed to “imagine if it was our daughters.” Higgins was frustrated that Morrison should not only be sympathetic as a father, but as the Prime Minister, making the point that if a government is committed to making a safer environment for women, real funding and real action should be implemented to make real change.

“Sexual harassment and bullying is rife in the corridors of power,” Higgins strongly stated, while making it clear that if sexual abuse can occur in the Parliament House it is rife throughout Australia. Indeed it is, with a quarter of women in Australia revealing their experience of sexual violence and half of sexual harassment, as specified in her presentation. And while men can most certainly be victims of these crimes, women are thirty times more likely to be hospitalised and twelve times more likely to die by sexual violence.

2021 Australian of the Year, Grace Tame, approached the podium next, once again, not with a repeat of her experience, but with important considerations for ways to make systemic change. Tame was stalked, isolated, groomed and repeatedly raped by her mathematics teacher as a minor, but chose to come forward with her story to protect other girls and women. She made an important point that many boys and men are also victims of sexual abuse, but not to ignore patriarchal customs that perpetuate these crimes. Tame made the point that as a survivor of child abuse, she is dedicated to protecting children, the nation’s most vulnerable, from these assaults. She also commented of Morrison’s remarks by explaining that it should not take having children to have a conscience, and it does not mean you have a conscience if you have children. She also explained that she received a threatening phone call from a government organisation who told her not to say anything condemning Morrison.

Tame had three requests for the government to address:

  1. That the government take the issue of abuse in all its forms seriously.There can be no progress without accountability, and abuse culture will continue to set an example for the rest of the nation. Tame condemned “bandaid” corruption stunts, which do not address the issue thoughtfully.
  2. That adequate funding should be provided for education to prevent sexual abuse before it starts.While the government puts $90 billion towards nuclear-armed submarines, just $1.1 billion is dedicated to the epidemic of women’s violence. Tame pointed out that this is a measly 11 cents per student, and is clearly not a long term meaningful investment.
  3. That national consistent legislative change needs to be implemented.Legislative language needs to be changed to reflect the heinous impact of these crimes. For example, continuous sexual assault of a child is worded as “maintaining a sexual relationship,” which portrays consent from the victim. Instead, the wording Tame has suggested should be “persistent child sexual abuse.”

The Prime Minister’s wife, Jennifer Morrison, has been condemned for remarking on Tame side-eyeing Scott Morrison during a celebration for the Australian of the Year finalists. Jennifer Morrison explained that she wants her daughters to be “strong and fierce, but also polite.” It is clear that if the Australian of the Year is uncomfortable with the Prime Minister that he has not gained her trust or support as the nation’s leader, and this should be a more concerning issue than courteousness. Morrison claims he was not informed about the sexual assault against Higgins in the Parliament House.

As the Australian government continues to disappoint the public in response to this crisis of women’s safety with platitudes like the shameful “milkshake” advertisement campaign, women across Australia continue to be put at risk. IWD should bring attention to these serious issues, and focus on the safety and livelihoods of women across the nation. Women not only represent daughters, sisters, or mothers, but workers, and are an integral part of the struggle for lasting change. Women’s issues are people’s issues, and solidarity to empower those most vulnerable from violence is of utmost importance.

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