Conflict Alerts

Conflict Alerts # 347, 18 March 2021

Australia: Women fight against sexual violence 
Avishka Ashok

In the news
On 15 March, close to 80,000 people participated in the March4Justice protests, which took shape in 40 local events spread across Australia. The organization urged the public to sign a petition which demands four actions from the government: independent and timely investigation into all cases of gendered violence; complete execution of all recommendations in the Australian Human Rights Commission's Respect at Work report; lift public funding for addressing gendered violence; and enactment of a federal gender equality act that will audit parliamentary practices.
 
On 14 March, over 5000 women participated in the protests in Perth. Canberra, Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Darwin, Adelaide, Hobart, Talbot and Wollongong also saw thousands of people protesting against the persistent sexual violence and inequality meted out to women and girls in the country and demanded the dismissal of the perpetrators from Parliamentary positions. Brittany Higgins, the first plaintiff, also delivered a speech in Canberra and said, "We fundamentally recognize the system is broken, the glass ceiling is still in place, and there are significant failings in the power structures within our institution." 
 
Issues at large
First, the trigger behind the protests. Brittany Higgins, a former liberal-party political advisor, filed a complaint against a colleague who raped her while she was unconscious after being inebriated. She also spoke about how she was silenced, and the incident was covered up in the days to come when she tried to raise the alarm at her workplace. In the days after Higgins' complaint, three other women also raised their voice against the same individual. This triggered a movement of numerous women standing up to express their experiences in Australian schools, workplaces and social settings where they suffered sexual abuse. The recent protests are a reaction to the continued mistreatment of women and the government's inadequate response towards women who complained about sexual abuse. 
 
Second, the dismissal of the case by the government. Even when women like Brittany Higgins come forward and talk about abuse, society tries to silence their voices to protect their interests. Higgins' initial complaints were ignored by the current Defence Minister, Linda Reynolds, who called her a "lying cow" in the wake of her revelation. The identity of the accused individual still remains to be unknown and is being protected by the media companies and former workplaces. When less than 10 per cent of the victims of sexual abuse worldwide seek legal assistance, the Australian government sends a dangerous signal to the perpetrators of crimes against women by their actions.
 
Third, Australia's worsening gender gap. According to the World Economic Forum, Australia ranked 15 in 2006 on the Global Gender Gap Index. In a matter of a decade, the rank plunged to 44 in 2020. Australia ranks 57 with regards to the political representation of women and 49 on the economic participation gap. Despite being in an equal league as other western countries in terms of infrastructure development and economic progress, Australia has been continually falling back on gender equality goals.
 
In perspective
The March4Justice calls for a cultural change in the values and behaviour of society. Despite immense anger, instantaneous changes are hard to come by because of the patriarchal society. The Parliament's lackadaisical approach and reluctance to react strongly on the matter reaffirms the fundamental discrimination towards women in political and social institutions, which create a hostile, dangerous and unfriendly environment for women everywhere.

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