Women are fed up

3 June 2021 | Posted In: #139 Winter 2021,

Federal MP for Sydney, Tanya Plibersek, says violence against women in Australia is a ‘national crisis’.

The revelations of sexual assault in federal politics, the Marches 4 Justice held across our cities and towns — these events have sparked an outpouring of sadness, frustration, anger, and ultimately hope. I attended the Canberra march with our leader Anthony and the rest of my federal colleagues. Not since Kevin Rudd’s Apology have I seen a bigger crowd on the parliament lawns.

At the March 4 Justice and on International Women’s Day, I’ve spoken to people from around Australia: working women and high-school students; mums and dads; grandmothers who were protesting in the seventies — and who are now marching with their grandkids. Unionists and party members who’ve been fighting sexism all their political lives.

These conversations have been raw. Women and men have disclosed abuse they and their loved ones have experienced. There’s been exhaustion (“are we still having this same conversation?”) and some guilt too (“we thought we would have it fixed by now — or at least closer to fixed than it is”).

When one in five women over the age of fifteen has experienced sexual assault, and 72 percent of women have experienced sexual harassment, and one in three women has experienced domestic violence, and around one woman a week is murdered by a former or current partner, violence against women is a national crisis.

The march might have been prompted by events in parliament, but it was about all women: the new army recruit, the doctor doing her internship, the bus driver, the cleaner or nurse or factory worker or shop assistant experiencing harassment at work. It was about the girl feeling uncomfortable at school; or the woman being abused in residential aged care; or the women abducted by a stranger or bashed or murdered by someone who said he loved her.

It’s time to change attitudes and it’s time to change laws. Government has a role in both. Our justice system is stacked against victims of sexual assault and harassment. Giving evidence, going through an adversarial court process, speaking about trauma — these can all be excruciating. And even then, only a tiny fraction of these cases ever ends in conviction.

An estimated one in ten rapes is reported to police in the first place. In NSW, of the 15,000 alleged sexual assaults reported to the police in 2018–19, just three percent ended in guilty verdicts. This is a broken system. I want more rapists in gaol. Most importantly, I want to prevent rape from being committed in the first place.

These aren’t new problems. There are decades of reports sitting on the prime minister’s desk about women’s safety. I began work on the National Plan to Reduce Violence Against Women and Children in 2007. Since then, we’ve had reports by the Family Law Council, the Law Reform Commission, the Human Rights Commission. We’ve had state-led reviews and royal commissions. We’ve had parliamentary committee reports. The recommendations are there. The work has been done. What we really lack is a government willing to act on them.

Yet for all the sadness and anger, there’s also hope. The generation of inspiring young women whose bravery has made this possible will need our backing in coming months and years. Women like Grace Tame, Saxon Mullins, Brittany Higgins, and many, many more are demanding change. We must deliver for them — and with them.