The rage, the angst and that familiar unsettling feeling in your stomach as your blood boils and skin crawls….it’s nothing new. Every time a woman is wronged and goes public, it happens—all hell breaks loose. But what happens afterwards?
I cannot help flashback to 16 December 2012. Location: New Delhi, India. The infamous Nirbhaya gang rape case, as it came to be widely known, unfolded its horror across the country and the world. I was in a cab, travelling back from work, wading through a seemingly endless chain of traffic. And even though I knew the cab driver, I was washed over by that same old feeling again, of being totally alone, exposed and unsafe. Coincidentally, at the time, I had also just learned that a good friend and colleague had been a victim of child abuse at the hands of her uncle. Two decades on, she was still dealing with the mental and personality repercussions of that experience.
Personally, I knew I’d never be the same again after listening to daily news accounts featuring the horrific details of the gang rape that shocked even the most desensitised people I knew. People of every age and gender took to the streets and held peace protests and marches, as well as candlelight vigils, through the night. I never used to step out after dark in Delhi, but my husband and I spent our New Year’s Eve that year at a candlelight vigil. The streets were ominously empty thanks to a city-wide curfew, but people sat in clusters with strangers, lighting candles and sitting in sombre silence. Everyone thought, this is it—surely something so heinous had to bring about change for the good, finally?
Image: Simon Haberle
Back to 2021, a different country. The details of the act are different, but the fundamental problem? It remains unchanged—globally. On 4 March 2021, thousands of protesters gathered on the lawns of Parliament House in Canberra in protest of the sexual assault, discrimination and harassment of women, to take a stand for real change.
Brittany Higgins made a surprise appearance as one of the speakers at the event, and she summed up the challenge aptly: “We are here because it is unfathomable that we are still having to fight this same stale, tired fight.” She added, “I wasn’t a person who had gone through a life-changing, traumatic event. I was a political problem….This isn’t a political problem. This is a human problem.” Hearing her and seeing her stand up there and fighting back her tears was heart-warming and heart-wrenching at the same time.
Among the audience and the participants on the grounds that day were many of our own community. CHL Director Professor Simon Haberle; Deputy Director, Research Assa Doron; and School Manager Suzy Andrew. According to Simon, “The March4Justice rally at Parliament House was incredibly powerful. I attended to show my support and to listen and learn. Many incredible women spoke of their experiences and put forward actions on how we can all make a difference and put a stop to gendered violence.”
Suzy added that “My rage often blocks me from properly articulating my feelings when it comes to societal misogyny, but here goes. Gender inequity is endemic, and because it’s endemic, it’s been normalised. ALL women are affected. ALL women have walked home with their keys wrapped around their knuckles, covered their drink with their hand while in a bar, or moved carriages in a train. ALL women. We are more than half the population, we are not the few, and we are furious. We have been silenced, we have been gas lit, and we have been doubted when we do come forward. This march feels like the stirrings of change, but we have to keep fighting, keep educating and keep listening. ENOUGH.”
Image: Assa Doron
Assa was particularly moved by ANUSA President Madhumitha Janagaraja’s statement on the need for change in the “broken” institutions that “repeatedly and deliberately fail” to protect survivors of sexual assault. A joint Facebook statement made by both ANUSA and the ANU Women’s department, sexual violence and misogyny “is rife within our parliamentary system”. The Association cited a “toxic institutional culture of disrespect and injustice” as their motive for joining the protest.
So what now? How many times will the perpetrators get away? How many rallies will we have to hold? Culture shapes social norms, and norms include gender perceptions and stereotypes associated with masculinity and power dynamics. Without a cultural shift in mindset and institutional accountability, history will repeat itself. Again and again.
Is primary socialisation, then, the key to a mindset change? Instead of teaching our daughters to be careful and not go out or speak their mind, is it more critical to educate our sons of wrong versus right? Shouldn’t we socialise boys to see girls as human beings with equal rights to dignity and opportunity, rather than as ‘girls’ who are different? Institutionally speaking, safety measures, support networks and zero tolerance for harassment and disrespect are clearly lacking for women.
That’s not to say that the world is not on the right track. One voice at a time, one protest at a time, we are at work as a globalised human force to change the status quo, and not just women, but so many supportive and evolved boys and men, who are not OK with what’s happening.
Image: Suzy Andrew
Breaking the silence is a necessary first step. As Australian of the Year Grace Tame put it, “Evil thrives in silence,” she said. “Behaviour unspoken, behaviour ignored, is behaviour endorsed.” She also rightly pointed out that all it takes is being a “domino” to make an impact or have a domino effect: “That’s all you need to be — a domino.”
Here’s to all those women out there—in Australia and across the globe—who are done with suffering in silence. Kudos to them for their courage to stand up and say enough is enough.