(Image: AAP/Mick Tsikas)

Note: this article discusses sexual assault.

“Mum, why hasn’t the prime minister said anything about all those school girls being raped and sexually assaulted?’’

This is a question, from a teenager, which highlights just how out-of-touch and politically-motivated Scott Morrison has become.

Children don’t vote. They attend climate change protests, and are told to go back to school. They pen letters that aren’t answered, and write blogs that no one reads.

So far Morrison and his government have been able to get away with that. But this is different. Thousands — thousands — of school girls and former school girls have now penned gut-wrenching tales of rape and sexual assault, in a movement that will only grow louder.

This is a national issue that demands leadership. And it has highlighted, in spectacular fashion, the vacuum in that leadership that now exists in Canberra.

Is it only because teen girls don’t vote? Is it because Morrison doesn’t believe the horrid stories that are now the subject of crisis meetings at private schools across Australia? Or is it that he has no idea of how to address this unfolding tragedy, in a week when we should be celebrating International Women’s Day.

Workplace culture is important. So is the truth behind the Christian Porter affair. Both need to be addressed. But surely, thousands of young women claiming they have been subject to sexual abuse, by male peers, warrants action too. Urgent action.

This is one of the saddest weeks I can remember as a journalist — made more difficult by being a mother of two teen girls.

What can you say, other than the fact that what is happening is so wrong? That the nation’s leadership is ignoring this is an indictment on our leaders — not the brave girls who are now speaking their truth.

These girls are our future leaders. Our teachers. Our doctors. Our nurses. Our economists and money market managers and radiographers. They are our MPs, too, and perhaps there’s a prime minister among them also. God, I hope so.

But what are they learning from the inaction on their complaints now?
That, despite their enormous courage in speaking out, they are ignored? Victim blamed? The subject of complaints about youth and alcohol and youth and parties and youth and whatever?

What is unfolding in Australia is a disgrace. But it’s also a turning point: girls and young women are stepping out from behind the shadow of the shame imposed by others. They have latched on to a moment, led by Chanel Contos, and have a renewed determination to be heard and believed.

Schools have been grappling with this silently for years. School principals know that most Monday mornings bring horror and heartbreak, aided and abetted by the silence that surrounds it. They embrace their charges, and try and pick up the pieces.

And yet are our principals being listened to in this debate? Of course not.

This week, we have seen dozens of school principals — particularly of big girls’ schools — applaud the courage and conviction of their students and former students speaking out.

We’ve also seen a handful of boys’ schools decide to learn from this too, reminding their parent communities that we all need to listen to these young women. Some boys’ schools are now asking parents whether they would agree to consent lessons much earlier and pleading with parents to talk about the issue at home too.

And then there are other schools, more worried about their branding. They remain silent. Or they are seeking media advice in case they are “caught up” in the crossfire.

That’s where the problem lies here. Silence is the cancer. Inaction causes it to spread. That’s the lesson Grace Tame and Brittany Higgins and Chanel Contos and every other young woman, using her voice now, is delivering.

They deserve to be heard by every one of us. And they deserve a prime minister who does the job he was elected to do.

This cancer is destroying the future and lives of so many young women. Not one or two. Not dozens. But thousands.

Survivors of abuse can find support by calling Bravehearts at 1800 272 831 or the Blue Knot Foundation at 1300 657 380. The Kids Helpline is 1800 55 1800.

If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault or violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit 1800RESPECT.org.au.

Peter Fray

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