Note: This story discusses sexual assault and suicide.
There has never been such anger, hopelessness and sadness amongst Australia’s women. It’s not just that there are continuous claims of misogyny, sexual harassment and sexual assault streaming out of Parliament House; what hurts most is the official response.
It’s been nothing less than dehumanising. Regardless of the intention, it sends a message to women: we don’t care if you’re not safe, we don’t believe you, and there will not be consequences for hurting you.
There is no suggestion that any allegation should be allowed to destroy a career, nor should “trial by media” be considered an appropriate way of passing judgement.
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But the inverse should also not be considered suitable. Serious allegations must not be brushed aside, dead women should not be implied to be liars when they lack the ability to reply, and necessary inquiries and investigations should not be dodged.
Yet this is exactly what’s happening. There have been multiple allegations of chronic misconduct relating to MPs, there appears to be a serious problem with women’s safety and sexual assault in Parliament House, and a woman who has documented historical rape allegations has suffered greatly and been denied justice — her death representing a convenient loophole to evade anyone looking too closely at what may have happened.
Even as a woman of privilege, harmed by men only on the career ladder, I feel despondent about recent events. For women who have survived sexual assault and violence, this week has been deeply triggering and re-traumatising. It’s hard to move forward when justice is always denied.
So here’s where we need to change our usual course of action. We cannot let the news cycle move forward, slowly forgetting the misogyny embedded in Parliament and our government.
A smirk and a hurried brush under the carpet cannot be seen as the end of this story. Instead of debriefing only with hugs, support and shared tears, let’s also get angry and use our righteous rage and solidarity as a cathartic call to arms.
In can be hard to know exactly what to do, but there are small and large actions that both empower us and make change.
It takes less than one minute to sign a petition, so I fell back to my trusted mode of effecting change and started a petition with my colleague Dr Anita Hutchison, calling for an inquiry into safety for women at Parliament House.
This is now going to happen, led by Sex discrimination commissioner Kate Jenkins. We have also asked for Attorney-General Christian Porter, the minister at the centre of the rape allegations, to be stood down until an independent inquiry has assessed his suitability for office. (Porter denies all allegations.)
Readers are invited to sign the petition, and to maximise your impact, you can share it. We have already attracted more than 70,000 signatures.
Another way to connect with like-minded people is to attend rallies.
March 4 Justice is preparing multiple marches on March 15, the first day Parliament is sitting since recent events occurred. For those unable to attend marches, there are also behind-the-scenes way to contribute.
Less obvious ways to make your voice heard include making yourself aware of how to support women who have been abused — know your local domestic violence shelters and sexual assault support lines, know what to do if someone is raped, know how to recognise grooming and abuse and how to call it out.
If you’re a reader, keep up with the literature on modern misogyny in all its guises, and share links and thoughts on social media.
The level of naivety and internalised misogyny amongst the community with regards to these issues needs to be repeatedly challenged.
Perhaps remind people that less than 10% of rapes are ever reported, and of this number less than 5% are labelled as false. False claims include retracted claims, often driven by the trauma of reporting.
Conversely, around 25% of men admit to coercive sexual behaviour by the time they finish college. Rather less rare than false rape claims. Getting facts out there can change the whole societal narrative.
Set up a women’s group in your workplace. I am privileged enough to be vice-president of my women’s society, and it is powerful and therapeutic to bring passionate women together to agitate for change, arrange mentorship and to hold events which raise awareness and recognise inspirational women.
Keep talking about the events in Parliament House.
Keep them trending on Twitter, write letters to politicians – adversaries and allies.
Keep participating in group action.
Whilst supporting those who need extra care through this horribly triggering time, we also need to keep marching forward and calling out those who are accountable for violence against women.
Especially when our leaders turn away. And there is healing through action — and hope that equity for women may eventually be a realistic goal.
If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault or violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit 1800RESPECT.org.au.
Dr Kate Ahmad is a neurologist and social justice advocate. She is a founding member of Doctors Against Violence Towards Women.