We need, as one placard pithily stated, to talk about the elephant in the womb.
On Monday more than 100,000 people across the nation poured onto the streets to march against sexual abuse and harassment of women.
A protester in the Sydney Women’s March 4 Justice at Town Hall Square on Monday. Credit:Nine News
Tame, who was repeatedly groomed and sexually assaulted by her maths teacher, became the face of the Let Her Speak Campaign, which led to the Tasmanian government overturning laws that prevented sexual assault survivors from speaking publicly about their experiences.
“We started the shift in attitudes by allowing survivors a voice,” Tame says. “There have been a lot of resources put into inquiries, reports and other such institutional responses to sexual abuse but what we really need to be doing to create concrete change is put more resources into education and legislative reform.”
The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald consulted experts to draw up a list of five actions that would help tackle sexual violence and sexual harassment.
1. Introduce normal workplace rules in Parliament House
Former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull – who infamously introduced a “bonk ban” on ministers having sex with their staff – says attitudes to women in Parliament House remind him of the “corporate scene” 40 years ago.
Parliament House has long been criticised for its toxic culture, long hours, boozy nights, stressful environment, ferocious demand for party loyalty and permissive “what happens on tour stays on tour” attitudes.
MPs operate like small-business employers with the power to hire and fire, which can make staffers fearful that speaking out would be career suicide.
Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins will lead an investigation into the workplace culture at Parliament House and responses to sexual harassment and assault after former Liberal staffer Brittany Higgins alleged she was raped by a colleague in a minister’s office.
Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet deputy secretary Stephanie Foster will also review processes for workplace complaints at Parliament House.
Higgins – who felt that pursuing a police complaint would end her political career – has called for “an independent reporting mechanism for staff where they can confidently and safely make complaints – similar to processes in many other workplaces in Australia and abroad”.
There has been widespread support for an independent complaints body from Labor, the Greens and crossbench MPs. Prime Minister Scott Morrison last month said the idea had merit although he was waiting for the recommendations of the inquiries.
“The way staff are employed in Parliament House is quite peculiar, you are employed by the member of parliament, or by the minister, and ultimately they’re your boss,” says former Labor staffer Jamila Rizvi. “There’s no clarity about what a staff member is actually supposed to do if they experience sexual harassment or assault, particularly if that is being perpetrated by their boss.”
‘There’s no clarity’: Jamila Rizvi.Credit:Sitthixay Ditthavong
Rizvi believes MPs and ministers need some flexibility and autonomy in hiring staff, especially if a minister’s portfolio changes and they need specialised advisers.
But she questions whether this has come at the expense of staffers’ workplace rights: “I think moving the balance of power to make it somewhat more even than it is now would be a really good thing.”
Former Australian Democrats senator Natasha Stott Despoja – last year elected to the UN’s Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women – started as a staffer in Parliament House in 1991, when she was 22.
“There were just so many examples of sexism and harassment, whether it was the way that young women were spoken to or treated or overtures made towards them, often by married male members of parliament,” she says.
“It was a culture in which you were told to deal with it, be a team player, don’t be a princess, don’t be precious. But I just thought in 25 years that things would change and the fact that they haven’t means that turbo-charging change is long overdue and it is required.”
‘Change is long overdue’: Natasha Stott Despoja. Credit:Alex Ellinghausen
Stott Despoja calls for a safe working environment subject to standard workplace policies and protocols rather than the current “archaic structure”.
“Parliament House seems to be lagging behind many other institutions,” she says.
Australian National University Emeritus Professor Marian Sawer says Australia can learn from Canada and Britain, which have recently adopted codes of conduct and independent complaints mechanisms.
“In both countries staffers are publicly funded but directly employed by MPs with the power to hire and fire, creating the same structural problem as exists here,” she writes in Inside Story.
Sawer calls for those working in parliaments to have the same rights as employees in other workplaces and mandatory training in office management and harassment prevention.
“Let us hope this is Parliament’s #MeToo moment.”
2. Nationally consistent consent laws
The definition of rape is sexual penetration – either vaginal, anal or oral – with another person without them agreeing to it.
For a person to be found guilty, a court must find the accused did not have a reasonable belief the other person was consenting.
However the laws of consent vary from state to state. Tasmania has the most rigorous consent laws in Australia, based on “affirmative consent”.
Put simply, a person who wants to have sex must take steps to confirm – either verbally or by active participation – that the other person also wants to have sex.
This means that a person accused of rape cannot argue in court that they mistakenly believed that the other person had consented to sex, unless they can demonstrate the steps they took to confirm this.
Saxon Mullins, the director of advocacy at Rape and Sexual Assault Research and Advocacy, would like to see all the states follow Tasmania’s lead.
“I think it’s really important to have affirmative consent legislated, because that kind of thing trickles down into how we talk about consent,” she says.
Mullins, the complainant in the highly-publicised rape trial of Luke Lazarus, helped trigger a review of NSW’s consent laws.
Lazarus was accused of raping Mullins, then 18, in an alley near a King’s Cross nightclub in 2013.
He was convicted by a jury but later acquitted in a judge-only trial, because the judge ruled Lazarus honestly believed Mullins was consenting and therefore it wasn’t rape.
‘We see this as more realistic’: Rachael Burgin.Credit:Luis Enrique Ascui
Burgin says in the next few months they will release national benchmarks of what each jurisdiction should be doing to achieve best practice in consent laws.
“There are calls for a national definition of consent but we see this as the more realistic approach because it still gives the power to the states to legislate,” Burgin says.
“They can do that in whichever way they see fit, which is particularly important because the criminal justice system works differently across different jurisdictions.”
3. Adopt the recommendations in the workplace sexual harassment inquiry
In 2018 Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins was tasked with examining sexual harassment in the country’s workplaces as the global #MeToo movement created a mood for change.
The 18-month inquiry found progress to address sexual harassment had been “disappointingly slow” since the Sex Discrimination Act was introduced in 1984.
It noted a 2018 survey that found 39 per cent of Australian women and 26 per cent of men had experienced sexual harassment in the previous five years.
The 900-page report, launched in March last year, made 55 recommendations including a “positive duty” on employers to eliminate sexual harassment.
It also recommended better funding for community legal services and the 1800 RESPECT hotline.
So far the government has announced $2.1 million in the budget to establish a [email protected] council. Morrison says a response to the inquiry will be released shortly.
Julie McKay, the Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer at PwC, believes the report is world-leading. “I think there’s a real opportunity for us to focus on the implementation of those recommendations,” she says.
She points in particular to the “game-changing” recommendation that employers have a “positive duty” to eliminate sexual harassment, which means they would not just be responsible for reacting when an incident occurs but also have a duty to prevent it occurring.
McKay says the report carries a strong message that current sexual harassment training programs are not effective at shifting behaviour: “We do a lot of client work in this space and what I see is a lot of compliance-based training to tick the box.”
What is needed, she says, is scenario-based training that looks at how power inequality and career vulnerability and shame all play a role.
Australian Council of Trade Unions president Michele O’Neil says key areas of the report could be acted on immediately. These include giving the sex discrimination commissioner power to instigate investigations and the ability to take sexual harassment complaints to the Fair Work Commission in a “new, easy, quick complaints process”.
“Those 55 recommendations were well thought out,” O’Neil says. “We’re not starting from scratch here, we’re not starting without knowing what’s needed to ensure that workplaces deal properly with sexual harassment and assault and become safer workplaces for women.”
4. Teach relationships and sexual education from early primary school
On the day of the marches against sexual abuse and discrimination, a group of boys from Melbourne’s prestigious Wesley College allegedly made “disgusting misogynistic comments”.
Principal Nick Evans – who wrote that he had “run the gamut of emotions as a result of this news, from fury to frustration, from disbelief to determination, from shame to sadness” – said it was clear the school had work to do on its programs dealing with consent and respectful relationships.
Sexual consent and how and when it is taught in schools has been a hot topic since former Kambala girls’ school student Chanel Contos launched an online petition with hundreds of disturbing testimonies from former Sydney schoolgirls about sexual assaults they had experienced at the hands of their male peers.
More than 37,000 people have signed the petition calling for consent to be taught earlier in Australian schools’ sex education.
Contos says it was not until an ex-policeman gave a talk about consent in year 10 that she realised she had been sexually assaulted when she was 13.
She says the assault could have been avoided if the sex education had been delivered earlier. “It was the fact that I was scared to say ‘No’, the fact that I didn’t realise oral sex was rape. If I was told that information earlier that wouldn’t have happened to me.”
Principals announced reviews of their sex education programs in the wake of her petition, held meetings with police and vowed to do more.
This week Liberal MP Dr Fiona Martin called for universal compulsory education about consent, respectful relationships and protective behaviours starting from preschool.
Martin – a psychologist before entering parliament – said parents can’t ignore the reality that a lot of children are engaging in sexual activity at quite a young age.
While there are resources available to teachers and parents through organisations such as Our Watch and U R Strong, Martin wants it to be “not just passively there as a resource for teachers but actually embedded into the curriculum”.
Criminal lawyer Katrina Marson says starting education in early primary school and building throughout high school allows young people to be informed long before they act on their sexuality.
“Far from just a few classes a year where students learn how to put condoms on bananas, comprehensive relationships and sexual education must be age-appropriate, evidence-based and holistic,” she says.
Marson, the lead researcher for primary prevention projects at Rape and Sexual Assault Research and Advocacy, recently completed a Churchill Fellowship researching the implementation of relationships and sex education.
In the Netherlands, Marson says, it’s been taught in many schools for 15 years: “Evaluation studies of the program show that it results in later first sexual experiences and a decline in negative sexual experiences.”
‘Sexual education must be age-appropriate, evidence-based and holistic’: Katrina Marson.
However in Australia relationships and sexual education are being taught inconsistently in schools, she says, despite some guidance in the national curriculum.
She recommends it be mandated to be taught in all schools, saying overseas evidence has shown education needs to be driven by governments.
“The paranoia of sexualising young children is unfounded – as is the perception of the severity of the political risk it represents.”
5. More assistance for survivors of family violence
Sometimes women are faced with the horrifying choice of staying in a violent relationship or becoming homeless.
Angela Lynch, the CEO of Women’s Legal Services Australia, said economic instability and the risk of poverty were still driving factors behind women taking a long time to leave an abusive situation.
“It also drives them back, though, even if they separate. Because if they’re facing the choice of living on the streets or going back to a house where at least it’s a house – and it might be with the perpetrator – they’re going to choose often to go back.”
The government is reviewing a policy that would allow women fleeing domestic violence to withdraw $10,000 from their superannuation, after a backlash against the idea of asking women to dip into their retirement savings when seeking emergency support.
Labor and the ACTU have called for paid domestic violence leave.
Kate Ahmad, a leading member of Doctors Against Violence Towards Women, says there are not enough shelters or sufficient funding for legal aid.
“A lot of women can’t access a lawyer and some run up hundreds of thousands in legal fees just trying to keep access to their children,” Ahmad says.
Lawyer and academic Dr Hannah McGlade says Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women experience higher levels of violence and often don’t have access to justice.
She points to WA woman Jody Gore, who was sentenced to 12 years’ jail for murdering her ex-partner even though she had been assaulted by him for years.
‘Too many of our women are dying’: Hannah McGlade.Credit:Peter de Kruijff
McGlade led a 12-month campaign for Gore’s release, arguing she had wrongfully been denied the use of the self-defence law due to racism. Gore was eventually released in 2019, after serving four years in prison, following intervention from the state government.
WA Attorney-General John Quigley said that the history of domestic violence against Gore was a key factor behind the decision and announced the WA government would also make changes to the law to better account for victims acting in self-defence.
McGlade, a member of the UN Permanent Forum for Indigenous Issues, calls for a federal advisory council, primarily made up of Aboriginal women, who are experts on violence against women, including sexual violence.
She says Our Watch, a national organisation which focuses on the prevention of violence against women, is supportive. “Too many of our women are dying and suffering from sexual violence. This is a profound human rights violation and major public health issue for this country.”
With Rachael Dexter
Most Viewed in National
From our partners
Source: Read Full Article