“When I was around 17, I was assaulted by a man on the train on the way to high school. He repeatedly asked me sexual questions, commented on my appearance, attempted to touch me and very aggressively demanded that I return to his apartment with him. He left when another person got on to the empty carriage and I asked for help,” says Sarah Mulhearn, President of the UTS Womn’s Collective and UTS Student Association Womn’s Officer. “I was naive and told my family about it, I was quite upset. The first question my brother and my father asked were: 'what were you wearing?' in a very accusatory way. I had been wearing my Year 12 jersey and a pair of loose jeans.”
“Of course, we all know that vulnerability is the key determinate of assault, not clothes, but their response was immediate and almost angry, not only at the man who had indecently assaulted me, but at me myself. The more I insisted that I had done nothing to deserve the attack, the angrier they became. The idea that someone could have done this unprovoked, or worse, as I was suggesting, that there was no acceptable provocation, did not sit well in their internal, misogynistic narrative of violence.”
The enduring problem of violence against women has recently gained more visibility in our media, with online incidents like Gamergate and viral twitter campaigns against #everyday sexism leading to wider debates about violence, rape culture and how they relate to gender equality. The link between misogyny and violence has also been raised in public discussions about the enduring popularity of sports stars with known histories of domestic violence and the actions of mass killers such as Eliot Rodger and Germanwings pilot, Andreas Lubitz.
However, Mulhearn’s experience on a train reveals that milder versions of the attitudes revealed in these extreme psychopathic cases are flourishing much closer to home in the form of accepted cultural norms. A recent survey conducted by anti-violence group, Our Watch, showed that 1 in 4 young men believe violence against women, and men pressuring women for sex, is normal behaviour. The research also showed that 1 in 3 young men believe it is okay to exert some kind of control over a partner in a relationship.
Mulhearn describes how the assault she experienced was viewed as so commonplace that her report was ultimately never followed up by police. “I learnt very quickly from that experience that very few people cared about violence unless it ended in murder, and that caring about someone - like in the case of my brother and father - was not enough to make many men amenable to actually listening.”
Indeed, United Nations Women statistics show that between 15 and 76 per cent of women worldwide are targeted for physical and/or sexual violence in their life-time, not including psychological violence and abuse, and the majority of this violence will occur within intimate relationships. World Health Organisation statistics show that 30 per cent of women in relationships experience violence from their partner, and 38 per cent of murders of women are committed by an intimate partner. The majority of such cases are not reported to police and many can be falsely labeled ‘suicides’ or ‘accidents’.
“The epidemic is beyond a crisis”, says Drew Henderson, founder of Students for Womn’s-Only Services (SWOS), talking about the record number of women killed by violence in Australia alone this year. According to anti-sexism group, Destroy the Joint’s ‘Counting Dead Women Australia’ 2015 statistics, this year 37 women in Australia have died as a result of violence - around 2 per week - with many more subjected to domestic, family and sexual violence at the hands of men.
In response to these harrowing statistics, the NSW government last year introduced Going Home, Staying Home (GHSH) reforms to restructure the funding of homelessness and crisis shelters. Under the reforms, neglected regional crisis services would be bolstered by diverting funds from existing, metropolitan services, which would then be either privatised, amalgamated with more generalist services, or permanently closed.
Henderson founded activist group SWOS with fellow UTS students to raise awareness of the devastating impact these reforms are already having. “Before the reforms there were more than 100 women’s services run by women’s organisations. Now there are less than 20,” Henderson says. “Australia-wide, every second woman is turned away from refuges, including one of the women murdered this year. Women are being forced to travel interstate for a night’s stay in a safe place.” Henderson says the restructured services often lack specialist training for women and can have male staff and clients. “Women and girls who have been emotionally, physically and sexually abused are being forced to share services with men,” she says, and as a result, “some women have chosen not to use these services any more.”
Henderson was personally moved to create the SWOS campaign after learning that under the reforms, refuges like Detour House, one of Sydney’s only providers of specialist drug and alcohol rehabilitation for women, would be closed. “My mum and many of her close friends used the services. I was horrified at the thought of it closing, particularly how it would leave many people who are already vulnerable,” Henderson says.
SWOS petitioned state parliament last year to re-fund affected services, and has joined other anti-violence groups - such as No Shelter and Our Watch - in calling for an enquiry into the impact of the reforms. “We held a candlelight vigil last year with hundreds of people in attendance,” Henderson says, but “nothing has come of it.”
Henderson says government attempts to tackle gendered violence are failing to make a difference because they fail to recognise that it stems from widespread, misogynist cultural attitudes. “There is a huge cognitive dissonance issue when it comes to violence against women,” Henderson says. “Earlier in the year, the Salvation Army were forced to make a public apology when a newly appointed male manager at the Broken Hill refuge said women should not “use and abuse” refuges. It’s not just a disgusting choice of phrase, but also indicates a basic misunderstanding of why women are using these services.”
“Women are most likely to be murdered or abused in their own home. My own aunty was violently murdered in her own home in 2013 by a stranger. How do we prevent violence in our own homes?”
Public discourses still tacitly victim-blame rather than addressing the reality that the violence comes from the attitudes and behaviour of overwhelmingly male perpetrators. Even widely-respected ethicist, Peter Singer on a Q&A panel recently said that women could reduce the risk of rape by avoiding going out at night. “It’s infuriating,” says Henderson, “when people, especially men, espouse these ideas that women should learn to defend themselves, or walk in groups to stop men attacking them. Most young girls have heard this since a very young age. I understand our parents and others care about us and want us to be safe, but really they are saying “rape the other girl”, “attack the other girl”, “hurt the other girl”. Mulhearn agrees. “At its core it's rape and violence apologism and it is deeply unproductive.”
Violence against women is often framed in language as a women’s issue, but has been shown to impact society as a whole, affecting the lives of not only targeted women but their children, families and other groups who are made vulnerable by a culture of violence. Last week the ACT government formally recognised the wider impact of domestic violence on the community by broadening its definition of those harmed by violence to include children who either see or hear violence. This intergenerational impact of violence gained public attention earlier this year when Australian of the Year was awarded to Rosie Batty, a family violence campaigner whose abusive husband murdered their son in an act of violence.
Henderson says these wider social consequences of violence against women make it a human rights issue. “There are massive connections between violence against women and our responses to refugees and the NT intervention. Australians seem quite comfortable in decrying refugees as being oppressive to women, while at the same time we as a country force pregnant refugees into medically, physically and emotionally unhealthy living conditions. We use the rates of violence against Indigenous women and children to enact a racist and violent military operation in our own country, further using our own violence against the same Indigenous women and children on a systematic level. Human rights issues and violence against women are so intertwined that it is hard to discuss one without the other.”
Mulhearn says this cultural complacency towards violence reflects a lack of empathy, and that education is an important aspect in shifting attitudes away from accepting violence as a norm. “Education is such a site of empathy and compassion,” says Mulhearn. “In everyday life, male allies need to call out their friends, have those difficult conversations, do very hard work on themselves.” However, Mulhearn says, “Male allies, especially in the media, can best act as allies by stepping back and allowing women to talk about their experiences and their own knowledge. Any activism that centralises the oppressor as the source of change is doomed to failure, and patronising besides.” Mulhearn says that ultimately, there needs to be a “change in attitude to responding to violence entirely.”
Henderson says SWOS will continue to call for change. “It’s frustrating that we have to pressure government to care about women dying and being abused, but we do.”
SWOS will hold a peaceful candlelight vigil to protest the reforms on Tuesday May 26 at 5pm outside the Broadway entrance of UTS Tower Building. Speakers will include Walkley Award-winning investigative journalist Wendy Bacon and NSW MP and social justice campaigner, Dr Mehreen Faruqi. All are welcome and invited to attend.
By Rosanna Kellet