Each year on 25th November, we mark the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, followed by 16 Days of Activism against gender-based violence. We mark these days because more than one woman is killed in Australia every week by someone known to them – most often by a past or current partner and most likely in their own home or that of their murderer. And many more are injured.
So far this year, more than 60 women have been killed in Australia. In October alone, 11 women were murdered. We cannot put our heads in the sand and imagine that this only happens in war-torn countries overseas, where mass-scale trauma, poverty and oppression have led to extraordinary breakdowns in social norms. It is happening here in Australia, in Canberra, in our communities and neighbourhoods.
The Red Heart campaign is counting every murder and manslaughter in 2018 to show the true extent of violence in Australia. This year it has counted 106 men killed, mostly killed by other men, and 64 women killed, also mostly killed by men. There is nothing inherent in being a man that means you are violent. Most men aren’t. There is nothing inherent about being a woman that invites or necessitates being a victim of violence. While the foundations of our social order, government and legal and economic systems are patriarchal in origin, it doesn’t mean they cannot change.
There is growing awareness of these issues, thanks to high profile advocates such as Rosie Batty and Clementine Ford, as well as the community and media interest. I commend the ACT Government for really working towards solving this issue, including through an investment of over $24 million for government and community programs, but we do still have a long way to go.
My work as an MLA has highlighted the barriers to justice and equality between the sexes here in Canberra. The issues of consent, intimate image abuse and access to abortion have repeatedly come up in conversation and consultation with the community. I am pleased that our majority female Legislative Assembly has supported positive change in these areas.
As the global ‘Me Too’ movement has been gaining momentum over the last year, here in Canberra I have been focused on changing the definition of consent to be a clear, unequivocal and freely given yes. Canberra is the last place in Australia where sexual consent is defined by when it is taken away, for example when someone is drunk or forced, not when it is given. This is unacceptable to me and to our community and I remain committed to working with other MLAs to change this over the next year.
Of course, tackling sexual consent issues needs more than legislative change—it needs cultural change. We all have a role to play. None of us can afford to stand by without taking action, and as the recent Doing Nothing Does Harm campaign has highlighted, this action doesn’t have to be confrontational or loud. But it must challenge attitudes and actions that degrade, demean or undermine women and contribute to a culture that, without condoning violence against women, is too often silently permissive.
It is a tragic reality that women whose partners are perpetrators of abuse are at heightened risk when they become pregnant. Reproductive coercion is also a real and frightening prospect for these women. Evidence from America shows that women who seek and are denied an abortion are more likely to remain in violent relationships than women who have access to abortion. This is one reason why I introduced laws in the Assembly this year to improve access to medical abortion—a safe, affordable and private way of terminating an early pregnancy, that helps reduce the risk of some women being controlled, manipulated and further victimised by violent male partners.
I would like to thank and acknowledge all of the organisations and individuals who tirelessly support survivors of violence and sexual assault, and work to raise community awareness. Ultimately, our shared goal must be to eliminate, not just reduce, the scourge of violence against women and the attitudes that enable it. We must all continue to challenge community attitudes and complacency. During these 16 Days of Activism, and indeed every day, I’m calling on all Canberrans to contribute to the cultural change that will make this happen.
Caroline Le Couteur MLA is an ACT Greens Member for Murrumbidgee and Spokesperson for Women.