Australians have been deeply affected by death of Jill Meagher. Community reactions to this tragedy have been overwhelmingly caring and emotional; and the people of Melbourne have shown their unwavering support for Jill, her family and for the safety of women and girls in our communities.
The public outcry and media coverage of this case has held particular interest for me as I work researching media coverage of violence against women, and recently co-authored a report with Professor Jenny Morgan and published by VicHealth, on the past 20 years of coverage of the issue.
Witnessing the Jill Meagher case unfold, I could see that this tragedy had the power to bring Melbourne’s communities together over the issue of violence against women. But as the story developed it became clear that what happened to Jill wasn’t being linked to the broader issue of violence against women. Instead, personal safety has taken centre stage.
It’s understandable that in the wake of a case like this we turn our concerns to safety — of what to do and not to do in order to stay safe. Every woman in Melbourne has stopped to consider her route home, and many have had friends and family reminding them to "be careful", to "stay safe" and to "get a cab to the door". Since then I’ve heard female friends express feelings of anxiety and fear around activities as unavoidable as riding home from work, and being alone for a few minutes in the walk between their car and their front door.
Clearly this approach to women’s safety has its problems. Not only does it exacerbate women’s already existing and ever-present fears, but it places unrealistic constraints upon their lives. Women’s "vulnerability" has become so normalised. It is easy to forget that expecting women to live in constant fear and within constraints is unfair — and based purely on gender. At best this focus on safety helps us to look out for each other. At worst it serves to blame victims for not successfully keeping themselves out of harm’s way.
In all the safety talk of the past two weeks, there has been something vital missing from the public discussion. Apart from a few exceptions, such as this article by Jerril Rechter in the National Times, the broader issue of violence against women has been absent. Little is being said about gender inequality and its role in the continuation of violence against women. Research by both the World Health Organisation and VicHealth has shown that the more rigid the gender codes and expectations held by a society, the higher the incidence of violence against women. The case of Jill Meagher is just as much about gender as it is about safety. And it is this issue that links her case to the hundreds of thousands of women who experience gender-based violence every year.
The Australian component of the International Violence Against Women Survey has found that over half of all women have experienced physical or sexual violence in their lifetime. Most of these women experience violence at the hands of men known to them — uncles, fathers, friends, or partners. Intimate (or former intimate) partners are responsible for a particularly large proportion of violence against women with over one third of women in Australia having experienced violence by an intimate partner (ABS 2005). Violence in this context often has deadly consequences with 20 per cent of all homicides in Australia being perpetrated by an intimate partner (four out of five of these perpetrated by a man against a woman).
These statistics make me wonder why we don’t see more outpourings of community concern in other cases of violence against women? There will certainly be multiple reasons why we might individually empathise differently depending on the case. Nevertheless, part of the problem is the tendency to see stranger perpetrated crime as an issue of community concern, while violence in domestic environments is seen as a "personal problem". In fact, researchers have found that violence which occurs in the home is viewed as a less serious problem. These perceptions not only affect levels of community concern, but also the rates of conviction and the likelihood that victims themselves will report the crime. Research has also repeatedly shown that victims are more likely to perceive violence against them as a crime if it’s committed by a stranger than by someone known to them.
This highlights why safe streets shouldn’t be the main focus of a discussion about gender-based violence. To do this misrepresents the risks faced by women, burdens them unfairly with managing that risk, and ignores the more difficult but most fundamental part of the problem: gender relations. Preventing violence against women is about more than safe streets; it’s about safe relationships, safe workplaces, and safe homes. And all of this hinges on our collective understandings of gender.
More than two weeks on from Jill Meagher’s disappearance, I continue to feel enormously proud of Melbourne’s response to her tragic death. I only hope that it will motivate some much needed critical debate and reflection around issues of gender and violence against women.
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