As an MP in the NSW Parliament and a former mayor, I’m used to copping a fair amount of criticism for standing up for what I believe in. I’ve been verbally abused, shouted down, sworn at and insulted.
But when I wrote to every man in my electorate asking them to join me in taking a pledge to end violence against women, I wasn’t expecting to receive any negative reactions, let alone a response in the form of a one-line email: "What if the bitch deserved it?"
As a White Ribbon Ambassador, I am hosting a White Ribbon Day barbecue in my local area to raise awareness for the campaign to end violence against women. I believe this is a unique opportunity for our community to stand together and pledge never to commit, excuse or remain silent about violence against women. I wanted to write personally to all the men in my electorate because I believe the change begins with men.
The White Ribbon campaign was born out of an event of tremendous horror and violence. In 1989, a young man walked into the University of Montreal and killed 14 of his female classmates. Two years later a group of men established the White Ribbon campaign as an annual awareness raising event that has since grown across the world. The UN later established November 25 as the international day for the elimination of violence against women, with the white ribbon as its symbol.
Violence against women is one of the most widespread human rights abuses. Globally, thousands of women and girls are abused and murdered every day. Women are attacked and raped in armed conflicts, with many of the crimes unreported and many victims unnamed.
In September tens of thousands marched to demonstrate their grief at the heart-wrenching, brutal murder of Jill Meagher in Melbourne. Jill’s story struck painful echoes in many who had never known her — I was one of those who felt strangely devastated, as if I had lost someone dear to me. We felt this because Jill was not just one woman — she was someone’s wife, someone’s daughter and someone’s sister; she was a friend to many and she could have been someone who was very dear to any one of us.
Her beaming smile in the news stories is the same beaming smile we see in the women we spend our lives alongside — she could have been one of my wonderful sisters, or a beloved friend. For me, the unspeakable violence perpetrated against Jill felt like a universal devastation. It felt like something we should all be actively working to stop.
Every day I feel privileged to represent a truly wonderful part of Sydney — an area home to some of Sydney’s wealthiest and best educated residents as well as many of our most vulnerable and disadvantaged. I’m a strong supporter of the Elsie Women’s Refuge in Glebe, a unique organisation providing specialist support to women and children experiencing or at risk of homelessness due to domestic and family violence. The dedicated workers of Elsie Women’s Refuge help some of our community’s most vulnerable women and children patch their lives back together after truly horrendous and frightening experiences.
The staff work quietly and steadfastly, with little resources and for little pay. The refuge itself is nondescript: it is an unremarkable terrace on an unremarkable street in an average neighbourhood — and for safety reasons, it has no published address.
The women who staff the refuge do their work for little recognition — their stories and the stories of the women they help are largely untold. If they were, we would be appalled. The women who fled to the refuge live in constant fear that they or their children will be punished for daring to seek a life without constant fear and violence. The women who have been thrown up against walls, whose children have cowered in fear, who will struggle for years to trust anyone.
For much of the community, these women and their stories — both awful and inspiring — might as well not exist. There are good reasons for this: to ensure the safety of the women and their children. However, it means that many of us will never know the dreadful, life-shattering impacts of violence against women. And we won’t know how important it is to end it.
The man who sent that disgraceful email to me clearly has no insight into the way violence can destroy a woman’s life and make her despair for the world. When I first read the email I was overwhelmingly ashamed that a man in my electorate was interacting with the women in his family and his community — our community — with such a violent attitude. If I was unsure about the need for a campaign against violence in my community, if I thought it was a problem for other people, I was clearly wrong. We still have so far to go.
This week I spoke in Parliament on a motion recognising the importance of White Ribbon Day. I was disappointed that I was the only man who spoke on the motion — to their credit, both major parties had representatives speak on the motion, however they were all women. I genuinely believe if we are to end violence against women, it is time for men to start taking more responsibility. We need to speak up, be good role models and intervene safely when we see violence against women. We need to promote positive attitudes and behaviours toward women and we need to be alert to the actions of other men.
On Saturday I will tie a white ribbon to a tree to symbolise my pledge never to commit, excuse or remain silent about violence against women. I have personally invited all the men in my electorate to do the same because I believe the change begins with us.
I hope that women will feel welcome to also take the pledge to demonstrate our shared commitment as a community. Whatever we choose to do and however we choose to express it, I believe it’s time we all stand up, speak out and swear this oath loudly — because the women on whose behalf we are speaking often have no voice at all.
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