Gender equality cannot be achieved until woman and girls everywhere are freed from sexual violence, writes Olivia Wells.
At a higher rate than ever, 1 in 3 women and girls in Australia will experience sexual violence. Numbers are higher in young women and higher still in our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population.
Anecdotal evidence demonstrates a major portion goes unreported and its prevalence has been unbroken and intensified through the decades. It is an intergenerational issue.
Working with families and communities I see the damage it causes every day. It is difficult to describe its crushing impacts on children, on women and men, on families — on entire communities — day after day, year after year.
Eliminating sexual violence is unlikely until we genuinely, as a whole community, address how we respond to it. I remember the speech by UN Goodwill Ambassador and actor Emma Watson to the UN. Parts of the HeforShe campaign she championed, imperfect as it was, are integral to how we respond to violence against women.
HeforShe urges boys and men to take up the cause of feminism and advocate for women’s rights. Its language inspired a global movement of young and old in what many felt was one of the first campaigns to invite boys and men to participate in the fight for gender equality.
Watson raised important truths about the state of gender equality, and the disempowerment felt to change its trajectory. That is, no country in the world can boast gender equality and conversations around it have become preoccupied with semantics. Despite its achievements as a movement, feminism is a word that many women and men no longer use nor identify with.
Anti-feminists have dubbed those who identify with the word as aggressive and man-hating and those who write or campaign in its name are often described as too divisive or impassioned to be effective. Because of this, the effort to achieve gender equality has been hijacked and used to attack those who speak in favour of it.
True gender equality, globally, may not be inevitable. In the age of Trump, the reproductive rights of women are consistently challenged and in the USA, just this year, severely compromised. Many ultra-conservative leaders and the policies they enact, sanction sexual violence.
People in the western world who describe themselves as “neo masculinists” actively advocate for the legalisation of rape on private property, within a marriage or to any woman without the protection of a man. One such person, ‘pro-rape’ American blogger Daryush Valizadeh, perpetrates these views with unashamed contempt for women every day.
Valizadeh has an enormous global following online. In 2016 he announced he would visit Australia. After having his visa denied, his followers protested and rallied in support of his self-proclaimed ‘right’ to incite violence towards women.
Valizadeh and his supporters are an extreme minority but their presence confirms the risk. Their views remind us how precarious safety is, even within the protection of the law, and reminds us of the importance of all people – men and women alike – committing to a society free of sexual violence.
What I write here is not to diminish the experience of sexual violence on men and boys, nor is it to ignore the many complex social and political reasons why societies have these figures. It is to highlight how living in a culture that is genuinely outraged by sexual violence can help victims have pride in speaking out about it.
Silence has left victims with shame, fear, resignation and powerlessness for change. Individual stories and experiences are often faceless and unheard, left to the ears of our lawyers and social workers. Engaging men in the process is undeniably important. Men and women alike must be afforded safe spaces to talk, share and learn.
Individuals can feel they are facing insurmountable obstacles in making a contribution to social progress but if the best language of inspiration we have on this issue is HeforShe, I would say this: use its sentiment to acknowledge the impact of sexual violence on women as well as celebrate our achievements and resilience.
Use it to recognise the fight for gender equality is undermined by its threat. Beyond that, use it to advocate for more support services for victims and perpetrators, safe houses, prevention services and supports in the law. Recognise just the act of living, as a survivor of sexual violence, is brave.
Reach out and listen to the stories of those who have suffered. Challenge those who work to legalise rape and yield it as a tool of oppression and control. Make an effort to understand what is like to be a survivor of sexual violence and abuse. Advocate for a country where women and girls are free from violence.
Certainly it is difficult to hear or even imagine, but it is far more difficult to have lived it.