Australia is not doing enough to protect women from male violence, and organisations and the government must come together to forge a way forward on the issue, Kate Grosser and Alison Pullen write.
According to the United Nations (UN), violence against women and girls is the most pervasive human rights abuse in the world, and was a focus for UN Women on International Women’s Day in 2020.
Nothing could have reinforced this to the Australian community more than the funeral of Hannah Clarke and her three children, which took place the following week. Hannah’s estranged husband, Rowan Baxter, murdered her and her children by dousing them with petrol and setting them alight in their car on the way to school.
The case of Hannah Clarke is an extreme example of the gender-based violence that is pervasive in Australian society, and some evidence suggests this violence is getting worse. In 2018 for instance, one-third of Australian employees reported sexual harassment over the previous five years, representing an increase from one fifth in 2012 and from one tenth in 2003.
How would society react if this was a crisis for men? Imagine if these statistics, from UN Women, were reversed, so the picture looked like this:
Globally, more than 82 men a day killed by their current or former intimate partner.
Boys represent more than three quarters of child trafficking victims, mainly for the purpose of sexual exploitation by women.
At least 200 million men and boys aged 15-49 having suffered genital mutilation in 30 countries.
About 15 million adolescent boys worldwide having experienced forced sex at some point in their life, with only one per cent ever seeking professional help.
In the United States, an estimated 23 per cent of male undergraduate university students across 27 universities reporting experienced sexual assault or sexual misconduct by women in 2015.
This hypothetical for men is reality for women. It is hard to imagine such societal inaction if it were men in this position.
Globally, male violence is normalised through war media, violence in sport, violent video games, and pornography characterised by aggressive male behaviour. Even in countries doing well on gender equality such as Iceland and Finland.
Pornography is a key element of this story. Australian research shows 99 per cent of male respondents under 30 years of age reported accessing pornography in the previous 12 months, 35 per cent daily, and a further 46 per cent on a weekly basis.
Significantly, approximately 90 per cent of scenes in bestselling pornography contain physical aggression, with perpetrators usually male, and their targets overwhelmingly female. It is time policymakers took seriously what this does to normalise violence against women.
A start would be naming the problem of male violence more specifically. ‘Domestic violence’, ‘family violence’, ‘intimate partner violence’ and ‘gender-based violence’ are common terms, but they do not call out that it is men who overwhelmingly commit these often-criminal acts.
This distinction is not about blaming men – statistics on male suicide rates, alcoholism, and risk-taking, including at work, do not paint a happy picture. However, society must tackle norms, policies, and institutions that make male violence seem normal, including language.
Australians need to accept that the persistence of violence towards women is partly because violent men are exercising, on a small scale, the power and the control that men in general have over women in society. This violence is one outcome of a society where patriarchy dominates, and gender inequalities prevail.
The first step Australians can take is asking themselves a key question: ‘How are the organisations I am a part of perpetuating, or inadvertently supporting, male violence towards women? This might be in the workplace, in their supply chains, or through their products and services?’ If they can answer this, Australia may have a path to an active role in preventing violence.
In practice, this question most commonly surfaces in the workplace, making it a crucial site in the pursuit of women’s safety. In particular, organisations often face this when women bring complaints about sexual violence or sexual harassment to the attention of managers.
The ways employers manage reporting and support staff is central to women being able to work and support themselves and their families, as is ensuring that there are appropriate consequences for perpetrators. Staff training is crucial, but insufficient without additional measures. Without safeguards in place, organisations can function as breeding grounds for hyper-masculinity, perpetuating values, attitudes, and workplace culture that provides fertile grounds for violence.
If Australia hopes to prevent abuse as a whole, rather than wait for individual complaints, its workplaces need to face up to this question. Every employer needs to ask in what ways its culture inadvertently tolerates, or even condones, violence towards women throughout its operations.
Proactively managing gender equality in this way would see employers tackling the ways acts of violence, including sexual harassment, lead to low job satisfaction, commitment, and productivity, and even absenteeism or employment withdrawal.
At the level of the government, two international policy developments in the last year are of great help in Australia’s fight against violence against women. The first is the International Labour Organization’s Convention 109 concerning the elimination of violence and harassment at work. This convention requires states not just to prohibit violence and harassment in law, but also monitor and enforce such law.
This includes requiring employers to ‘identify hazards and assess the risks of violence and harassment, with the participation of workers and their representatives, and take measures to prevent and control them’.
The second is the new United Nations guidance on gender dimensions of the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, released in June 2019. This calls for all organisations to ‘protect, respect and remedy’ the rights of women in the context of business-related human rights abuses.
This involves addressing both specific and systematic abuses affecting women, including ensuring changes to discriminatory power structures, social norms, and hostile environments that are barriers to women’s equal enjoyment of human rights. Australia must do more to meet these international obligations and fulfil these policies.
On the domestic front, the 2020 Respect@Work: National Inquiry into Sexual Harassment in Australian Workplaces report recommends an amendment to the Sex Discrimination Act to introduce a duty on all employers to take reasonable and proportionate measures to eliminate sex discrimination, sexual harassment and victimisation. This would also be a step in the right direction.
If Australia is truly committed to ending male violence against women, then it must adopt and enforce these policies. The government can work with organisations more effectively to prevent this violence. That said, all Australians must act, not just government, and take on a collective responsibility to prevent male violence against women anywhere and everywhere.