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Violence against women: an Australian failure

Women's March 4 Justice  Canberra  Monday
Women's March 4 Justice in Canberra on Monday

ALEX McINTYRE

SYDNEY - There were no mixed messages about violence against women from Australia’s former foreign minister Julie Bishop when she launched the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s gender equality and women's empowerment strategy in early 2016.

“It's insidious, it's endemic in some parts of our region and we have done a great deal to shine a light on it and to find ways that we can tackle it,” Ms Bishop unequivocally stated.

The strategy was a major statement of intent, and Ms Bishop mandated that at least 80% of the aid program include a focus on gender equality, women's issues and empowerment.

It set out to help countries like Papua New Guinea with their gender equality problems by addressing leadership (“giving a voice to women”), economic empowerment and ending violence and discrimination against women.

This included a promise to assist foreign governments improve health sector and workplace responses to violence against women.

Now, in 2021, and the current Australian government – beleaguered by the weight of rape allegations – has decided that women’s voice is no longer a right, but a matter of political convenience.

One alleged act of rape is claimed to have been committed in the defence minister’s office by a male staffer – this is with the police and an ongoing case – and another compelling accusation has been levelled against Australia’s attorney-general, the highest law officer, which has not been appropriately investigated.

These two cases are the tip of a massive iceberg of tears and emblematic of a broader problem encumbering Australian women.

More than 100,000 people – women and men – took to the streets outside parliament house and around Australia earlier this week to say enough is enough.

Justice-for-Jenelyn-protesters  Port Moresby
The death of Jenelyn Kennedy, allegedly by her partner, shocked PNG in mid 2020

Among their demands was a call for full independent investigations into all cases of gendered violence and public accountability for the findings.

This was an opening for the Australian government to demonstrate maturity, introspection and regional leadership on an issue that is – at least rhetorically – somewhere near the heart of its foreign policy.

It was a chance to tell victims of violence that it is safe to come forward and, when they do, that they will be listened to.

But it was an opportunity disdained.

Inside parliament house, prime minister Scott Morrison said that in countries not far from Australia similar marches are met with bullets.

It was unclear if the statement was intentionally evocative the streets of Myanmar or perhaps of the heavy-handed response to anti-corruption protesters at the University of Papua New Guinea in 2016, where shots were fired and many students wounded.

On International Women’s Day, just a week before the Australian women’s March 4 Justice, Bishop’s replacement as foreign minister, Marise Payne, side-stepped the issue of violence against women plaguing the upper echelons in Australian political leadership.

“We will continue to work with our partners to strive for gender equality and a better future for everyone in the Indo-Pacific region,” Payne said in a social media post.

Payne, who is also minister for women, was curiously absent from the Canberra March 4 Justice protest, as was the prime minister.

The subversive and deflective actions at the highest levels of government to allegations of rape and abuse against women by colleagues only undermine the intent of the much announced commitment to gender equity.

In fact, the message conveyed is that women are equal until they become ‘troublesome’, then they’re expendable.

Police shot protesting students
Police shot protesting students at the University of Papua New Guinea in June 2016

Australia’s use of its aid program to prioritise programs that promote gender equality should be applauded.

And there are no doubt many positive stories of the empowerment of women, their elevation to leadership positions and their greater economic participation.

But these bottom-up activities must be reinforced and reiterated by top-down role modelling.

Leaders need to be held to the highest standard.

If Australia wants to be the regional leader it claims to be, then this foreign policy needs to start at home.

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