Jill Meagher’s senseless rape and murder on Melbourne’s Sydney Road sparked an impassioned national debate on the safety of women in Australia but, 10 years on, how much has really changed, and isn’t it time that men stand up and do more about it?
It seems like a simple ask: can’t a woman or young girl walk home alone from a party or bar, without being assaulted and murdered? But, even in a country like Australia, the answer can still be no, they can’t.
This week marks a particularly chilling anniversary for Australian women and girls, the brutal, random murder of Jill Meagher. Jill was walking home along on Sydney Road, Brunswick when she was dragged into an alley, raped and strangled to death before her murderer hastily buried her in a shallow grave. Jill’s last ghostly image caught on a Sydney Road shop’s CCTV looking nervously over her shoulder after being followed by her attacker will forever haunt many Australian women who have walked home late and alone. We have clutched keys, pretended to phone imaginary boyfriends or changed our route to include busier, better-lit streets. That fear sets in as soon as the sun goes down; we can feel people following us from metres away and if that person is male we immediately go into fight-or-flight mode.
Immediately after Jill’s death 30,000 people took to the streets in anger. Five years later, in Carlton North’s Princes Park, 10,000 people lit candles for Dixon, and over in London, hundreds joined a vigil for Sabina Nessa, the young schoolteacher murdered as she walked home from the pub one year ago.
I don’t feel my daughter is any safer than when I grew up in the 1980s, and I would teach her the same safety techniques I have carried with me for decades. This is not progress.
Men continue to murder women at the rate of one woman a week. They are stalking and killing women they don’t know, and snuffing out the lives of women they purport to love. First Nations women, trans women, disabled women; mothers, daughters, sisters – and yet the issue is still seen as a woman’s problem.
This is a man problem.
When the murder of a woman makes headlines, many men appear shocked; they march, and they shout and they light candles. But then they return to living their lives and default to ignorance and silence. Very few are addressing this issue. This is not helping.
If all the men are shocked then who is doing the assaulting or the harassing? A part of the problem here is a deep disregard for women and girls in Australian society.
This is a national disgrace so devastatingly serious it feels like we need a Minister for Men’s Violence. Australian men are killing Australian women, weekly, like clockwork.
For every Meagher and Maarsawe there are names you don’t know quietly added to the Counting Dead Women website.
A study from Australia’s National Research Organisation for Women’s Safety (ANROW) last month actually found that the problem is even worse than we thought. More than half of Australian women in their 20s have experienced sexual violence. The figure was one third of women in their 40s and a quarter of all women aged 68-73 have experienced sexual violence during their lives. The figures are thought to be even higher because much of the violence against First Nations women and the gender-diverse community are routinely underreported and often blatantly ignored within the media landscape. Due to a combination of intersecting factors including racism, transphobia, ablesim, and sex worker discrimination.
This abuse has had long-lasting consequences with these women experiencing poor mental health, physical health and high levels of financial stress.
Plan International Australia and the incredible young women and gender diverse people we work with have campaigned and worked on young women’s safety for years. Earlier this month, we helped launch the new Stand Up Against Street Harassment intervention campaign in partnership with L’Oreal Paris Australia – it is part of a global movement across 37 countries and is focused on raising awareness about how people can be impactful bystanders when they witness street harassment.
Gender-based violence is a wide spectrum, and while not all perpetrators of street harassment, for example, will go on to commit monstrous crimes such as rape and murder, there is a tangible link. There are a multitude of ways women can be abused, and harassment is one of these. A cat call might seem insignificant but it is like a crack in a car windscreen: you can ignore it but it weakens the whole infrastructure and when that breaks down the results can be deadly. If we don’t speak out about this and hold people to account, it can and will get worse.
Normalising and brushing off sexual harassment does not always lead to murder, but it can, and it does. It is indirect permission to take things further.
There has been progress on street safety in recent years, such as the NSW state government announcing a $30 million project making outdoor spaces safer for women at night. The money will be used to improve lighting and make walking home safer for women. This is an excellent blueprint and what we have been calling on for years. Several years ago, a new Women’s Safety Charter, was announced by the Greater Sydney Commission in collaboration with Transport for NSW and the Committee for Sydney. It builds on research from Plan International Australia on how safe girls feel as they move around cities.
To the people who experience street harassment – those who are conditioned to see streetlights as a safe harbour, like ships lost at sea look to a lighthouse – these initiatives will make a difference. But they do not fix the root cause – we as a society need to address the actual behaviour. Men need to take responsibility for this situation and ask themselves if they really want to be part of the solution. If over half the women you know have suffered harassment, chances are you know a harasser, so call out the sexist guy in your Whatsapp group or stand up for the woman on the train being leered at.
It is far easier to light a candle than it is to start an awkward conversation with a misogynistic male. We are asking every man do better.