Despair and frustration characterised this year’s International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women on Saturday, and are casting a shadow over the following 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence. Having worked in the women’s safety sector and reported on this issue as a journalist for more than 20 years, 10 of those here in Australia, I don’t think I’ve ever seen it this bad.
In the lead-up to the international day, five women were allegedly killed in Australia as a result of men’s violence — four of those in a single state, South Australia. The following week, on the third day of the 16 days of activism, researchers at Destroy the Joint had the grim task of updating its Counting Dead Women register to include Catiuscia Machado, whose body was found in Chiswick, in Sydney’s inner-west, after reports of a domestic incident. Machado’s partner was arrested at the scene and charged with her murder.
Her death brings the 2023 total of women allegedly murdered by men to 54, meaning that more than one woman has been killed each week of the year, with still five weeks left to go.
On Sunday, Katherine Berney, executive director of the National Women’s Safety Alliance, took to Instagram to reflect on why she didn’t make a public statement to mark the day: “I didn’t say anything yesterday because, to be honest, I didn’t really know what to say. I’m really frustrated that it takes an international day for some of our leaders to actually say anything about the alleged murders that have happened this year.”
Also on Sunday, Carolyn Frohmader, the long-serving CEO of Women with Disabilities Australia, took to X (formerly known as Twitter) to express her frustration: “I personally feel defeated. [I] have spent three decades doing everything possible at a systemic and individual level to address gender-based violence, including for women and girls with disability. Nothing is improving. I know attitudinal shifts take years, but how long must we wait?”
And on Monday, Rosie Batty travelled to Canberra, joining teal independents in Parliament House to mark the 16 days of activism who called for additional federal government funding and action. Early next year will mark 10 years since Batty’s former partner murdered their 11-year-old son, Luke.
“When I sit in front of the news and I see there’s another fatality … I don’t think anything’s changing,” the former Australian of the Year said. “I’ve been standing up in front of the Australian public for nearly 10 years. This is exhausting, it is overwhelming, and it is disheartening. When I first lost Luke, I didn’t realise how difficult and how long change would take.”
I started the year writing in Crikey about my despair at the silence that greeted a horror spree of murderous violence against women, and I am very, very sad to be ending the year with a similar column. I also note that there were multiple occasions over the year when I could have written about my frustration, but I felt like a broken record.
For example, in early November, Dr John Collier, head of the all-boys Shore School in Sydney, wrote to parents that Paul Thijssen, who was suspected of murdering his former short-term girlfriend Lilie James, “was not a monster”. James’ body was found in the toilet area of the gym at St Andrew’s Cathedral School, where Collier once served as headmaster and got to know Thijssen. Collier wrote that the “extreme violence was inexplicable, incomprehensible, unimaginable” and wondered what could have caused Thijssen’s “psychotic episode”.
Honestly, if the head of an elite boy’s school has not absorbed decades of research into what drives this kind of violence against women (I have been writing about this for years), then we aren’t getting anywhere.
Or there was the time just last week when the Nobel laureate and Australia National University vice-chancellor Professor Brian Schmidt, who is also chair of the Group of Eight universities, was asked on RN Breakfast about the education minister’s recent decision to implement major changes to help bring down rates of sexual violence on university campuses, including by forcing universities to annually report the number of complaints they receive and a national code for tertiary education on gender-based violence. (It’s important to note the context: the university sector has been the subject of fierce criticism, including from a recent Senate consent inquiry, for failing to act.)
Given the scale of the crisis on university campuses (on average, 275 students are sexually assaulted each week), imagine my surprise when Schmidt chose to deflect from the sector’s responsibility by suggesting sexual violence was also a problem in the wider community (he’s not wrong) that no-one but him was talking about (on this point he is very wrong): “That is a silent thing that’s happening that is conveniently forgotten.”
Forgive me, but WTF? Did the esteemed professor fail to note the historic women’s marches in response to sexual violence in 2021? And for Schmidt to completely erase the very visible work of many over decades to respond to and prevent sexual violence — and on the eve of the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women — well, there’s that word again: despair.
So here we are, in the midst of 16 days of activism with some very real, very valid and very big feelings. I suppose I just want to say to the many survivor advocates and the women’s safety sector who persist despite everything that I see you — and I understand. I also know that we all still believe change is possible. We have to.
If you or someone you know is affected by sexual assault or violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit 1800RESPECT.org.au.