The number one issue for women
Anne Summers. Photo: Carley Wright
International Women's Day is a day to celebrate the achievements of women, to honour the struggles of those who fought to get us where we are today, and to remind ourselves of what we still need to do if we are to achieve equality.
There is still so much unfinished business. Women still do not participate in the workforce in the same proportions as men, we get paid less for doing the same work, and with sexism and misogyny rampant, we are not accorded the respect we deserve.
But of the many issues that clamour for our attention, I think we should on this IWD be focusing on one that destroys or ruins the lives of so many women around the world: violence against women.
There is no doubting that, as human rights campaigner Bianca Jagger has pointed out so eloquently, there is a global pandemic of violence against women. The details of what girls and women around the world are subjected to are horrific – from being raped by their teachers, to being jailed for adultery after rape, to constant beatings from their supposed loved ones.
Yet targeting such violence was not included in the UN's Millennium Development Goals adopted by the world's nations in 2000.
Perhaps to compensate for this, the Commission on the Status of Women – the UN body that addresses women's equality issues – currently meeting in New York has made violence against women its key focus, yet already we are hearing reports of language being watered down to reach consensus. There is no unanimity and no sense of urgency, it seems, when it comes to how to end this violence. Perhaps too many of the world's leaders are invested in this system.
Let's hope that we in Australia can do a little better.
We know that alarming numbers of women experience violence, most often at the hands of a partner or other close relative. The 2005 Personal Safety Survey conducted by the Australian Bureau of Statistics revealed that 1,135,000 women, or 15 per cent of all women, had experienced violence at the hands of their previous partner, and 16,100 had endured violence from their current partner.
These and the other statistics contained in this report are confronting enough, but we get a better, albeit more chilling, picture of the daily reality of domestic violence in this country when we hear the following: "Victoria Police responds to close to 140 incidents … every day. In every suburb of Melbourne. From Doveton to Toorak – from Hawthorn to Epping. That's close to one every 10 minutes. And these are the ones we know about."
This is Victorian Police Commissioner Ken Lay speaking, on White Ribbon Day, last November.
He went on to say: "We often talk about this issue in terms of numbers and statistics so we can better understand the magnitude of the problem. But I sometimes think this takes us away from the reality of seeing women with broken eye sockets, missing teeth, broken arms and broken spirits."
There could be no more eloquent description of a plague of violence that is now of such proportions that increasing numbers of companies are now providing up to 20 days' special leave and other entitlements for people who are dealing with domestic violence.
Telstra recently announced free silent number fees for domestic violence victims, in addition to the free sim cards it already provides. These are welcome and pragmatic responses, but they are a horrifying acknowledgement of the extent to which such violence is accepted as a "normal" part of everyday life.
So what can we as ordinary individuals do in response to these ongoing attacks on our gender?
First, we can demand that our governments treat violence against women as a major crime epidemic and devote to it the kind of resources they would mobilise if this were, say, a terrorist attack.
Second, we must demand to know the extent of the epidemic. Let's record all those murders and car "accidents" and other violent incidents that are, in reality, attacks on women and children, and let's include them in the official statistics.
Third, there must be zero tolerance towards those individuals who are convicted of crimes of violence against women. They must be spurned by decent society.
And, fourth and finally, we must never forget the women who have died in this epidemic. Just as we honour those who have given their lives for their country in war, so we must honour those women who have died in the domestic wars that plague our country.
We don't always know their names. It is time we did. Let's start with Jill Meagher from Melbourne who, we will all remember, was raped and murdered last year. If we start putting names to the statistics, maybe we will realise the horror in our midst and the need to get really serious about it.
Daily Life is hosting a festival of ideas, conversation and debate about the issues that are most important to women. Join us for the All About Women Festival on April 7. For more information and to get your ticket, visit The Sydney Opera House.