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Thursday, April 15, 2021

ACT establishes sexual assault working group

Minister for Women Yvette Berry today announced the establishment of a Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Working Group to co-ordinate the community, the service sector, unions and stakeholders on responses to sexual assault in the ACT.

“The treatment of women in workplaces and across the country is unacceptable,” Ms Berry said. “We demand a future in which women are treated with dignity and respect. It is a momentous time, and it is time to put survivors at the centre of how we respond to sexual assault.”

She said the working group will be “inclusive and intersectional”, involving people with a disability, the LGBTIQ+ community, children and young people, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community and migrants.

In addition, Ms Berry said the working group must have a “gendered lens”, as 86.6% of (reported) victims of sexual assault in the ACT are women, according to ACT Policing figures.

“The feminist cause is about collectivism,” Ms Berry said. “It takes the whole community, and it means working together, while also recognising and celebrating diversity.”

The working group will hold its first meeting in coming weeks.

“Sexual assault and sexual violence requires a whole-of-government response,” Ms Berry said. “All political parties are invited to be part of this work to ensure progress is made with a united front, and not caught up in party politics.”

Canberra Liberals leader Elizabeth Lee welcomed more co-ordination among stakeholders.

“The poison of endemic sexual harassment and assault is not an evil to be responded to in silos by separate government and community functions,” Ms Lee said.

She thanked Ms Berry for her leadership and the swift government response to an issue that transcended politics, workplaces and communities. Many marginalised women – in multicultural or Indigenous communities, queer or disabled – could not challenge the status quo, the patriarchy, or systemic inequalities.

However, Ms Lee and fellow Liberal Nicole Lawder were disappointed that Liberal women were not invited to the women’s caucus Ms Berry had set up for Labor and Green MLAs – particularly since the Liberals had a majority of female MLAs for the second time in a row, and the Assembly’s first female leader and deputy duo. Nor were there any women of colour in the caucus.

Ms Berry invited ACT women to answer a Women’s Centre for Health Matters survey about seeking help for sexual assault. Data will identify gaps and recommend actions to government.

The working group follows allegations of sexual assault in Parliament House on Capital Hill. Earlier this month, Ms Berry and other MLAs took part in the March 4 Justice against gendered violence. Organisers claimed the protest, which took place in 40 cities and towns, was “the biggest uprising of women that Australia has seen” (BBC).

A petition of 90,000 signatures called for government accountability over sexism in parliament, and for then-Attorney-General Christian Porter’s resignation.

Mr Porter was accused of the historic rape of a woman (who committed suicide decades later); Mr Porter denied the allegation, but this week stood down as Attorney-General, although remained in Cabinet. Liberal staffer Brittany Higgins also claimed she was raped in another minister’s office.

“Allegation after allegation of rape, sexual harassment, unprofessional behaviour – to say the least – exposed an entrenched culture of misogyny in Parliament House,” Labor MLA Dr Marisa Paterson said.

At the same time, Dr Paterson reminded the Assembly, many responses to an online petition suggested that a “a sexist culture entrenched in Sydney’s private schools” led to sexual assault.

Ms Berry said the ACT Government was teaching consent and respectful relationships to students; and had set up an annual Women’s Day congress for schools. In the Legislative Assembly itself, Ms Berry had set up a network for women staffers.

Last year, Equity Together (part of the ACT Women’s Plan 2016–26) recommitted the ACT Government to improve gender equality, particularly in the construction industry. Companies that tender with the ACT Government must explain how they will deliver diversity outcomes. The ACT Government had also set a target of 50% female representation on all their boards and committees.

Women were particularly affected by COVID-19, Ms Berry said. Social restriction and isolation put women and children at increased risk of domestic and family violence; 55 women were killed in Australia last year by intimate partner violence.

“Violence is never okay, and these deaths remind us how pervasive gender-based violence is, and how crucial it is to challenge harmful gender norms,” Ms Berry said.

Last year, the ACT Government established a multi-agency family violence hub and worked with the Domestic Violence Prevention Council to lower rates in Indigenous communities.

“We can’t wait while women are being abused and assaulted every single day – in their homes, their workplaces, and in their communities,” Dr Paterson said. She herself had accused a prominent New Zealand academic of sexually harassing and stalking her for two years, but believes the complaints process failed her.

“If we could talk about sexual assault the way we do about other crimes, openly and with respect for the victims, we will move mountains. Perpetrators of this violence thrive in the silence. That is why it is all of our responsibility to end the silence,” she said.

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