When Brittany Higgins took the stage at the Canberra March 4 Justice today, Monday 15 March, she addressed a crowd of people of different genders, cultural backgrounds, and ages, who travelled to Parliament House to advocate for sexual assault survivors across the country.
A crowd of thousands listened closely as Ms Higgins detailed her treatment since coming forward with an allegation against a parliamentary colleague, and as she outlined what she would like to see change.
“We’ve all learned over the past few weeks just how common gendered violence is in this country,” she said.
“It’s time our leaders on both sides of politics stop avoiding the subject and sidestepping accountability. It’s time we can actually address the problem.”Brittany Higgins
Ms Higgins encouraged “each and every” person listening to set boundaries for themselves and be “ruthless” in their defence of them.
“Meet up, share your truth, and know that you have a generation of women ready, willing and able to support you.”
“Together we can bring about meaningful reform to the workplace culture inside Parliament House, and hopefully every workplace, to ensure the next generation of women can benefit from a safer and more equitable Australia.”
Journalist Lisa Wilkinson, who broke Ms Higgin’s story, said Parliament House appeared to be the easiest place in Australia to rape a woman and get away with it.
Author, former refugee and not-for-profit CEO, Animata Conteh-Biger, spoke about the intersection of sexism and race.
“If they don’t believe a white woman, what hope is there for black women?” she asked the crowd.
“We need people to listen – we are not your property.”
ANU Students’ Association (ANUSA) president Madhumitha Janagaraja said she stood before the crowd “as a young disabled woman, as a woman of colour, as a survivor, and as a human being who’s angry”.
“It is not just perpetrators that must be held to account, but the institutions that were meant to protect us that repeatedly and deliberately fail because they’re not designed to protect us, and nor have they intended to.”
She said institutions built on the suffering and invisible labour of generations of women were broken.
“In particular, generations of Indigenous woman, women of colour, trans women and disabled women.
“They were never built for us, but it’s high time that they change so that they are.”
ACTU secretary Sally McManus called for reform in Parliament House, and in every Australian workplace.
“It’s not only a story of this House, but it’s a story of every workplace, every house, every street in every city and town in this country,” she said.
“We need changes to health and safety laws, that make sure employers have obligations to make sure workplaces are safe and treat the underlying cause of violence and harassment.
“We need to make sure women have 10 days paid domestic and family violence leave.”
Ballarat lawyer Ingrid Irwin, who represented Ballarat survivors during the royal commission into child sexual abuse and accusers against Cardinal Pell, travelled hundreds of kilometres to speak to the crowd about criminal justice reform.
Ms Irwin referred to statistics that show only 1% of sexual assault cases lead to a conviction in Australia and said victims need the right to a lawyer in the criminal cases to change that number.
“It’s the criminal justice system which starts the root of the problem, and that’s where we need to fix it,” she said.
Ms Irwin said people who came forward with sexual assault allegations ended up “in the scrap heap of the criminal justice system”, and then they turned to the civil justice system.
“If the only way we can get traction for our truth is in a civil justice system, take [sex assault] out of the Crimes Act,” she said.
“We all know it’s a crime, but we’re not processing it as a crime, we’ve got no result, no traction as a crime.
“We just need to give up the joke – it’s a criminal justice charade.
“Being brave and telling the truth is not enough to get legal traction.”
The full line-up of speakers included Wakka Wakka woman, academic and Greens ACT Senate candidate Dr Tjanara Goreng Goreng, rape and sexual assault advocate Saxon Mullins, ANUSA women’s officer Avan Daruwalla, ANUSA education officer Maddie Chia and author Biff Ward.
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If you or someone you know is experiencing gendered violence, call 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732).
Call Lifeline on 13 11 14 for 24/7 crisis support.
In an emergency or if you’re not feeling safe, always call 000.