Women across Australia on Monday protested against sexual violence and gender inequality, with tens of thousands taking to the streets as outrage grew over rape allegations that have gripped the Conservative government.
#Mars4Justice meetings were held in more than 40 Australian cities and towns, with a large demonstration in Canberra following allegations of sexual abuse in the country’s parliament.
Dressed in mostly black, the crowd gathered outside the parliament and held loud placards with slogans including “You are not listening”, “How many victims do you know?” and “I believe her”.
Protesters Kathryn Jamieson, who traveled from Melbourne to attend, said she was “fuming with anger”.
“I wanted to be the core of the matter, I’ve had enough,” she told AFP.
“We need immediate change – I’m tired of women not being believed.”
Former government staff member Brittany Higgins publicly claimed last month that she had been raped by a colleague in a 2019 office.
Earlier this month, Attorney General Christian Porter vehemently denied allegations that he had raped a 16-year-old girl in 1988 when they were both students.
On Monday, Porter began libel against public broadcaster ABC, which first published the allegations against an unnamed senior minister, with lawyers saying the justice minister was “easily identifiable” in the article and has since been subjected to “media trial”.
Local media also reported that women in the opposition party had recently created a Facebook page describing alleged sexual harassment of male colleagues and politicians.
The government has commissioned an independent inquiry into Parliament’s workplace culture and set up new staff support services.
But critics say systemic change is needed – not just in politics but in Australian society as a whole.
Higgins told the audience in Canberra that her story was “a painful reminder to women that it can happen in Parliament and can really happen anywhere”.
“We basically realize that the system is broken, the glass roof is still in place,” she said.
“We are here because it is inconceivable that we still have to fight the same outdated, tired struggle.”
‘Toxic’ workplace culture
The organizers of Monday’s meetings declined an offer from Prime Minister Scott Morrison to speak to them in private, saying attending a closed meeting would be “disrespectful” to alleged victims.
“I think the Prime Minister, if he really cared about women, really cared about our voices … he (could) open the door, walk across the courtyard and come and listen to us,” organizer Janine Hendry told ABC.
An estimated 10,000 joined the protest in Melbourne, with thousands more in major cities including Canberra and Sydney. Several thousand also gathered in Porter’s hometown of Perth on Sunday.
“Evil thrives in silence,” Grace Tame, an Australian sex offender and this year’s survivor, told Hobart.
“Behavior that is not spoken, behavior is ignored, behavior is approved.”
# March4Justice calls for a range of measures including independent investigations into all cases of gender-based violence, an increase in public funding for prevention and the implementation of recommendations from a national inquiry into sexual harassment at work in 2020.
The Australian Parliament has been repeatedly criticized for a “toxic” workplace culture that is alleged to have given rise to persistent bullying, harassment and sexual abuse.
The ruling coalition has been accused of not doing enough to support women party members, including after a number of women left parliament before the 2019 election, with several citing bullying as a factor.
Several legislators, including Superannuation Minister Jane Hume, took part in the Canberra protest, but no leading government ministers accepted the organizers’ invitation.
A group of independent and small party women politicians announced on Monday that they would try to change a “loophole” in legislation that protects MPs and the judiciary from responsibility for sexual harassment in the workplace.
“It seems crazy that in 2021 we would need to introduce an amendment to legislation that is crucial for all workplaces in Australia to be safe and secure and respectful,” said independent MP Zali Steggall.
Porter remains on medical leave in the wake of the allegations, as is Defense Secretary Linda Reynolds, who is accused of mishandling the Higgins case.