Sexual Violence in our Midst: Where to go from here.

18 March 2021
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It is both astonishing and revealing that simultaneously women here in Australia as well as in the UK (and men who support them) have, over the past week needed to raise their voices in anger against the pervasive and continuing scourge of sexual violence and rape.

Repeatedly, long-buried stories have emerged portraying the willingness of men to take advantage of power imbalances to assault and humiliate women.  Sadly, the perpetrators have routinely escaped with impunity while women bore their pain in silence.

It is beyond question that by far the preponderance of sexual assaults and instances of harassment remain unreported and this fact in itself is an indication that something is seriously amiss with our system. Since most victims lack confidence that if they report an assault, they will be accorded fair and sympathetic treatment by authorities or employers they make the election to wrestle with the trauma themselves.

However , societies can no longer accept with equanimity that female victims are coerced into submission and silence while male perpetrators simply move on. Horror stories that have filled our media and social network pages in recent weeks encapsulate many of the fears , apprehensions  and doubts  that women in our society are forced to carry with them daily. The realisation that many male leaders in our society collaborate in the objectification of women and are indifferent to the long-term consequences of sexual violence should serve as a springboard for introspection, review and reform across Australian institutions, both public and private.

Certainly ,the accumulating evidence of  intolerable sexual behaviour across  our society has struck a resounding chord amongst right-thinking Australians. However ,the natural and understandable outpouring of fury and the desire to seek redress against wrongdoers should  not overshadow the necessity for a constructive and rational way forward . Sexual violence is a perennial scourge which  must be addressed for what it is- a fundamental impediment standing  in the way of true gender equality.  Addressing this issue  and others in a positive and rational manner will require a comprehensive and radical rethink and the sustained commitment and mobilisation of government as well as  of multiple organisations in both the public and private sectors.

Firstly, the criminal law  needs a substantial overhaul so that there is greater clarity around the notion of “consent “. Also , police and court procedures in cases of sexual assault must be modernised so that complainants receive rapid and sustained support and protection-both emotional and legal.

Secondly, the AHRC report “Respect @ Work “with its many recommendations for legislative reform has been gathering dust on government desks for a year now- once again a manifestation of lassitude and indifference to what is now a real crisis.  But private sector organisations and their leaders need not wait and should not wait for legal change .

Broadly speaking this requires that companies abandon their reactive and defensive posture in dealing with workplace misconduct. Victims should not be required to bear the burden of instituting and pursuing complaints through opaque and bureaucratic corporate systems and labyrinths. Sexual violence and harassment ought to be viewed through the prism of workplace health and safety- where the employer must acknowledge and accept an overriding duty of care and a responsibility to  act pre-emptively. Leaders must be seen to “walk-the talk “- to speak out in the clearest possible terms and to act decisively and transparently when misconduct occurs, regardless of who the perpetrator is. Victims must be supported as investigations are pursued and afterwards as well.

When men and particularly leaders fully understand that a culture of inclusion and respect for women is the hallmark of a civilised society, we will have made some progress in preventing some of the wanton violence that demeans us all.