on violence against women, women’s safety and victim blaming

Yesterday my partner and I went shopping for some bike parts in the industrial district of Canberra. We rocked up outside one store and I waited in the car while he went inside. Out the front of the store there was some sort of trade expo. About fifteen blokes were standing around, probably bored because there weren’t many customers.

Whilst I sat in the front passenger seat of the car, at least three of these men were staring at me at any one time. I distracted myself by web browsing on my phone. But every time I glanced up, there they were, staring. Then several of them broke out into a loud macho heckling noise.

Was I scared? No. Uncomfortable? Definitely.

I moved into the drivers seat and started the car, with the intention of moving it to a different car park close by. However my poor partner saw me as I started to drive off and ran out thinking I was abandoning him because he’d taken so long! That gave the expo blokes great amusement.

It was a minor incident. But the sort of thing that I and many other women face every day.

Some other examples: I get beeped at and cat called or wolf whistled whilst riding my bicycle two or three times each week. One time I was waiting on my bicycle at a set of traffic lights and a charming man called out from his car that he’d like to be my bike seat. Nice.

I’ve had stuff thrown at me as I was walking along a footpath on a number of occasions. One time it was a chocolate yogo that splattered over my face and dress. Another time I was with friends and we had eggs thrown at us.

I don’t go into busy night clubs anymore because I inevitably get felt up. Not unintentionally. Trust me, you can tell the difference between someone accidentally brushing past you and groping.

I hate using taxis by myself (at anytime of day) and public transport at night. I’ve had some close encounters on the Sydney-Blue Mountains train line in the evening.

These are examples of the everyday realities that I and so many other women live with. I have experienced more severe examples of sexual harassment and assault but now is not the time to go into it.

All of this is in the context of the current media thread on violence against women. I say “current media thread” because these rapes and murders are not all of a sudden more common or horrific.

Against a backdrop of the ongoing Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, many well-known people are publicly sharing their stories of violence and abuse. Additionally there is a lot of media time being given to violence against women. As it should.

There is also a victim-blaming vs safety-advice-for-women online battle going on.

I have read one article imploring women to stop looking at their phones whilst they walk around at night. Another telling women which places are safe for them and which aren’t.

In direct response, a number of commentators emphatically argue that asking women to confine themselves in the hope of avoiding violence is victim blaming.

None of this is surprising. Because when we as a community are shocked and scared, we want to fight back. We want to be able to take action to make something stop. We want answers, solutions. It’s natural.

To be honest, I don’t think that there is anything that women can do that will guarantee their safety.

It is useless to tell women they are safe at home and amongst their family and friends. Most violence against women is perpetrated by someone they know. And many women who die at the hands of their partner already have a domestic violence order against them.

To tell women they are safe if they only go out in daylight hours is also untrue. The murder of Masa Vukotic in Melbourne last week happened when it was still light outside.

To tell women to avoid a certain “type” of male, identified by the way they dress, their job or their race is also fallacy. Not to mention discriminatory.

Clementine Ford speaks of women as being guests at the dinner table of our society, indebted to the goodwill of our hosts. She also calls for change.

Yes. So do I. But right now, I am also calling for us to bear witness.

Because when we as a society are shocked by report after report of rape and murder perpetrated against women, it is time for us to acknowledge the whole fabric, not just the threads.

It is also time for us to discuss the issue and to realise that most of us agree on one thing: this must stop. Now is not the time to pick apart words and choose sides. There is only one side to be on.

We can bear witness by talking to our friends, our family, our children.

We can contact our local politician and express our support for an immediate enquiry into violence against women leading to the creation of laws that support women in and outside their homes.

We can write about this on social media, blogs, wherever we can make our voices heard.

We can create a culture that lets perpetrators know that they have been noted. They can no longer act and have it ignored, written off or excused.

The truth is that no one has the answer on how to end violence against women. But we can and should keep trying anyway.