Being alone in parks doesn’t harm women

“I suggest to people, particularly females, they shouldn’t be alone in parks – I’m sorry to say that. That is the case” – Homicide squad Detective Inspector Michael Hughes, Victorian Police.

On March 17th 2015, a 17 year old woman was killed in a suburban park, not far from her home.

It doesn’t matter that she was alone. It doesn’t matter if it was dark (it wasn’t). It doesn’t matter if she was wearing headphones. She was killed by a man who decided to kill her.

In his comments to the media, Victorian Police homicide squad Detective Inspector Michael Hughes indicated that women shouldn’t be alone in parks if they want to stay safe. He later claimed, following widespread criticism, that he didn’t actually say that but the audio is there. He absolutely, 100% certainly did say it.

The Detective isn’t alone in his silly statements. I’ve previously written about Acting Inspector Dan Richardson of the New South Wales police, who described the violent stranger rape of a woman as an “unfortunate reminder for people to avoid walking alone” and stating that “it might have helped if a different route was taken”.

I could write again and again about the statistical futility of risk reduction messages. I could point out that I’m more likely to be harmed by a male that I know, in my own home, than by a stranger in the park. But people – the police included, apparently – will continue to tell us that if she hadn’t been alone, she might have been safe; if she’d just walked a different way, she might have been safe.

But here’s what they’re forgetting: women already do alter their behaviour to try to ensure their personal safety.

And they still die. They still get raped. They still get assaulted.

Ask any woman to list the things they do to “keep themselves safe” and I guarantee it will look pretty much like my list:

  • If possible, avoid going out after dark,
  • Avoid making eye contact,
  • If I have to be walking alone and there’s not a lot of people around, make a phone call so I have someone to talk to, or at least pretend to be on the phone,
  • If I have to be walking alone and it’s not dark outside, wear headphones to block out the street harassment,
  • Ensure my mobile, keys, perfume or anything that could possibly be used in self-defence is within reach at all times,
  • If I’m walking alone and someone else is walking too close to me, cross the street,
  • Take particular note of what that person walking near me looks like – clothing brands, heights, weight, other identifying features,
  • If I am out late, I don’t catch a bus. I have to take a taxi, and I take note of the registration number and the driver ID.

It’s exhausting just thinking about it, but these are the things that I, and I’m guessing millions of other women, do on a daily basis. Consciously or not, I adhere to most of those goddamn safety messages. A lot of women do.

So, Detective Inspector Michael Hughes, to you and anyone else that wants to keep reminding us that women just have to bear some of the responsibility for their own safety, I want to say this:

We already place limits on ourselves.

We already restrict our movements.

We already stop ourselves from living life the way we want to, the way we should be able to.

And we’re still being raped. We’re still being murdered.

Women aren’t the problem here.

Self-doubt and Hypocrisy.

It’s a funny thing, this whole PhD process.

I seem to spend a huge amount of my time filled with feelings of self-doubt, and by all accounts, I’m not alone.

I’m just waiting for a tap on the shoulder, followed by someone telling me that somebody in admissions made a mistake a few years ago, and I should never have been allowed in.

Friday was one of those days.

How on earth has my research gone from sanitation in developing countries, to foreign aid and violence against women? Is that a sign that I really have no clue what I’m doing? Will my topic changes result in that seemingly inevitable tap on the shoulder?

Then I started wondering why I’m focusing on violence against women in developing countries, when it’s such an enormous problem in right here in Australia.

Violence against women isn’t just a problem of “the other”. At least one woman is killed every week by a current or former partner in Australia. One in three Australian women over the age of 15 has experienced physical or sexual violence in their lives.

I headed home with questions and uncertainty swirling around in my head, wondering how I could write about violence against women in a foreign country without being completely hypocritical.

As I waited at the train station, I watched a group of teenage girls say their farewells before the weekend. I smiled as they hugged each other, squealed over how awesome each other one was, and waved goodbye, shouting declarations of love to each other.

I watched as one of the girls boarded the train, her happy, carefree disposition changing in an instant.

She adopted a demeanour that was all too familiar to me. One I’d seen countless women adopt – one I myself adopt on an almost daily basis.

There was the quick, almost-but-not-quite subtle scan of the carriage. An iPod was quickly retrieved from her bag, the headphones shoved in her ears with expert speed. Head bowed down, shoulders slightly hunched. Arms folded across her chest, holding her school bag a little too tight.

There it was. The defense against Schrödinger’s Rapist.

The girl hastily shuffled past the group of teenage boys sitting to my right.

“Nice tits.”

She kept walking to the other end of the carriage.

The boys laughed, one of them shouting after her to ask why she hadn’t smiled. Couldn’t she take a compliment?

The group of boys could have been no more than fifteen years old.

I turned to them and asked them which part of objectifying someone was a compliment. How was she meant to have reacted, when she may have been scared shitless by a group of guys who were much bigger than her had decided that they had right to comment on her body?

They laughed, told me to lighten up and mind my own business.

I’ve thought about my research all weekend. The incident on the train wasn’t really anything out of the ordinary, but it was also on my mind all weekend.

My PhD research will continue on its current path. I will keep focusing on violence against women, using Timor-Leste as a case study.

But it doesn’t mean I’m a hypocrite.

Violence against women isn’t a problem of “the other”.

It happens in developed countries, and less developed countries. To wealthy women, and not-so-wealthy women.

I’ll keep researching and writing about violence against women. Because it’s something that’s happened to far too many of my friends and my family – both in Australia and overseas. And it’s not just rape or violent beatings. It encompasses so much more, like the harassment of teenage girls on public transport, verbal and emotional abuse, to name just a few examples. And its forms are the same the world over.

I won’t doubt my research anymore.

Because violence against women, in all its insidious forms, is a problem. A global problem.

But that doesn’t mean I won’t keep waiting for that tap on the shoulder.

Not in my name.

On Saturday, September 7th, 2013, Australia voted to be governed by the Liberal Party, with Tony Abbott at the helm as our nation’s Prime Minister.

I didn’t expect much from a conservative government. At all. What has occurred in the weeks since the new government was sworn in, however, exceeded anything I could have imagined.

In no particular order, here’s some of the disgraceful acts of our current “leaders”:

  • One of the first acts of our new government was to scrap the following ministries: Ministry for Science, Ministry for Climate Change, Ministry for Disabilities, Ministry for Aged Care, Ministry for Higher Education, Ministry for Youth, Ministry for Early Childhood, Ministry for Workplace Relations, Ministry for Mental Health, and the Ministry for Water.
  • The new government’s cabinet has just one woman on the frontbench, down from six under the previous government.
  • On the day following his cabinet announcement, Prime Minister Abbott announced that he would be the “Minister for Women” (because we all need a man to look after those policies and programs that affect us, amirite ladies?).
  • On Friday, September 27th, a boat holding up to 90 asylum seekers sunk between Indonesia and Australia with all on board believed to have drowned. When questioned about the tragic incident the following day, Prime Minister Abbott is alleged to have run away from the media.
  • Cutting funding to the key body that works to minimise the harm caused by drugs and alcohol, forcing it into administration and destroying the progress of decades of research in the area.
  • Slashing 14,000 public sector jobs, including snatching away graduate jobs from those who had already been accepted into programs.
  • Performing a series of backflips on school funding and the Gonski reforms, that seems to have left everyone completely confused about the entire situation.
  • The removal of a large chunk of some of Tony Abbott’s most controversial speeches from his website, including one’s where he denies the man-made impacts on climate change, one where he promised to increase Australia’s foreign aid budget, and one in which he described abortion as “a question of the mother’s convenience”.
  • The entire clusterfuck that has resulted from the silence, inhumane treatment, and sheer mean-spirited treatment of asylum seekers.
  • Prime Minister Abbott’s words of support for Indonesian President Yudhoyono, a man who stands accused of war crimes in West Papua, and supporting crimes against humanity in Timor-Leste.
  • Slashed funding to the Global Fund to fight AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis to just $200 million over three years – well short of the $300 million promised by the previous government.
  • Gifting military hardware to the government of Sri Lanka, despite it being accused of war crimes and of continuing human rights abuses including torture and forced disappearances. When questioned about accusations of torture being levelled at the Sri Lankan government, Prime Minister Abbott said: “we accept that in difficult circumstances difficult things happen”. Because what’s a little torture between friendly nations, right?
  • And, of course, there’s the Timor-Leste spying scandal. You know, that incident where Timor has accused Australia of spying on it during negotiations on the Certain Maritime Arrangements in the Timor Sea (CMAT) treaty and has taken Australia to the Hague for arbitration? And then Australia raided the offices of Timor’s lawyer and cancelled the passport of Timor’s key witness, who just happens to be a former senior Australian Security Intelligence Service who was allegedly involved in the bugging of the Timor cabinet room, a few days before arbitration is due to kick off? Yeah, that one.

They say that you get the government we deserve, but we don’t deserve this. The rest of the world doesn’t deserve this.

This a government that doesn’t care about women, asylum seekers, victims of torture, the sick, the dying, the young, the elderly, the disabled, workers, those with mental health, the environment, international laws, or human rights.

A government is supposed to be representative of the people. Members of Parliament and the Senate are meant to speak for the people. I don’t think they speak for most fair-minded Australians.

They certainly don’t speak for me.

Hey, Australia? Whether you admit it or not, we have gender problem.

Hey, Australia? We need to talk.

I thought we were better than this.

I was wrong, and apparently very, very naïve.

There’s been a lot of talk this week. A lot. There’s been nasty rhetoric and a great deal of discussion around “playing the gender card”.

The public (and private) discourse in this nation of ours has disintegrated to despicable lows. We have lost our manners, our respect for others, and we should all be ashamed.

Yes, Australia. I’m saying it.

The so-called Gender Card is played, because we have a gender problem.

In a week where our first female Prime Minister was denigrated via a menu (regardless of whether it was in public or not), and was subjected to a line of questioning that was beyond belief, the Shadow Treasurer tweeted that the PM was not deserving of respect.

 

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Irrespective of your views on her politics, Prime Minister Gillard is the victim of bullying. There’s no two ways about it.

And this bullying is, without a shadow of a doubt, because she is female.

There’s a plain and simple way to test for gender-based discrimination. Would that comment/that action/that phrase etc. ever be directed to a male? If the answer is no, it’s sexism.

It doesn’t matter who you are, what position you hold, or whether or not you’re in the public eye. We all deserve respect. Men, women, children, however you identify. Respect for a person should be a given.

What we often overlook is how these public denigrations of women act as a normalising force. They give legitimacy to every sexist person to degrade, oppress and harm any female, in any way they choose.

This week alone we have seen a case where a man brutally raped and murdered a woman while he was out on parole for a number of other rapes. Assaults that were among a disgusting 16 total rape convictions over twenty years.

Sexual assaults are underreported violent crimes that disproportionately affect women. They are also crimes that have much lower rates of successful prosecution than other violent crimes.

Then there was yet another scandal involving the Australian Defence Force. More evidence of a systemic problem within the ADF, where women are the primary victims.

There’s no denying it, Australia.

We have a gender problem. And we should all be deeply ashamed.

We’ve lost our common decency; that part of us that reminds us that we all deserve safety, respect and equality, regardless of gender.

So, I’m issuing myself a personal challenge. I will speak out, whenever a gender-based slur is used. I will call out those who denigrate someone simply because she is a woman. Because it does have a flow-on effect.

And it stops with me. And it should stop with you.

It should stop with all of us.

 

The Power of Words

It’s easy to take words for granted. After all, words are just words, right?

Living in a country where you don’t speak the language puts a whole other spin on it. You can’t understand what people are saying, and they can’t always understand you. Sure, I’ve been picking up bits of Tetun, the most widely spoken language in Timor-Leste, as I go. I took lessons. I’ve been trying.

But Tetun is not a standardised language. There are many, many dialects. Due to the colonisation and invasion, many Timorese people also speak Bahasa and/or Portuguese. Words that are understood consistently can sometimes be hard to come by here. The power of communication becomes more distinct.

A portion of my PhD research is the use of Behaviour Change Communication in sanitation development programs; with one program in particular that places an emphasis on the use of language. More specifically, this approach – known as Community-Led Total Sanitation – requires the use of the crude, local terminology for faeces. Shit. Poo. Whatever it is that invokes a reaction.

Words are powerful. More powerful than we realise.

Today, I logged on to Facebook to see a status relating to lunch (because, as we all know, the rules of social media dictate that you must discuss or post a photo of at least one meal per day…). This status, however, used rape as an analogy for eating.

Accompanying the apparently requisite photo of the meal was this: “I’m so hungry I’m going to rape this bowl of pasta”.

This person is certainly not alone in their use of the word “rape” to describe something. It’s used to get psyched up about something, like eating lunch, or to describe a rough day at work. And every time I hear or read it used in these ways, I’m stunned.

I’m stunned because of the casual manner in which the word is tossed about these days.

I’m stunned because using the word “rape” seems to have crept in to our casual lexicon to describe trivial matters.

I’m stunned because, regardless of intention, the use of the word “rape” in such a casual way lessens its impact. It takes away the seriousness and diminishes the true meaning.

I’m stunned because, intentionally or not, it reinforces the notion that sexual assault is not a serious crime. A crime that inflicts untold trauma on victims.

I’m stunned because sexual assault remains one of the world’s most underreported crimes. It impacts an incredibly large portion of the world’s population, mostly women.

The Australian component of the International Violence Against Women Survey, conducted in 2002/3, found that 57% of women had experienced at least one incident of sexual violence over their lifetime. Just 1 in 7 women who experienced violence from an intimate partner and 1 in 6 who experienced it from someone else reported it to the police (source: http://www.aifs.gov.au/acssa/statistics.html).

The most common reason for not reporting the incident was because the women felt the incident was too minor. Other reasons were shame and embarrassment.

Too minor. Shame. Embarrassment.

How do we, as a global society, begin to change attitudes when we can casually throw around the word rape to describe things that aren’t even remotely synonymous with interpersonal violence?

How do we even begin to address the seriousness and severity of sexual assault, when attitudes such as those encountered by my friends Annie and Andrea are so pervasive?

How do we begin to change the taboos and discourse around rape when we can casually use the word “rape” in such a blithe manner? Using it in such a way sends a message – a message that rape is somehow inconsequential, even acceptable.

Don’t get me wrong, I have no desire to monitor language usage, or censor personal expression. I will, however, maintain the right judge how others use language, and to call them out on it.

And to use a word, that used correctly describes something so traumatic, so brutal and so potentially destroying, in any other context is worthy of judgement and reproach.

Words aren’t just words.

They have meaning. They have impacts. They have power.