So we wonder why,
as we try to make sense of this
Why is it always men who resort to the gun,
the sword and the fist
Why does gunman sound so familiar
while gunwoman doesn’t quite ring true
What is it about men
that makes them do the things they do
Doreen Stoves, CEO of Doncare Community Services, presses play on Judy Small’s Montreal, December ’89 on a warm spring morning. The song plays loudly, over and over throughout the offices of the domestic violence advocacy and support centre. It is a song of remembrance—in honour of the 14 women killed in the Montreal massacre of 1989—but it is also a song for all women’s suffering and pain at the hands of men’s violence and misogyny. It is Doreen’s unofficial anthem to mark the 25th of November, the beginning of the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Based Violence.
The 16 days begin on the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women and White Ribbon Day in Australia. It ends over two weeks later, on International Human Rights Day—drawing an undeniable link between gender inequality, violence against women and fundamental humans rights.
The song is loud in the small office, located in Melbourne’s North Eastern suburbs. Doncare is a community care and counselling centre that provides advocacy and support for domestic violence issues. White Ribbon Day is perhaps one of their busiest days of the year, with events to present, public speaking to be done and phone calls to make.
But while Australia’s attention turns off after the first few hours of White Ribbon Day, Doncare continues to fight for the rights of women and children in family violence situations—not just for one day, or 16 days, but all year round.
‘White Ribbon Day has all of this publicity and acknowledgement because it’s marketed, but nobody is marketing the 16 Days of Suffering,’ Doreen says.
‘But it’s not a 16-day of the year event. It’s a 365 day event. It’s a national disaster we’re talking about.’
Domestic violence knows no borders or date lines. According to UN estimates, 35 percent of women in the world have experienced physical or sexual violence, 700 million women alive today were married as children and more than 133 million girls and women have experienced female genital mutilation. The UN estimates that in 2012 over half of women murdered around the world were killed by partners or family members. At the current rate, more than one woman dies every week in Australia at the hands of a partner or ex-partner.
So with such alarming statistics and an incredible urgency to act and save lives, why do we only tune in for one day of the year? Why only for a few minutes of breakfast television, a one-hour live QandA special or a short, uncomfortable conversation at the workplace water cooler? Why does Australia celebrate a day where men make an oath to never harm women, but not encourage them to act on their word? What is awareness without action?
‘I think the concept of White Ribbon, and men educating men and taking the oath, promising to stand up and do something about [VAW] and act, is fabulous. But I don’t know if there’s evidence to support whether any of that happens,’ Doreen Stoves says.
‘We should be saying to White Ribbon ambassadors; how many conversations have you had in the last month with other men about saying no to violence against women? How many frontline services have you supported, what funds have you raised? What are you actually doing?’
But the conversation around VAW is changing. With more deaths reported in the media and heightened coverage of domestic violence issues, the public is demanding justice and action.
‘It is increasingly recognised that violence against women can and does happen to women of all walks of life. Violence against women has been described as a ‘global epidemic’, and is perhaps the most widespread and socially tolerated form of human rights violations,’ Julia Diprose, representative from the Australian National Committee for UN Women, says.
But in Australia, the conversation has been thrust into our daily lives and routines. Doreen can pinpoint the reason exactly—Rosie Batty.
‘I’ve been doing this work for 47 years now, and Rosie Batty has done more for women in the time that she has been campaigning than anybody else ever,’ she says.
‘It is the first time I think that we’ve had all of government sit up and listen. She can influence governments to a point of having Royal Commissions…she has done more in the two years since Luke died than anybody ever in my 47 years of this work. She’s a remarkable woman.’
But for all the incredible frontline services and spokespeople bringing violence against women and the 16 Days of Activism to the public’s attention, it is only step one in a long process of reform and revolution that starts in our schools and goes all the way up to our police force and justice system.
‘We’re hoping that if you start young enough and you teach children about gender equity and respectful relationships and saying no to violence, maybe in the next generation that will have some impact.
‘But at the same time we need the courts to get on board. The police and the courts need to recognise this as a crime.’
That change can begin in two places: language and funding.
‘We’ve lost the language of talking about women who are battered. We’ve all gotten very politically correct and have started referring to women as ‘survivors’, and I believe that’s a really good title. But before a woman can become a survivor, she is a victim. And she requires a whole range of support to move from a victim status to a survivor status,’ Doreen says.
‘We’ve forgotten about the front line services that are required to help a woman become a survivor. Just because he walks out of the house, does not make you a survivor. You are only a survivor when you are safe, when you are in control of your world.’
But those frontline services are limited in their reach without support. In 2015, a year where a domestic violence survivor won Australian of the Year, more women’s refuges closed and more women died.
Our obsession with awareness has left us too exhausted for action. So as the 16 days comes to an end, with little reform having taken place, something has to change.
As Nitika Maharaj, Doncare’s Clinical Services manager said:
‘At the moment it seems like the community won’t let it go. It’s hot on the agenda. We just need to hang on to that. We’re in a better place now than we’ve ever been. There’s an overwhelming sense of hope that we can make a difference.’
Image: Tertia van Rensburg
Sammi Taylor is a journalist and freelance writer from Melbourne, Australia. She’s a news reporter for her local paper, The Warrandyte Diary, and was previously a columnist at Birdee Magazine. Sammi writes on feminism, youth issues and music, and will try to incorporate cat gifs into any piece of writing she can. You can follow her on twitter: @sammiiitaylor