When Julia Gillard announced the royal commission into child sex abuse in November 2012, it was a decisive and historic moment in the life of her troubled government, and long-overdue formal acknowledgement of the horrific suffering endured by thousands of defenceless children. The royal commission will be remembered as one of Gillard’s greatest legacies.
Like most royal commissions, this one had a somewhat ungainly title: the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. But it makes sense. The commission isn’t just collecting harrowing stories – albeit an essential function; it is also “investigating how institutions like schools, churches, sports clubs and government organisations have responded to allegations and instances of child sexual abuse”.
Crucially, “It is the job of the Royal Commission to uncover where systems have failed to protect children so it can make recommendations on how to improve laws, policies and practices.”
Taking the lead of this landmark commission, it is time for another long overdue royal commission: a royal commission into institutional responses to violence against women.
On 17 May 2014, Victoria’s Leader of the Opposition, Daniel Andrews, announced that a Victorian Labor Government would establish a Royal Commission into Family Violence. This was a welcome call and reflected deep community unease over a spate of heartbreaking examples of this scourge.
But we need more, and Australian women in particular need more. Women are victims of unspeakable violence in the family home, but violence against women is a society-wide blight that seems deeply ingrained in our culture. Any inquiry must delve more deeply into violence against women, not just in the family home, and any response must be a national response.
I can anticipate the reaction to such a call; I might have made it myself once: why a royal commission into violence against women only? If such an inquiry were necessary, why not into violence against men and women?
Because the violence I have in mind is not random violence in which the gender of the victim is incidental. It is violence – sexual, physical, mental – which specifically targets women, committed through a sense of entitlement, superiority or right by some men.
It is violence (very often family violence) which considers women a possession, a spoil or prey. It is violence predicated on a sense of superiority, power and conquest. It is a violence as old as time itself, and which despite every progress by humankind, remains an evil undiminished.
Simply and only because they are women
Yes, anyone can walk down a dark, isolated street at night, jog through the park in the early hours of the morning, wait alone at a bus stop at dusk, or pass a mob of drunks in a club district, and be robbed, bashed or harried.
But only women are targeted simply and only because they are women.
Only women are subjected to assault and physical violence by male partners who feel this is a legitimate – even natural – expression of power, entitlement and manly authority. Only women face sexual harassment in the workplace because some men consider them available fruit; only women must fend off the unwanted advances of men who believe that buying them a drink or dinner entitles them to just reward; only women walk a lonely street or secluded pathway and wonder if this will be the night that a stranger will consider it his right to claim her body and possibly her life.
Women are enjoying unprecedented and overdue freedoms, opportunities and recognition. This is a testament to those feminist activists who over generations have demanded their rights, and also to the ability of societies to adapt to changing times and attitudes.
But women know there is much more to be done and that progress is often illusory; women know that entrenched attitudes, norms and laws that disadvantage them and them alone remain; women know that being a woman, even in 2014, is enough to expose them to danger.
The very fact that the unspeakable crime of rape persists to the extent that it does is society’s shame. That women continue to be victims of violence in the family home demonstrates that age-old power relationships remain undiminished and too little challenged. That women feel unsafe and vulnerable in a whole range of settings and circumstances that would not trouble a man reveal fundamental flaws in a society that considers itself refined, enlightened and fair-minded.
This is not a sudden and dramatic awakening of my inner feminist. The sisterhood and I have many points of disagreement, and on the corporate front I’ve written against boardroom quotas for women, “panel pledges” and the existence of the glass ceiling. But such matters are on the edges of this discussion.
Indeed, when a male CEO stands up and declares his support for the Panel Pledge – promising not to participate in any conference panel that does not include a woman – there are congratulations all round about the wonderful advances women are making in society.
“This is not the kind of society I want to live in”
But in the real world, too many women are finding that too little has changed.
When I hear of the latest Jill Meagher (the Melbourne woman who was raped and murdered, her final moments before meeting her predator captured on CCTV) or Rosie Batty (whose 11 year old son Luke was killed by her estranged husband), my heart breaks and I think, “This is not the kind of society I want to live in, it’s not the kind of society women should be living in: why are we letting these women down like this?”
Whenever one of these tragedies occur there’s a spontaneous community call for action and a flurry of activity ensues: governments vow to toughen sentences, police promise to overhaul internal processes, government departments appoint task forces to improve communication between agencies, newspapers launch campaigns.
But this is just tweaking around the edges, and somehow, no matter how genuine or well intentioned these responses are, nothing seems to change.
A national royal commission into institutional responses to violence against women is the best hope of achieving meaningful systemic change across all jurisdictions and instrumentalities. To adapt the wording quoted above, the job of the royal commission would be to “uncover where systems have failed to protect women so it can make recommendations on how to improve laws, policies and practices.”
It would hopefully make state and federal governments obsessed with “efficiency dividends” think twice before cutting funding for women’s shelters, community programs, police forces, judicial systems and legal aid services.
A modern, liberal and wealthy society such as Australia should find it intolerable that violence against women continues so endemically and habitually. Something is desperately wrong. We need to understand why violence against women occurs, how we as a society respond to it, and how we can more effectively act to stamp out this blight on our community, and in the meantime better protect those women who are its victims. Only a royal commission can place us on this path.