From anger to action: three things Australia must do at home to continue being a gender champion abroad

by Leisa Gibson and Lavinia Tyrrel

Content warning: This post discusses sexual assault

Anger. Frustration. Despondency. Trauma. Solidarity.

These are the emotions we, and many other women like us, have felt in Australia this past fortnight.

Recent events in Canberra have once again brought to light stories of violence, harassment and discrimination against women and girls in Australia. And for most of us these are our own stories, or stories from our mothers, sisters, daughters, friends and colleagues.

“They pulled my skirt down in outside the party and tried to assault me”.

“My boss told me ‘I’d look better in a coconut bra”.

“I was abused as a child”.

These are not things that happen to ‘a few women over there’. These are stories from women we know. Women from all ages and all walks of life. On this the evidence is clear. Every person reading this article will know a woman or girl who has experienced violence, discrimination or harassment because they are a woman (whether they have told you this or not). Gender based violence and harassment is a crisis in Australia.

Our fire is burning out.

The fire that drives us to work overseas to help countries put in place the social, economic and political institutions so that women and girls can be safe and empowered (often in the face of overwhelming odds) is burning out. The inability of Australia to acknowledge and respond to the crisis and political reckoning on its doorstep is leaving many of us feeling on the brink of defeat. We are tired. We are frustrated. We are sick of the seeming inaction and sexism again and again. Each time it ‘feels different’ like ‘something will change’. But that global figure of 1/3 women experiencing violence  remains unchanging year on year.  

And change is too slow.

We know the statistics. We know the personal stories. We know the causes and symptoms of the problem. We even know many of the solutions. So why are things not changing fast enough here and in the aid industry?

There are many ideas for why – the foundation of gender inequality, racism and bigotry is rarely fundamentally addressed, and the legal and system changes needed to respond adequately to sexual violence and abuse are just not a priority (and in fact can be stymied for example  contrary to all expert opinion.) We are so rarely ready to address the root cause of violence against women and girls (VAWG) at an institutional level and in a way that is sustainable. Plenty of reforms have been suggested in Australia and in the aid world, yet the money, effort, expertise and will is usually not there long enough to see these reforms take hold. A large part of the solution is political. Yet political action and leadership is lacking. 

So where to from here?

There are three things Australians involved in providing aid overseas must do now to be gender champions abroad.

1. Acknowledge and face the cultural change right here in Australia. It is time for action. Use your social media platforms, personal and professional connections to make noise. In doing so, be humble, listen to and learn from experts and survivors. Call for the Respect @Work Sexual Harassment National Inquiry Report, our recently released roadmap to ending workplace sexual harassment, to be fully resourced and implemented. Contact your local MP and let them know you have had enough. Most importantly, lead by example. Take a close look at your attitudes, beliefs, relationships, and behaviours and consider what changes you could make to contribute to a safer world for women and girls. 

2. Accept that, just like any other workplace in Australia, aid and development organisations (yes, including yours) are sites of sexual exploitation, harassment and abuse.

  • Rigorously support resourcing of technical expertise in gender, racial and disability inequality across Australia’s aid programs.
  • If your organisation does not have a survivor-centred policy on preventing and responding to sexual exploitation, harassment, and abuse in the workplace, develop or advocate for one now. If you already have one, consider whether it is time for a review to examine the extent to which staff understand, support and can apply the policy in practice. In doing so, engage experts and develop partnerships necessary to ensure your policy is evidence based and accountable to survivors of violence. Take advantage of the preventing sexual exploitation, abuse and harassment (PSEAH) resources developed by the Australian Council for International Development (ACFID), including the Introduction to Safeguarding e-learning course.
  • Then go beyond the minimum standards. Workplaces in Australia are perpetuating gender, race, and other inequalities.  Aid agencies must have plans in place to actively support and encourage diversity and workplace justice. We need to consistently meet the standards of Australia and global norms in diversity policies, and we need to ensure our programs are adequately resourced to so the work to keep beneficiaries safe, respected, and able to inform programs through feedback mechanisms. And ensure same policies are applied at home and in the field to all staff, to ensure local leadership and empowerment.
  • Support women, men, and people of other genders to speak out and speak up – creating a workplace environment where staff feel empowered to speak up against sexism, racism, bigotry, and ableism requires courageous leadership who do the same. Good quality bystander training is a first step that can transform workplace norms around gender, racial, and disability inclusion.
  • If you are a donor: incentivise aid providers to “race to the top”. Minimum standards are just that, minimum. Reward excellence for protection, gender empowerment and equality policies and how well they are implemented at bidding, project assessment points and reviews. Demand evidence of success and how abuse is dealt with. Tie funding to evidence. Aid providers should be racing to the top when it comes to gender equality and protection standards, and leading other industries.

3. Be part of the social movement for change. Ending violence against women and girls, in the workplace, at home and in the community, has always progressed based on collective action. At the Women’s March 4Justice, we heard from some of the women on whose shoulders we stand in ending violence against women, and globally the EVAWG movement is grounded in local activism. Go along to these rallies, advocate that your company support time off to attend, become politically active.  More and more diverse feminists in public policy and parliaments can see policy shift significantly.

The past few weeks in Australia have been a stark reminder to us all that we are part of a global community in our work to keep workplaces safe. It is time for the aid sector in Australia to stand united against violence in our organisations, in our industry and in the communities in which we work. Our voices are finally gaining traction. The time is now.

With huge thanks to our colleagues, who supported this post:

Ayesha Lutschini, Abt Associates

Jacqui de Lacy, Abt Associates

Jess Gilmore, Abt Associates

Priya Chattier, Abt Associates

Arthi Patel, Independent Consultant

Elizabeth Cooney, Abt Associates 

Kelly Wyett, Abt Associates

Bridi Rice, ACFID

Kate Morioka, Independent Consultant

Therese Faulkner, IDCC

Kiri Dicker, Independent Consultant

Amy Haddad, Tetra Tech

Sally Moyle, Australian National University

Sarah Boyd, The Gender Agency

Leda Tyrrel, Independent Consultant

Sexual assault support services

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