[Content Note / Trigger Warning: This article discusses sexual assault and domestic violence]
Words || Katelyn Free
I remember the first time I thought it would be a good idea to put my car keys between my fingers. Walking across a car park late at night, with only a few cars dotted around, and the sound of footsteps behind me.
It may have been no one and the car park may have been perfectly safe. But the panic that rose up into my throat as I dashed the last 20 meters to my car has become a commonplace occurrence the older I’ve gotten.
This story is not new or original, it is frustratingly normal. And for almost all women, totally mundane.
On June 12, Eurydice Dixon was raped and murdered on her walk home. She was found 900 meters from her house, and just after midnight had sent a text message to her partner saying, ‘I’m almost home safe, HBU’.
The original message in the wake of Dixon’s murder from the Victorian police was to ‘make sure you have situational awareness’ and ‘be aware of your own personal security’. However, the discourse surrounding her death steadily changed as it became a flashpoint for the problematic conversation surrounding violence against women in society.
Directing the conversation away from the inherent victim blaming stance that many conversations about women’s safety are based in, led for strong statements about the societal change that needs to take place. Education of men and attitude shifts towards their responsibility were prescribed, with Malcolm Turnbull joining the tide, stating, ‘what we must do as we grieve is ensure that we change the hearts of men to respect women’. This was echoed by Bill Shorten, who noted that ‘it’s about deciding as a nation that violence against women is ultimately preventable’.
Dr Rachael Gunn is an interdisciplinary Scholarly Teaching Fellow at Macquarie University, specialising in media and feminist theory. She notes that ‘the horrific death of Eurydice Dixon sparked a long overdue national conversation about misogyny, toxic masculinity, and how boys are raised in Australia to view women. This debate, which has gained further traction through the #MeToo movement, sees sexism, harassment, and violence against women all part of the same problem.’
Understanding that the problem lies not in the fact that Eurydice could have taken steps to potentially prevent her death, but that the responsibility to do so didn’t lie with her, is a major shift in the discourse surrounding women’s safety. Similar discussion appeared again after the murder of 19-year-old Laa Chol on the 21st of July during a dispute at a Melbourne house party.
These two murders generated dialogue about the need to shift values and perspectives in order to create a climate where sexual assault and violence is not a normalised risk that women face. This was poignant and positive, but it perhaps doesn’t frame these tragedies in the correct light. When we take the murders of two women and de-personalise them to be used for political or ideological purposes, we tread a very difficult line. And we risk not framing their deaths within the broader issue that we’re seeking to address.
Violence against women is not limited to acts of sexual violence and homicide committed at random as in the cases of Dixon and Chol. It is not only the threat of violence from strangers. This is a large part of the daily fear that many women face, but dangerously narrows the scope of the issue.
The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare’s report entitled Family, Domestic and Sexual Violence in Australia, 2018, found that in the experiences of violence reported by women, around 90% of the incidents were committed by a person known to the victim. Violence committed against women is most likely to take place within their own homes, with one in six women having experienced physical and/or sexual violence by a current or previous partner. The majority of violence that takes place against women is not committed by strangers, it falls under the umbrella term of domestic violence which has a history of being a systemic and ill-addressed issue in Australian society.
The NSW Government released a DOMESTIC AND FAMILY VIOLENCE BLUEPRINT FOR REFORM in 2017, and recent reforms have taken place to address the issue of domestic violence, including reform to allow victims to break lease agreements on the spot when they are in danger of abuse. However, key areas such as the Apprehended Violence Order process, the most common route for victims to obtain protection from their abusers, can still be lengthy and not wholly effective.
In order to fully address the issue of violence against women in Australian society, more than an attitude shift in regards to stranger danger is needed. The issue is much wider and runs much deeper than the few instances of tragedy which make our headlines. There can be a focus on these seemingly rare instances of violence. The ones we think are outside of the ordinary scope of behaviour. The ones that are visceral and pushed into focus. When the body of a young woman is found in a football field it cannot be ignored. And it shouldn’t be. But there has to be a willingness to keep looking, beyond what is immediate.
Dr Gunn also considers that the discussion on this issue ‘needs to go further than just Australia says no to violence against women’. She believes that it needs to take on the position ‘that Australia says no to sexism in all its forms, whether it’s a “harmless” joke, an online threat, a casual offensive comment, or unsolicited physical contact’, and should facilitate ‘working together to change the culture around how we view men and women in Australia’. This discourse additionally needs to take on an active role, it ‘should challenge any kind of victim-blaming, should demand those who commit violence against women are convicted, should report on funding cuts to domestic violence shelters, and should hold our politicians to account’.
The deaths of Eurydice Dixon and Laa Chol shocked Australia into re-consideration of the dangers that women face. And this discussion was greatly needed. Discussion is powerful. But we will keep having the same discussions unless there is actual and effective change. More than an attitude shift is needed. It is more than imploring for men to be taught respect of women from a young age. It is more than beginning to move dialogue away from victim blaming rhetoric. There must be actual and effective plans to deal with the systemic issue of violence against women in its full scope that takes into account the violence that we do and do not see.
But until that takes place, until we make it from here to there, I and many other women will still be sliding their house keys between their fingers, digging them in and searching for safety.