SYDNEY – When Brittany Higgins got up in front of the Australian Parliament building in Canberra on Monday, she told the assembled crowd, “I’m speaking to you out of necessity.”
“We’re all here today, not because we want to be here, but because we have to be here,” said the former government employee to the crowd of thousands, many of whom were dressed in all black.
“I was raped by a colleague in the Parliament building, and for so long it felt like the people around me just cared about where it happened and what it could mean for them,” she said.
The Canberra rally was one of dozen anti-justice protests on March 4th across Australia this week sparked by multiple allegations of sexual assault against men in the country’s chambers of power.
Last month, 26-year-old Higgins went public with allegations that she was raped by an unnamed male colleague in a ministerial office in 2019. The police are investigating, but no arrests or charges were made.
Days after her allegation, details surfaced accusing Attorney General Christian Porter of rape decades ago in 1988. “The things that are alleged did not happen,” Porter, who has strongly denied the allegation, told reporters earlier this month. The assertion is now the subject of one ongoing defamation operation by Porter. He is also on sick leave longer.
While these two allegations were directed against those within the ruling Conservative government, news.com.au reported the existence of a social media group in which opposition Labor Party workers shared their experiences of “toxic culture” in the parliament building.
Party’s deputy chairman Richard Marles, said in response: “This is our house that we need to put in order and these are really appalling allegations.”
The idea of the protests began with a tweet from a Melbourne woman, Janine Hendry, who suggested that a group of women meet outside Parliament on Monday to express their outrage.
It wasn’t long before thousands of other women said they would join or take to the streets in their own towns.
Tens of thousands of Australians have participated in 40 rallies in the past few days, each with banners with messages such as “Why should she lie?” and “enough is enough.”
“Recent revelations show that the House of Parliament has a culture of misogyny and that it is an unsafe place to work,” Hendry told NBC News.
“The government seems completely overwhelmed and unwilling to listen to the concerns of everyday women. And worse, there seems to be a culture of denial and cover-up. We demand transparency and action. “
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Hendry and other protesters are calling for “full independent investigations into all cases of gender-based violence and timely referrals to the relevant authorities”.
“It’s a parliamentary problem, it’s an Australian problem, it’s a global problem. It will always be a problem when there is a gender imbalance in power,” she said.
And polls show that it is indeed a national problem. According to a Australian Human Rights Commission survey 201839 percent of women report having experienced sexual harassment in the workplace in the past five years.
Hayley Foster, CEO of Women’s Safety NSW, joined the Canberra protest, which was part of a nationwide “uprising”.
“There was a real feeling that this was something really significant and that everyone there was part of a very historic event … This is a turning point. Not only for Parliament but also for workplaces and schools will be much more vigilant in this regard and will be much more responsive to disclosures after last month. “
Foster said there needs to be not only cultural change in Australia, but also criminal justice reform and an increase in funding for women’s security services.
“[In Australia] 98.5 percent of sexual predators are not held accountable and is considered innocent in the eyes of the law because our criminal justice system is so inaccessible. It is so ineffective to give fair outcome to sexual assault survivors. “
“I am confident that there will be more action now [the protests] … I have a feeling that the Australians are not going to back down. “
On Monday, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said he was too busy to go outside to the Canberra rally but offered to meet a small delegation of organizers in his office. The organizers refused, saying, “We won’t meet behind closed doors.”
Commenting on the protests, Morrison said, “Those who are gathering here today and across the country do so out of a sense of great frustration and concern. That is deserved frustration and concern that I share.”
But he also called the rallies a “triumph of democracy” because the demonstrators were not “hit with bullets” as in some other countries.
Opposition Labor Party, Tanya Plibersek, who holds the title of shadow minister for women, said the prime minister had “deeply” missed the point.
“[The comment] That we should be grateful that we are in a place where you won’t be shot to march was so wrong, ”she said.
One protester quickly made a sign saying “How good is ScoMo for not shooting us” using Morrison’s Portmanteau and adjusting his catchphrase “How good is Australia”.
The Prime Minister’s Office did not answer specific questions about the protests, instead referring to one of Morrison’s earlier statements.
“The issue of violence against women remains a very high priority for my government. We have conducted an independent investigation into the broader issues of treating employees and protecting them,” it said.
This was not the first time the government has come under fire since recent allegations of sexual assault surfaced.
Shortly after Higgins made her allegation, the Australian newspaper reported that its former boss, Linda Reynolds, Australia’s Secretary of Defense, had called her a “lying cow”. Reynolds has since apologized and is now on extended sick leave.
Meanwhile, Morrison has stood by Porter after a claim he raped a 16-year-old girl in 1988 when he was 17 Anonymous letter was sent to several politicians including Morrison that contained a statement from the alleged victim.
The woman concerned died of suicide last year and the New South Wales Police have closed their investigations, citing “insufficient admissible evidence”.
But while that reckoning continues, Australians like Higgins say they will not rest until discrimination against women and sexual assault are adequately addressed.
“We have all learned in the past few weeks how common gender-based violence is in this country,” she told the crowd on Monday.
“It is time our leaders on both sides of politics stopped shunning the issue and bypassing accountability.” It’s time we actually looked into the problem, ”said Higgins.