Women march across Australia against sexual violence and inequality

Andrew LEESON
·3-min read

Women protested across Australia on Monday against sexual violence and gender inequality, with thousands hitting the streets as outrage grew over rape allegations that have convulsed the conservative government.

The #March4Justice rallies are being held in more than 40 Australian cities and towns, with a major demonstration in Canberra following allegations of sexual assault in the nation's parliament.

Dressed in mostly black, the crowd gathered outside Parliament House holding aloft placards with slogans including "You're Not Listening", "How Many Victims Do You Know?" and "I Believe Her".

Protester Kathryn Jamieson, who travelled from Melbourne to take part, said she was "fuming with rage".

"I wanted to be at the heart of the matter, I've completely had enough," she told AFP.

"We need immediate change -- I'm sick of women not being believed."

Former government staffer Brittany Higgins alleged publicly last month that she had been raped by a colleague in a minister's office in 2019.

And earlier this month, Attorney-General Christian Porter vigorously denied swirling accusations he had raped a 16-year-old girl in 1988 when they were both students.

On Monday, Porter launched defamation proceedings against public broadcaster ABC, which first published the allegations against an unnamed senior minister, with lawyers saying the attorney-general was "easily identifiable" in the article and has since been subjected to "trial by media".

Local media also reported that women in the opposition Labor party had set up a Facebook page in recent days that details alleged sexual harassment by male colleagues and politicians.

The government has ordered an independent inquiry into parliament's workplace culture and established new support services for staff.

But critics say systemic change is needed -- not just in politics but across Australian society.

- 'Toxic' workplace culture -

Organisers of Monday's march in Canberra declined an offer from Prime Minister Scott Morrison to speak with them privately, saying attending a closed-door meeting would be "disrespectful" to alleged victims.

"I think the prime minister, if he really cared about women, really cared about our voices... he (could) open the door, walk across the forecourt and come and listen to us," organiser Janine Hendry told the ABC.

Australia's parliament has been repeatedly criticised in recent years for a "toxic" workplace culture that has allegedly spawned persistent bullying, harassment and sexual assault.

The ruling coalition has been accused of not doing enough to support female party members, including after a spate of women quit parliament ahead of the 2019 election, with several citing bullying as a factor.

A group of independent and minor party female politicians on Monday announced they would attempt to amend a "loophole" in legislation that shields members of parliament and the judiciary from liability for workplace sexual harassment.

"It seems crazy that we would be, in 2021, having to present an amendment to a legislation that is vital to ensure all workplaces in Australia are safe and secure and respectful," independent MP Zali Steggall said.

Porter remains on medical leave in the wake of the allegations, as is Defence Minister Linda Reynolds, who is accused of mishandling the Higgins case.

Reynolds was also forced to apologise and pay damages after slurring her former staffer by calling her a "lying cow".

Higgins has said she will donate the funds after legal costs to an organisation providing support and counselling to sexual assault survivors in Canberra.

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