A year on from March 4 Justice, what has and hasn’t changed?

People talking about the Brittany Higgins case risk being held in contempt of court, a judge warns.

People talking about the Brittany Higgins case risk being held in contempt of court, a judge warns. Photo: Getty

It has been almost a year since thousands of people gathered outside of Parliament House, demanding an end to gendered violence in Australia, and justice and respect for women. 

Brittany Higgins’ allegations of rape sparked national discussions about the treatment of women in the workplace and beyond.

In the same year that sexual assault survivor and advocate Grace Tame was crowned Australian of the Year, more and more people were listening. 

But a year on, and as another International Women’s Day is celebrated, has anything changed?

‘The glass ceiling is still in place’

On March 15, 2021, survivors and their allies across Australia gathered outside Parliament House for the inaugural March 4 Justice rally.

The central event in Canberra was joined by its sister rallies in other cities, including Melbourne and Sydney. 

Tens of thousands of people marched, bringing signs and demanding real change. 

Ms Higgins spoke at the event outside Parliament House, one month after her allegations were first published by 

“We are all here today, not because we want to be here, but because we have to be here,” Ms Higgins said. 

“We fundamentally recognise the system is broken, the glass ceiling is still in place and there are significant failings in the power structures within our institutions.” 

One year on

As Ms Higgins said during her March 4 Justice speech last year: “We are here because it is unfathomable that we are still having to fight this same stale, tired fight.” 

That fight continues.

A new global report released by a coalition including Plan International, a charity for girls, found Australia has failed to make progress in gender equality in the past five years.

The country ranks 14th on the global ladder in terms of gender equality, the same position it ranked in 2019. It falls behind New Zealand, Ireland and Spain.

The top three countries are Denmark, Sweden and Norway, while the United Kingdom is in 18th place and the United States in 38th.

And, according to the report, Australia ranks in the bottom 50 per cent of countries in Asia and the Pacific on women’s perception of public safety. 

Only 54 per cent of Australian women over the age of 15 feel safe walking alone at night in their local area. 

For this reason, and the continual fight for women’s safety, some of Australia’s most influential women have joined forces on a new campaign announced on March 6.

Safety, Respect, Equity

The Safety Respect Equity campaign is fronted by 12 women, including Ms Higgins, Ms Tame and former Australia Post chief executive Christine Holgate. 

Last year, amid the Cartier watches saga, Ms Holgate said she felt “bullied” out of her job.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison said at the time that if Ms Holgate didn’t want to stand aside, “she can go”. Although he regretted his language, Mr Morrison stopped short of an apology. 

The women of the campaign also include former businesswomen Lucy Hughes Turnbull, Paralympic gold medalist Madison de Rozario, former MP Julia Banks, Australian Council of Trade Unions president Michele O’Neil, academic Larissa Behrendt, consent activist Chanel Contos, youth advocate Yasmin Poole, businesswoman Wendy McCarthy and The Parenthood executive director Georgie Dent. 

A letter shared on the campaign’s website explains that 2021 wasn’t the first year Australian women were harassed, unsafe, violated, ignored or disrespected.

It wasn’t the first time women spoke up, either. 

But more Australians are starting to listen. 

A video for the campaign, featuring the 12 advocates, was filmed on the same day as Ms Tame and Ms Higgins’ powerful address at the National Press Club.

“One out of every five women will be sexually assaulted or raped in their lifetime. And if you’re a First Nations woman, a woman of colour, a woman living with a disability or are queer, those stats are even worse,” they say in the video together.

It’s worth noting that the faces of modern feminism in Australia are still predominantly white. 

On the eve of International Women’s Day, writer Sisonke Msimang wrote for The Guardian that while Ms Tame and Ms Higgins’ fury have been widely accepted and praised, “anger expressed by Black women activists is seen as toxic, divisive and polarising”. 

Safety Respect Equity is calling for several reforms, such as the prevention of sexual harassment and bullying in the workplace and 10 days’ paid family and domestic violence leave.

“Every woman in Australia deserves access to a safe place to work, a safe place to live, fair and equal pay, quality free early learning and care, and a justice system that works for survivors,” the letter reads.

“We invite you to join us in demanding a future in which all women enjoy safety, respect and equity. It is within reach and it starts here.”

The letter is signed by all 12 women.

International Women’s Day is a time to celebrate the relentless and inspiring women in our lives, but it is also a chance to reflect on and acknowledge the work that still needs to be done.

For confidential support and services around sexual assault, contact 1800 RESPECT online or by phone on 1800 737 732. If you or someone you know needs help, contact Lifeline on 131 114

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