International Women’s Day is my favourite day of the year because it is the one day that we can celebrate being a woman (we know we are awesome but it’s a good opportunity to let everyone else know this as well). We can also use the importance of this day as a platform to bring attention to issues and inequities that affect girls and women.
‘Choose to Challenge’ is such an apt theme for this year’s International Women’s Day because it represents very clearly what I have spent my whole adult life (and probably before this) doing, that is, challenging gender inequities, calling out stereotypes, and trying to educate others to see the world through what I call a ‘gender lens’. If everyone just stopped for a moment and put on a pair of ‘gender tinted glasses’ instead of ‘rose tinted glasses’ we might just see the world for what it is, a place where girls and women are suffering. Maybe you think that the use of the word suffering is a bit too hyperbolic and dramatic for this occasion, but as an English teacher, I can assure you my word choice is quite deliberate, yes girls and women are suffering.
So, what does this suffering look, and worse still, feel like.
Well, in recent weeks we can see that it looks and feels like sexual assault. Nothing new here. But I’m choosing to challenge for change so I’m calling this out. We think we are in the middle of the worst public health pandemic of the century, well I’m here to tell you that the sexual assault of girls and women is the silent pandemic of our society and it is showing no signs of abating. There are no face masks to treat this pandemic, instead we are more likely to cover it up with a death shroud and offer our prayers. Sexual assault permeates like a silent disease through every part of society starting from Parliament House and filtrating down through workplaces, homes, schools, recreation areas, and dark laneways. No where is safe for women – not work, not home, not a night out with friends or a walk in the park.
Recently I read every report of sexual assault made by current and former Sydney schoolgirls through the online petition initiated by Chanel Contos, and before we can say this is only an issue for a particular group of girls from particular schools, just stop for a moment and understand this is just reflective of the group of girls who were asked. If we were to take this petition and ask for a response from ALL girls from ALL schools and ALL women across ALL sectors of society we’d be flabbergasted. It’s a hard pill to swallow when we are confronted head on with the extent of the abuse expressed through the words of victims and the silent suffering that has been endured. Surely, enough is enough and we can’t let this go on.
As an educator of girls, all I want to do is protect the girls in my care and it causes me immense pain that I can’t do this. Forget NAPLAN, forget ATAR, I just want to know that the girls I care for (as well as every other girl and woman in society) are safe from sexual assault. It seems to me like a reasonable request.
So, what do we need to do?
As a starting place we need to understand that in the majority of cases sexual assault starts from a place of inequity. It starts from a place of superiority and power, a place where individuals feel they can take what they want, when they want, and they don’t have to ask. Women don’t have the rights to their own bodies, this has been taken away from them. This has been done through public policy, through advertising and media where we make women objects of the male gaze, and by not asking permission before touching. But it doesn’t end here, it starts from all forms of gender inequity where we put one sex in a higher position than another and tell them they are worth more, literally through unequal pay and the unequal distribution of leadership roles, and metaphorically through perpetuating cultural and social beliefs that boys are strong and girls are weak, and girls need to be looked after, rescued, and are the property of boys.
I can assure you that schools are doing all they can, but I urge everyone who is a parent reading this to sit down tonight and have a conversation with your child, and don’t put this off until you think they are old enough, by then it will be too late. Sit down tonight and tell them clearly what consent is and make sure this includes every variety and flavour of sex – not just sex as you might know it. My apologies if that offends, but sometimes we avoid the necessary conversations out of embarrassment and a media article limits my ability to spell out all the different ways that sex and sexual acts occur – but be aware, if they take place without consent, they are all crimes. Then make sure your child also understands what sexual assault is and how to not become a perpetrator, where to seek help if they are a victim, and how they can support each other to try and stop crimes from occurring in the first place.
If we all choose to challenge for this change, then we might just reduce the suffering that is occurring for girls and women and make the world a better place for everybody – girls, boys, women, men, and others who don’t fit into any of these categories. Is this too much to ask?
Dr Nicole Archard
Principal, Loreto College Marryatville