By Lilly Williamson, Millicent Spencer, Kiara Ariza Stellato Pledger
Change has already begun in the aftermath of March’s March4Justice protests, veteran activist Bronwyn Currie says.
On March 15, more than 100,000 women and allies rallied across 40 cities and towns in Australia, sparked by a wave of allegations of sexual assault centred around Australia’s parliament.
“Our Prime Minister is starting to consider that quotas might be appropriate to have equal representation of women in parliament,” Ms Currie, a march organiser and Animal Justice Party candidate, says.
“That’s something they’ve never considered before. That’s a shift in their policy.”
She says people are recognising that the time has come for change. “Women need to be heard and the men in power listening need to understand that this is a moment in time where they need to truly hear what women are saying and take appropriate action,” she says.
Ms Currie says the push for action was so strong she was “irrelevant” as an organiser. “The march was going to proceed with or without me and whether we had permits or not,” she says.
Consent activist Chanel Contos became a beacon of hope for survivors after her poll on Instagram regarding sexual assault in schools blew up with thousands of responses.
“Protests like these show that masses of people have the same views and are calling for change. I think there is a lot of power in numbers,” she says.
“As I have gotten older, I’ve become more confident telling people I’ve been sexually assaulted. The more I tell people the more they tell me the same thing.”
Ms Contos’s petition calling for earlier sex education in schools, with a particular focus on private institutions, has led to a national discussion on the issue. The Victorian Government announced this week consent education would be mandatory in state schools from term 2 this year. Other governments and organisations are also taking action.
Ms Currie says petitions like Ms Contos’s have the power, along with protests, to make significant change.
“Continuous pressure is important, letting the government know you’re watching, and you expect certain things from them and if you don’t see change you will keep pushing,” she says.
“Protests are great because they are a visible reminder that people are feeling a certain way and that they’re prepared to go to a place and hold signs and make noise and make visible how they feel about an issue.”
NSW Police Commissioner Mick Fuller’s sexual consent app idea, dropped after being labelled a disaster, was another example of change.
Ms Contos says the idea missed the mark. “It was very telling of the way consent is viewed as this black and white thing, it is not really being holistic in the view and not really understanding,” she says.
“I really appreciate that people in positions of power are making effort to make things better and create structural reform, and I want to make sure Australia doesn’t create a hostile environment where it’s not okay to pitch forward ideas.”
Melbourne Uni Professor of Australian History Sean Scalmer says protests can contribute to systematic and meaningful change.
“Protests can symbolise a current or popular opinion on particular issues. They can help to draw the attention of the mass media and politicians to neglected issues,” he says.
The immediate impact of a protest is more obvious than long-term effects, he says.
“There is a sense of excitement or involvement from those people present and a sense of the developing momentum of a campaign.
“This includes the ways in which the protest is received by the mass media and how it’s received on social media and by politicians.”
Protests can also have longer term impacts on society. “They are less easy to measure, but protests can cumulatively help to shift Australian culture,” he says.
Prof Scalmer said the LGBTQIA liberation movement was a leading example.
“Over decades this movement has shifted the broader public’s understandings of sexuality and respect for diversity, though you couldn’t trace that back to an individual protest,” he said.
Ms Currie says that for many protesters, longevity of an issue is a real thing. “I had women in their ’70s and ’80s coming up to me saying we are so tired of this issue,” she says.
Prof Scalmer says it can take a very long time for meaningful action to have an impact.“In relation to something like sexual violence you can see that this has been protested about by women and their supporters for more than 100 years,” he says.
“Considered in this light we can see that these recent protests movements really emphasise how persistent so many inequalities and problems are, and how slow governments have been to provide redress.”
Ms Contos says it is time for serious, unprecedented changes to tackle this issue properly.
“It’s ridiculous that’s it taken this much for this topic to be at the forefront of issues,” she says.
“These things have been happening under our noses forever and they keep getting swept under the rug.”
Prime Minister Scott Morrison refused to attend the protest in the nation’s capital, leaving protesters both angry and disappointed.
Ms Contos says she’s “not at all surprised”. “The government’s response is just telling of how ingrained victim blaming and sexism is in our society.
“It has affected us (victims) in a triggering way but also keeps us motivated to do better, we know that there is better, and we deserve better.”
Many victims of violence joined the marches, Ms Currie says.
“Some women said their anxiety and trauma prevents them from protesting, but they felt safe in that space knowing that every woman there had been touched in some way by gendered violence,” she says.
“I don’t want to overuse the ‘Enough is Enough’ hashtag but that is the situation, women have had enough, and this is the moment in time where the government must do something.”
“The overwhelming feeling [at the march] was a sense of shared safety and hope but also a lot of anger at our federal parliament and the patriarchy in general,” Ms Currie says.
With close to 40,000 signatures and 5000 testimonies on her petition, Ms Contos says we are now at a tipping point and she is hopeful for change.
“It’s pretty hard to read those testimonies and to not see there is something seriously wrong with the current system. I think I’m very optimistic for a better future.”