IWD, Queensland Women’s Week and Women’s March 4 Justice

In 1908, when 15,000 women took to the streets of New York city to demand the right to vote, for better pay and shorter working hours the seed for International Women’s Day (IWD) was planted.  The theme for IWD 8th March 2021 was Choose to Challenge.  A call to action that was most certainly heard given that the following week thousands marched around Australia at dozens of Women’s March 4 Justice rallies to protest against gendered violence and sexism. 

More than 100 years on from the marches of 1908 we are still marching! Why?

In 2012, when Prime Minister Julia Gillard roared across our airwaves against misogyny in modern Australia and more specifically within the halls of parliament one could have been forgiven for wondering whether much has changed. At the time Gillard laid bare a series of statements from Abbot with such casual sexism that the words felt more like 1950s satire than reality. According to Abbott, the then leader of the opposition, the under-representation of women in institutions of power was not such a bad thing and he pondered whether men might not simply be physiologically better suited to command authority. The obliviousness towards his own unearned privileges palpable.

Fast forward to 2021 and these same halls are yet again filled with the cries of women; this time not just casual sexism, but more visceral and sinister accusations of rape and institutional complicity. A key focus, at the time of writing were the accusations of rape and sexual abuse from Brittany Higgins towards a formal Federal Parliament staffer and the historical claims levelled towards Attorney-General Christian Porter. Our highest house is in disarray and there are widespread cries for cultural change and formalised investigations. Brittany Higgins told the Women’s March 4 Justice rally in Canberra that “the system is broken.” Sexual abuse survivor and Australian of the Year Grace Tame told the crowd in Hobart that “behaviour unspoken, behaviour ignored, is behaviour endorsed” and our Queensland state MPs came out in force to attend the Brisbane rally. The demand for change is palpable.

The theme for this year’s Queensland Women’s Week (QWW)  ‘Celebrate our present. Own our future’, acknowledged the achievements of women in a year that was heavily impacted by the risks and challenges of COVID-19. Minister for Women and Minister for the Prevention of Domestic and Family Violence, Shannon Fentiman, said this year’s QWW was more important than ever due to women being disproportionately impacted by COVID. Women endured the double impact of working in many of the continuing frontline jobs such as health care and cleaning and being concentrated in industries most impacted by shutdowns such as retail and hospitality. Tragically the COVID-19 pandemic has also seen an increase in violence against women with almost 1 in 10 women in a relationship experiencing domestic violence during the COVID crisis, with two-thirds stating that attacks started or became worse. Minister Fentiman acknowledged “our work in this field is far from done as we continue to address the gender pay gap, the under-representation of women in traditionally male-dominated industries, and women experiencing high levels of sexual offences and domestic and family violence.”

Those of us working from a human rights and social justice lens understand that marginalisation and domination is a complex and multifactorial beast. In Carol Bacchi’s (2012) ‘What’s the Problem Represented to be’ (WPR) approach, we are invited to apply critical scrutiny to the problematising of issues and to include ourselves and our thinking to this scrutiny.

This article opened with three time points with commonalities which bear scrutinising with the caveat that this is not about weighing up of one injustice or hurt against the other, but specifically about the lens through which we picture the issue and what is lost when one group is centred over another. Kimberlé Crenshaw, black American civil rights activist, lawyer, and philosopher brought to the world the concept of Intersectionality. In her ground breaking work Crenshaw (1989) said the following:

In sex discrimination cases, the focus is on race and class privileged women. This focus on the most privileged group members marginalizes those who are multiply-burdened and obscures claims that cannot be understood as resulting from discrete sources of discrimination… and creates a distorted analysis of racism and sexism. 

Our discussions on feminism, on abuses of power towards women both systemically and individually, cannot afford to be single-axis perspectives. We cannot look at misogyny among the white political elite, without considering the issue of representation of First Nations People in our parliament. 

When we talk about youth homelessness in Queensland within the context of gender, we cannot accurately portray the reality without speaking to poverty, to class, or to disability. We especially cannot speak about youth homelessness, without speaking to colonisation and the removal of First Nations children and young people from families. 

Intersectionality is a framework which explores the nuances of domination and oppression, without the loss of diversity of issues which happens when we over-simplify. When our end goal is to end homelessness, we recognise the pathway needs to be one that focuses on equity over equality, one that needs to tackle complex issues with complex responses. This is reflected in our discussions with youth housing and homelessness services when we ask – what needs to change so that we may better meet the needs of young people? 

Intersectional feminism throws open the aperture and reminds us that we cannot think in binary and we cannot act in siloed ways. Homelessness is not only about bricks and mortar. Homelessness is about poverty, it is about intergenerational trauma, about colonisation and the separation of families, it is about domestic violence, being female, it is about disability, and whether you live in remote towns or big cities. Responding to homelessness reciprocally cannot only be about homelessness services, it is also about schools, about the NDIS, about youth justice, it’s about journalism and the messages we hear, cultural norms and stigma, and about neoliberal practices which pit financial gain over human need.

It’s a complex situation that needs a complex set of solutions. This will require a major shift in how we think and care for each other, for humanity. It will involve choosing to challenge and resist dominant paradigms that continue to oppress and disadvantage people.

Further conversations in the news: 

Qld mulls affirmative consent, DV offence | Yahoo! News

Queensland MPs reveal shocking personal stories of sexual harassment assaults | Courier Mail

Teaching consent to children: ‘The joke is where it starts and rape is where it ends’ | The Guardian

Premier’s consent laws slammed as ‘unfit’ | Courier Mail

‘Prawn and porn nights’, bare-breasted posters: Top silk reveals sexist culture | Courier Mail