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The lives of far too many Australians are blighted by violence, harassment and bullying (2010)

Commission Commission – General

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The following opinion pieces have been published by the President and Commissioners. Reproduction of the opinion pieces must include reference to where the opinion piece was originally published.

The lives of far too many Australians are blighted by violence, harassment and bullying

Author: Catherine Branson QC, President of the Australian Human Rights Commission

Published in Online Opinion, Monday, 13 December 2010

This is an edited version of the 2010 Human Rights Day Oration given on International Human Rights Day, 10 December, by Catherine Branson QC, President of the Australian Human Rights Commission

In 2008 approximately 100 men paid to have sex with one 12 year old Australian girl. She was being pimped by her mother and a male ‘family friend’ from a Hobart motel and from a house in Glenorchy, a city near Hobart.

Both her mother and the ‘family friend’ are now serving jail terms although none of the other men has been charged.

There are many deeply troubling aspects of this story - but the one that troubles me perhaps most is, how this could have gone on for so long without coming to the attention of the authorities?

Someone must have been managing the motel, others must have been staying or eating at the motel, and there must have been next door neighbours in Glenorchy.

Surely someone had suspicions about what was going on. Did they just think: well it looks bad but I don’t suppose it’s any of my business?

Let me tell another story. In 2006, at age 19, Brodie Panlock jumped from the top of a carpark in Melbourne. She died three days later. She had endured relentless and cruel bullying by male workmates at a café in the Melbourne suburb of Hawthorn. Her employer and the bullies were convicted of occupational health and safety offences. But, is it possible that no one else knew what was happening to Brodie? I don’t think so.

These are horrible stories of extreme harm done by violence, harassment and bullying. But the lives of far too many Australians are blighted by violence, harassment and bullying.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics has reported that one in three Australian women has experienced physical violence since the age of fifteen and one in five has experienced sexual assault since that age. Violence, including sexual violence, against women with disability is appreciably higher. It is estimated that in 2009 violence against women and their children cost the Australian economy an estimated $13.6 billion.

A study involving 38,000 Australian school-aged children showed that at least half of them had experienced bullying at school, and it has been found that bullied children are five times more likely to be depressed than their peers.

A recent study of same sex attracted young people showed that 61% had been verbally abused and 18% physically abused.

We also know that older Australians are experiencing abuse - sometimes, but not always, in institutional settings.

The Australian Human Rights Commission has decided that tackling violence, harassment and bullying should be one of two key priorities for our work over at least the next two years.

Our other key priority is building understanding and respect for rights in our community.

But the decision to concentrate on violence, harassment and bullying in all areas of our work reflects our understanding as a Commission that, if the human rights of ‘everyone, everywhere, everyday’ are to be truly respected, the levels of violence, harassment and bullying in Australia must fall significantly.

For this to happen, we must all play our part. If we can empathise with those who are facing human rights abuses, we won’t want to remain passive bystanders. To return to the two stories that I mentioned earlier, we will act if we witness grave child sexual abuse or gross harassment of a colleague in our workplace. It is my hope that we will as a country move to a position in which none of us experiences violence, harassment or bullying without someone stepping to our defence.

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