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Men breaking the silence

Breaking Men’s Silence Forum, Members Dining Room, MCG, Melbourne

Gender-based violence is a form of discrimination that seriously inhibits women's ability to enjoy rights and freedoms on a basis of equality with men.

Attitudes by which women are regarded as subordinate to men or as having negative stereotyped roles perpetuate widespread practices involving violence or coercion, such as domestic and family violence and abuse, sexual assault and sexual harassment.

In Australia, too many women live in fear of violence every day.

It is unbelievable to me that in 2013, we still have not managed to achieve a world where women are safe from violence in their homes, from sexual harassment in the workplace and free from discrimination in their lives.

As a country, we continue to remain too silent on the issue of violence against women.

This silence is why we need to recognise leadership in this area, and in particular male leadership:

  • leadership of workplaces like the City of Sydney or NAB who have included domestic and family violence clauses in their enterprise agreements
  • leadership of unions such as CFMEU, who recently launched their “Real Men Don’t Abuse Women” campaign in Queensland. Their National construction secretary Dave Noonan said it would reinforce that violence against women was unacceptable and that all men had a responsibility to speak out against it.
  • leadership of Ken Lay, Commissioner of Victoria Police who actively campaigns against such violence
  • Lt. General David Morrison who recently captured the attention of the whole country with his words ‘the standard you walk past is the standard you accept
  • White Ribbon Ambassadors – who seek to change the attitudes and behaviours that lead to and perpetuate men’s violence against women, by engaging boys and men to lead social change. Thousands of men have taken the White Ribbon Oath: never to commit, excuse or remain silent about violence against women.

In Australia I have found that many good men are committed to making a change, however, in order to take men from interest to action, we need to make the case for change personal.

When you work with men to engage both their heads and hearts even in the most traditional and conservative organisations, transformational change can happen.

Let me share briefly one example of what I mean that came out of the work I did recently on a Review of the Treatment of Women in the Australian Defence Force.

As part of the Review I arranged for each of the Chiefs of the Services (Army, Navy and Air Force) to spend time ‘standing in the shoes’ of the most vulnerable – to listen deeply to people recounting their stories of life in the Australian Defence Force - those for whom service had come at an unacceptable personal cost.

I flew in women from all across Australia, many with their mothers, so that the Chiefs could hear and feel about the discrimination and violence women in the Defence Forces had experienced – to understand - what extreme exclusion means; to know what it’s like to be on exercise for two months when no-one speaks to you; to feel what it is like to be sexually assaulted by your instructor, the very person you go to for advice; to understand what it is like to face your perpetrator every day at work even though you reported his assault to your superiors; to learn what it means to have your career ruined and your peers ostracise you because you had the courage to make a complaint.

I needed the Chiefs, the very men with the power to create systemic change, to listen deeply, to understand and feel a personal commitment.

I remember that first face to face session – the Service Chief sitting uncomfortably in his chair – the mother nervously escorting her daughter to the chair beside, a box of tissues in the middle. Where to begin? And then that courageous young woman saying ‘Sir, I’m so nervous’ and the Chief replying, ‘Believe me, I’m scared too’.

In that moment I knew we had a chance at change. It takes an authentic and compassionate military leader to admit that he fears what he’s about to be told.

The Chiefs heard the pain of the mothers – mothers who had encouraged their daughters into the Service – mothers who had believed fervently that the enemy lay outside the military not within. As one mother said ‘I gave you the person I love most in the world and this is how you’ve treated her?’.

And at the end to hear the Chief say ‘If I could stand in your shoes and take away your pain every day, I would choose to do that. What happened to you should never have happened. I am so deeply sorry. I will do everything I can to make sure this never happens again’.

We know that when we can engage men and boys at this deep personal level, they can them become some of the strongest advocates for gender equality and the elimination of gender-based violence within their realms of influence – be it in their families, their workplaces, the institutions that they run.

It is clear that men taking the message of gender equality to other men is an important part of what needs to happen to change the picture for women and girls.

When people understand how serious violence against women is – whether it’s sexual harassment or sexual assault, or domestic and family violence – when they understand how harmful it is, they are more likely to take action and speak out against it.

A significant number of individuals who experience domestic or family violence are in paid employment.

Equality in employment can be seriously impaired when women are subjected to gender-specific violence, such as sexual harassment in the workplace.

What affects employees affects employers. Domestic violence is a significant cost to Australian business. Acknowledging this and doing something about it can reduce this cost.

It will take all of us, workplaces included, to address what is the greatest human rights abuse occurring in Australia today.

There are many things that workplaces can do – firstly to support victims of domestic and family violence and secondly to work with perpetrators to change their behaviour.

Last year, I made on this subject in Sydney. The next day I had a call from a woman I had known for many years who is a senior manager for a large bank.

She said that, following my speech, she had called her staff together and told them that she wanted to talk about domestic violence, the prevalence data and what it means for business.

She started, however, by recounting her own story – a story she’d never told before. The story of growing up in a violent household, of wiping the blood off her mother’s face, or taking her to hospital – of the shame and silence. She concluded by asking her staff to tell this story to everybody in the bank, hoping that it would make it easier for others to tell theirs.

Such a simple and courageous step may well have made the difference to an employee anxious about explaining an absence, seeking safe options at work or even contemplating seeking help to leave a relationship.

The Australian National Plan to reduce violence against women and their children specifically identifies as a key action the development of workplace measures to support women experiencing and escaping from domestic violence.

For example, the Safe at Home Safe at Work Project, funded by the Australian Government, has worked with unions and employers on introducing domestic violence workplace entitlements, such as leave, and introducing workplace policies and supports such as offering flexible work arrangements, creating workplace safety plans and personal safety plans and providing domestic violence support information through workplace training and induction.

Employers can play a vital role in recognising violent behaviour and facilitating crucial change.

In Australia, a Four Corners episode called ‘Changing Men’ documented the journey of three men as they undertook a program to address their violent behaviour.[1]

For two of them, the event triggering their inclusion in the program was not that they were violent at home, though this was certainly the case, but that their aggression was spilling over into the workplace. Their employers told these men that if their behaviour towards their co-workers did not change, they would be fired.

Such leadership would not only have a positive impact on the workplace but also have likely flow on effects in the home. This is, of course, in addition to any steps that need to occur within the context of legal proceedings.

Employers can also play a broader educative role, increasing their own and their employees’ understanding about domestic violence.

Education and training that identifies domestic violence as a workplace issue and equips workplaces to respond effectively can offer pathways out of violence for those experiencing it.

The Commission's focus has been keen to supplement these employment mechanisms by canvassing the prospect of recognising domestic and family violence as a separate ground within Australia’s anti-discrimination law framework. Such recognition could:

  • offer victims and survivors of domestic and family violence an additional legal remedy;
  • ensure accountability; and
  • educate employers and service providers about the indicators and impacts of domestic and family violence.

Let me share with you Jean’s story, which explains how this discrimination can manifest:

Jean had worked for 2 months and in that time had been promoted to Manager. Her husband had come in to the workplace one day and caused problems. After another incident at home she rang her boss to say she would be in a bit late as she was at the police station reporting a domestic violence incident and had been delayed. He sacked her as he said she was just ‘too difficult’.

Recognising domestic and family violence in anti-discrimination laws could complement workplace-based strategies for addressing domestic and family violence, notably inclusion of domestic and family violence clauses in collective agreements, especially in situations where workplace entitlements have been exhausted.

Violence against women with disabilities

“Are you talking about rape? I’ve been raped many times. You just have to get used to it.” This statement, thick with defeat and resignation, was one woman with disability’s response to the gross perpetration of violence against her, committed within an institution.

Two years ago, Melbourne’s Herald Sun reported that records showed between January 2009 and July 2011 more than two Department of Health Services clients were attacked every day on average, with almost 1800 assaults, sex attacks or rape allegations reported in the 30 months to July 2011. In more than 500 of these cases, approximately 28%, state-appointed staff and carers were accused.

At the Australian Human Rights Commission, we are already involved with important initiatives like the Stop the Violence Project which aims to provide better policies and practices to improve the way government and service providers respond to and prevent violence against women and girls with disability.


[1] Changing Men, Four Corners, Reporter Janine Cohen, Broadcast 25 February 2008. At: http://www.abc.net.au/4corners/content/2008/s2168683.htm (viewed 11 October 2012).

Elizabeth Broderick, Sex Discrimination Commissioner