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Tackling violence, harassment and bullying - Annual Report 2009-2010: Australian Human Rights Commission

The year in review

Tackling violence, harassment and bullying

Everyone has the basic human right to a life free from violence and from cruel, degrading and inhumane treatment.

At the Commission, we are aware that violence can be one of the most extreme manifestations of discrimination, on bases such as race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, disability and age.

For this reason, along with building respect and understanding of human rights, we have made tackling violence, harassment and bullying in our community one of our two priority themes for 2010–2012.

It is a matter of great national importance and one that profoundly affects the lives of thousands of Australians every day – at home, work, school, online and on the street. The experience can shatter people’s confidence, limit their opportunities and, in some cases, cause lasting physical and psychological damage.

We understand that discrimination is often a key factor behind violence, harassment and bullying, and believe that addressing this root cause is critical to building a safer, more inclusive Australia.

We have previously led a number of successful initiatives to tackle sexual harassment, and have strongly advocated for programs and policies to counter family violence in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.

Australia has laws to protect people from violence. But these are limited in their ability to address violence in all its forms and in all its manifestations in modern Australian life. We are aware that, ultimately, it will take all of us to help make Australia a place in which we can all feel secure.

During the year under review, areas of special focus included:

Helping to put an end to violence against women

Violence against women in any form is unacceptable. It has serious and long-term consequences for individuals and for families, as well as significant economic costs for the community.

Australia has made great strides towards achieving equality between men and women. However, systemic barriers still remain. We believe that gender equality will not occur simply because we have anti discrimination laws in place. It requires a commitment from all people in Australia – women and men – to counter the attitudes and assumptions that lead to discrimination and inequality.

Gender Equality Blueprint 2010 cover

The Australian Government has adopted a ‘zero-tolerance’ approach to the problem of violence against women and has committed to a National Plan, which is currently being developed by the Council of Australian Governments, to address it. The Commission believes that, to be effective, a National Plan must create national structures that ensure cooperation and consistency across all Australian jurisdictions.

In June 2010, with the launch of the Gender Equality Blueprint 2010, we announced that putting an end to violence against women would be one of the reform areas in which the Commission would become significantly more active and made a number of recommendations.

In particular, we recommended regular and independent monitoring of Australia’s progress against the National Plan, once it commences. We also recommended that adequate funding of the services that respond to the needs of women and girls who experience violence be provided and adequate resourcing of advocacy organisations take place so they can contribute to the implementation and monitoring of the National Plan.

Advocating for stronger sexual harassment protections

Sexual harassment remains a chronic problem in Australian workplaces, despite being outlawed for over 25 years. It is a barrier to many women and some men being able to participate in paid work with dignity and respect. It can prevent those affected by it from working to their full potential and, if left unaddressed, can be a reason they leave paid work. The proliferation of new technologies such as mobile phones and social networking websites is also creating new media through which sexual harassment can occur.

Every year, sexual harassment accounts for one of the largest groups of complaints received under the Sex Discrimination Act.

We believe it is therefore essential that employers take active steps to prevent sexual harassment and respond effectively when it occurs.

Throughout the year under review, we have continued to advocate for further changes to the Sex Discrimination Act so there are stronger powers to tackle sexual harassment, especially in the workplace.

In September 2008, we made a detailed submission to the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee Inquiry into the Effectiveness of the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth) in Eliminating Discrimination and Promoting Gender Equality. During the year under review, many of our recommendations were adopted by the Senate Committee.

On 24 June 2010 new legislation was introduced into Parliament to strengthen and modernise the Act, with the Australian Government accepting a number of the Senate Committee’s recommendations from the inquiry. These proposed changes will greatly improve the protection available for women who experience sexual harassment at work or in schools.

As part of the proposed consolidation of federal discrimination laws, the Australian Government has also agreed to consider legislating for a general prohibition against sexual harassment in any area of public life, including in school.

In addition, as part of the Gender Equality Blueprint 2010, we recommended that the Sex Discrimination Commissioner be empowered by the Sex Discrimination Act to initiate investigations in Australian workplaces without first requiring an individual complaint. To drive down the incidence of sexual harassment, we recommended a national Sexual Harassment Prevention Strategy be developed and implemented to build awareness and better understanding among employers and workers of their rights and responsibilities in regards to sexual harassment. This strategy should focus on prevention and education with key roles for the Equal Opportunity in the Workplace Agency, the Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Australian Human Rights Commission and Fair Work Australia.

During the year under review, we also worked to maintain the profile and increase awareness of the importance of the amendments to the SDA among key stakeholders.

Making the link between racism and violence: the Challenging Racism Project

We believe that promoting understanding of the impacts of racism in our communities can contribute to reducing the incidence of racially-motivated violence, harassment and bullying.

A piece of research entitled the Challenging Racism Project has been mapping racist attitudes and experiences of racism across Australia over the past three years. The data comes from national telephone surveys of around twenty thousand participants.

The Commission is a partner in this research project, which is led by Professor Kevin Dunn at the University of Western Sydney. Its aim is to classify the types of racism that exist in Australia and to develop appropriate responses. Though some initial headline data were released during the year in review, the research is continuing and a report is expected later in 2010.

In addition to the project itself, the Commission and members of the Challenging Racism research team are continuing to lobby for a coordinated national approach to combating racism.

Safeguarding the rights of international students

The number of international students in Australia has grown rapidly in recent years. At over half a million people, international students now represent a significant group of Australian residents. Up to 40% are engaged in the workforce and around 20% go on to become permanent residents.

The rights and safety of international students have become matters of significant concern and public interest. They were the main topics of discussion at an Australia and New Zealand Race Relations Roundtable meeting in November 2009, at which academic experts and international student representatives shared their perspectives.

The meeting heard that while student safety had received most attention, other issues which required urgent consideration included racism and discrimination, the lack of affordable accommodation, poor employment conditions, a shortage of support services and social isolation and exclusion.

The communiqué which was issued after the meeting formed a foundation for the Commission’s ongoing work in this area. Among other steps, it resolved to highlight the treatment of international students as a major current human rights and race relations issue and called for more research into the international student experience of discrimination and harassment.

On 31 March 2010 the Commission, in partnership with the Academy of the Social Sciences and Universities Australia, convened the Racism and the Student Experience Policy Research Workshop. Academics from a range of disciplines attended, alongside international student representatives. The purpose of this workshop was to determine current and critical research gaps in relation to racially motivated violence in Australia and to discuss strategies to improve the safety of international students residing here.

Scrutinising a new arena of harassment and bullying – cyber-racism

With the proliferation of new communications technologies and the dramatic increase in use of the Internet and social networking sites, new arenas have been created in which harassment and bullying can take place. At the Commission, we have seen a rise in the number of complaints we receive about racial discrimination and hatred on the Internet.

On 27 April 2010 the Commission and the Internet Industry Association co-hosted a one-day summit on cyber-racism. More than 50 people attended the meeting, the purpose of which was to gain a better understanding of cyber-racism and the people exacerbating the problem.

Participants agreed to strive to create a community of people – including government, industry, non-profit, and young individuals – who are willing to work together to develop effective solutions. They acknowledged a need to better recognise, showcase and share the strategies and initiatives which are already working and find ways to adapt and grow them.

They also agreed to work towards harnessing the positive potential of the Internet, social media and social marketing with a view to educating the community about racism.

Focusing attention on bystanders to cyber-bullying

Bullying can often be a starting point for more severe acts of harassment and violence. And often, people who are not participants in the bullying scenario are aware that such behaviour is taking place. We refer to these people as ‘bystanders’.

During the year in review we began developing an initiative that would focus on empowering young people to stand up to bullying, especially that which occurs on social networking sites and other online locations.

In particular, we aim to empower bystanders to take active, safe steps to stem the bullying behaviour they see in others. Our goal is that, through their own actions, these people will develop real understanding of what it means to promote and protect their own rights and ensure respect for those of others.

We also intend to apply the important lessons we learn from this project to address violence, harassment and bullying in a broader range of community settings.

This project will be developed further during the next reporting period.