SYDNEY — When Brittany Higgins stood up in front of Australia’s Parliament House in Canberra on Monday, she told the gathered crowd: “I speak to you out of necessity.”
“We are all here today not because we want to be here, but because we have to be here,” the former government staffer said to the crowd of thousands, many dressed entirely in black.
“I was raped inside Parliament House by a colleague, and for so long it felt like the people around me only cared because of where it happened and what it might mean for them,” she said.
The rally in Canberra was one of dozens of “March 4 Justice” protests held across Australia this week, triggered by several sexual assault allegations against men in the country’s halls of power.
Last month, 26-year-old Higgins went public with the allegation that she was raped by an unnamed male colleague inside a minister’s office in 2019. Police are investigating but no arrests or charges have been made.
Days after her allegation, details surfaced accusing Attorney General Christian Porter of rape decades ago in 1988. “The things that are being claimed did not happen,” Porter, who has strongly denied the allegation, told reporters earlier this month. The allegation is now the subject of an ongoing defamation action by Porter. He is also taking extended sick leave.
While these two claims were against those within the ruling conservative government, news.com.au reported the existence of a social media group in which female staffers for the opposition Labor Party had shared their experiences of a “toxic culture” in Parliament House.
The party’s deputy leader, Richard Marles, said in response: “This is our house, which we need to get in order, and these really are appalling allegations.”
The idea of the protests started with a tweet from a Melbourne woman, Janine Hendry, who suggested that a group of women meet outside Parliament House on Monday to express their outrage.
Before long, thousands of other women said they would join or take to the streets in their own cities and towns.
Tens of thousands of Australians took part in 40 linked rallies in recent days, each featuring banners with messages such as “Why Would She Lie?” and “Enough is Enough.”
“The recent revelations show that Parliament House has a culture of misogyny and that it is an unsafe place to work,” Hendry told NBC News.
“The government appears to be completely out of their depth and unwilling to listen to the concerns of everyday women. And worse, there appears to be a culture of denials and cover-ups. We are calling for transparency and action.”
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Hendry and other protesters are demanding “full independent investigations into all cases of gendered violence and timely referrals to appropriate authorities.”
“It’s a Parliament problem, it’s an Australian problem, it’s a global problem. It will always be a problem where there is gender imbalance in power,” she said.
And surveys show it is indeed a national problem. According to a survey from the Australian Human Rights Commission in 2018, 39 percent of women say they have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace in the past five years.
Hayley Foster, CEO of the advocacy group Women’s Safety NSW, joined the Canberra protest, which she said was part of a nationwide “uprising.”
“There was a real sense that this was something really momentous and that everybody there was part of a very historic event … This is a turning point. Not only for Parliament, but workplaces and schools are going to be much more alert to this and much more responsive to disclosures after this past month.”
Foster said there not only needs to be cultural change in Australia, but also criminal justice reform and increased funding for women’s safety services.
“[In Australia] 98.5 percent of sexual predators will not be held to account and will be considered innocent in the eyes of the law because our criminal justice system is so inaccessible. It’s so ineffectual at providing a just result for sexual assault survivors.”
“I am hopeful there will now be more action as a result of [the protests] … I get the sense that Australians are not going to back down from this.”
On Monday, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said he was too busy to go outside to the Canberra rally, but offered to meet a small delegation of organizers in his office. The organizers refused, saying, “we will not be meeting behind closed doors.”
Discussing the protests, Morrison said “those who gather here today and around the country do so out of a sense of great frustration and great concern … That’s deserved frustration and concern that I share.”
But he also called the rallies a “triumph of democracy” because protesters were not “met with bullets” like in some other countries.
The opposition Labor Party’s Tanya Plibersek, who holds the title of shadow minister for women, said the prime minister had “profoundly” missed the point.
“[The comment] that we should be grateful, that we are in a place that you don’t get shot for marching, was so off the mark,” she said.
One protester quickly made a sign reading “How good is ScoMo for not shooting us,” using Morrison’s portmanteau and adapting his catchphrase, “How good is Australia.”
The prime minister’s office did not respond to specific questions about the protests, but instead pointed to one of Morrison’s previous statements.
“The issue of violence against women continues to be a very high priority of my government … We’ve put in place an independent inquiry that is looking at the broader issues of treatment of staff and their protections,” it said.
This was not the first time the government has faced criticism since the recent sexual assault claims surfaced.
Soon after Higgins made her allegation, The Australian newspaper reported that her former boss, Linda Reynolds, Australia’s defense minister, had called her a “lying cow.” Reynolds has since apologized and is now on extended sick leave.
Meanwhile, Morrison has stood by Porter after a claim he raped a 16-year-old girl in 1988 when he was 17. The allegation surfaced last month when an anonymous letter was sent to several politicians including Morrison that contained a statement from the alleged victim.
The woman involved died by suicide last year and police in New South Wales have closed their investigation citing “insufficient admissible evidence.”
But as this reckoning continues, Australians like Higgins say they will not rest until discrimination against women and sexual assault are properly addressed.
“We’ve all learned over the past few weeks just how common gendered violence is in this country,” she told the crowd Monday.
“It’s time our leaders on both sides of politics stop avoiding the subject and side-stepping accountability. It’s time we actually address the problem,” Higgins said.