Thousands join march against sexual assault in backlash over Australian government’s handling of rape claim

A woman holds up a placard during a protest against sexual violence and gender inequality in Melbourne on March 15, 2021. (Photo by William WEST / AFP)  (AFP via Getty Images)
A woman holds up a placard during a protest against sexual violence and gender inequality in Melbourne on March 15, 2021. (Photo by William WEST / AFP) (AFP via Getty Images)

Thousands of women marched across different cities in Australia on Monday to call for gender equality and justice for victims of sexual assault.

The March 4 Justice rallies across Australian cities come after a recent spate of sexual assault allegations against some politicians or their staffers in Parliament House.

The protests spread across 40 cities from the likes of Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra to smaller towns across the country, with protesters all wearing black as a mark of anger against the government.

In Melbourne, protesters carried a huge banner that had the names of almost 900 victims of gender-based violence in the past decade. Organisers claimed that this was the biggest uprising of women Australia has ever seen.

The protests were organised a week ago after Australian attorney general Christian Porter identified himself as the politician facing an historic rape claim. Mr Porter has denied the allegation against him.

In February, Australian prime minister Scott Morrison received a letter alleging that Mr Porter had raped a 16-year-old high school girl in 1988 at Sydney University. The woman killed herself last year, according to reports. She was 49. Citing insufficient evidence, the New South Wales Police closed the case.

Mr Morrison’s government has been accused of an ineffective and slow response to this and other allegations. Separately, former political adviser Brittany Higgins shocked the country by saying that she was attacked by a male colleague in a government minister’s office in 2019.

Ms Higgins was an adviser to defence minister Linda Reynolds, who has also been criticised for failing to report the allegations at the time and for calling Ms Higgins a “lying cow”. The minister has apologised and settled a defamation claim from Ms Higgins, saying she “did not mean it in the sense it may have been understood”.

Ms Higgins said in a statement that she accepted the apology by Ms Reynolds, and that “any monies I have received from the minister as part of the settlement of my claim against her (over and above my legal costs) will be paid in full to an organisation that provides counselling and support to survivors of sexual assault and abuse in the Canberra area.”

Appearing at a March 4 Justice rally on Monday, Ms Higgins said: “We are all here today because we want to be here, because we have to be here. We fundamentally recognise the system is broken.”

Ms Higgins’ story has also encouraged other women to come forward with their accounts of sexual assault in Australian politics.

The protesters — comprising almost all age groups — are demanding full investigations into all cases of gendered violence. They are asking that all Australian state parliaments be gender equal by 2030 and that the Sex Discrimination Act is strengthened so that “parliamentarians and judges are no longer excluded from accountability for sexual harassment and discrimination committed in the course of their employment as public officers.”

Many government lawmakers refused to join the rallies, but several opposition MPs from the Labour party joined thousands marching across the country. Protesters refused to meet the prime minister at Parliament House and instead invited him to meet them at the rally.