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Women marching for gender equality in Sydney.
Stephen Saphore/AAP

Now for some better news: 9 Australians fighting for gender equality and making a difference

It feels like every day brings more harrowing claims of harassment, bullying and abuse of women in our community.

In the space of just two months, we have seen Brittany Higgins’ claims she was raped at parliament, historical rape allegations against Christian Porter (which he denies), staffers performing sex acts on the desks of female MPs, MP Andrew Laming’s harassment of women and Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s “bullying” of Australia Post CEO Christine Holgate.

Last week, senior Indigenous academics authored an open letter, decrying the lack of public concern and national planning about the violence against First Nations women. Indigenous people are 32 times more likely to be hospitalised for family violence than a non-Indigenous adult.

Read more: No public outrage, no vigils: Australia's silence at violence against Indigenous women

And as Australia marks 30 years since the royal commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody, the massive over-representation of Indigenous women in the prison population remains a “national shame”.

There is hope

Many women are understandably feeling traumatised, triggered, overwhelmed and exhausted. And it would be easy to think it is all bad news and nothing is changing.

But there is hope. As a result of what’s emerged, we’ve seen an outpouring of rage from people around Australia who are fed up with the way we treat women and victim-survivors. As an organiser of the recent March 4 Justice rally in Canberra, I saw firsthand the collective anger and frustration directed at federal parliament and wider society and the thirst for change.

I’m also taking heart from the many Australians — some household names, some less well-known — who are fighting for change and making a difference to gender equality. Here are just nine.

1. Grace Tame

Tame is the 2021 Australian of the Year for her advocacy for survivors of sexual assault. She is a prime example of how one person can make concrete change.

As a teenager, Tame was groomed and sexually abused by her school teacher. But despite his conviction and jailing, she was unable to publicly share her story because of Tasmania’s sexual assault victim gag laws.

Almost a decade later, her experience was a catalyst for the creation of the #LetHerSpeak campaign , which reformed these laws.

Tame is now redefining what it means to be a survivor of abuse. Her focus is on empowering survivors and using education as the primary method of prevention. As she says,

Change is happening and it’s happening right now.

2. Brittany Higgins

Higgins can arguably be credited as prompting Australia’s second #MeToo wave.

A former Liberal staffer, Higgins came forward in February with allegations she was raped in parliament house by a male colleague. In part, she was inspired by Tame’s call to arms a month earlier.

Brittany Higgins at the Canberra March 4 Justice.
Brittany Higgins addressed protesters in Canberra in March. Lukas Coch/AAP

Higgins’ claims have rocked Australian politics, sparking a fresh focus into its toxic culture. In the weeks since, more allegations of sexism and assault in politics have emerged, with an independent inquiry into parliament house culture now underway.

But Higgins has also ignited the anger of many around Australia, resulting in nationwide protests against sexism and gendered violence. In her speech at the March 4 Justice rally in Canberra, she said,

I came forward with my story to hopefully protect other women.

3. Latoya Aroha Rule

Aroha Rule, a Wiradjuri and Māori Takatāpui person, is an activist and writer.

After their brother Wayne Fella Morrison died in custody, Aroha Rule created the #JusticeforFella campaign and helped organise nationwide protests calling for justice for the hundreds of Aboriginal people who have died in custody.

Around the recent March 4 Justice rallies, Aroha Rule played a pivotal role, drawing attention to the experiences of First Nations women.

As they wrote in The Guardian:

Women’s liberation marches have been growing since the 1960s in Australia, just as the incarceration rates and deaths of Aboriginal women in custody have steadily increased.

They also point out the complexity of experiences and perspectives when it comes to equality, race, gender and sexuality.

4. Stella Donnelly

Donnelly is a singer-songwriter who writes music that critiques rape culture, the patriarchy and Australian politics.

Her first song, Boys Will Be Boys, was written about a friend’s sexual assault and released in 2017 during the “first wave” of the #MeToo movement in Australia. It was quickly adopted as an anthem by victim-survivors.

Why was she all alone

Wearing her shirt that low

They said, ‘boys will be boys’

Deaf to the word no

Through a “reel-‘em-in, knock-'em-out” comedic style of lyrics and indie-pop tunes, Donnelly sparks awareness of issues like sexism and sexual assault for a wide audience.

5. Amy McQuire

McQuire, a Darumbal and South Sea Islander woman from Rockhampton, is a journalist, writer and PhD candidate, researching media representations of violence against Aboriginal women.

She is one of a number of younger Indigenous voices who are helping to put First Nations women at the centre of conversations about violence against women and equality.

McQuire has written extensively on Aboriginal deaths in custody and the erasure of Aboriginal women from the mainstream feminist movement and discussions about domestic violence.

If you think Aboriginal women have been silent, it’s only because you haven’t heard us, our voices now hoarse after decades of screaming into the abyss of Australia’s apathy.

She also writes about the racism inherent in violence against Indigenous women.

In Australia, violence was not just used as a tool of patriarchy – it was and is used as a tool of colonialism.

When we talk about eliminating violence against Aboriginal women, we aren’t just talking about individual acts, or solely interpersonal violence. Sexual violence was and is used as a strategy to mark our bodies as acceptable for violation, not just by individuals, but by the forces of the state.

6. Saxon Mullins

In a 2018 Four Corners episode, Mullins told the story of her 2013 sexual assault and the widely publicised trials and appeals that followed.

This generated debate about sexual consent laws and how they differ around the country. The NSW Law Reform Commission then reviewed the section of the Crimes Act that deals with sexual assault and consent (the final report was a disappointment to those wanting comprehensive reforms).

Mullins recently founded the Rape and Sexual Assault Research and Advocacy Centre. It aims to prevent sexual violence through reforming consent laws and raising public understanding of consent, healthy relationships and sex education.

As she recently told the ABC’s 7.30,

I have moved into an advocacy position […] this feels like my resolution. This feels like me being able to finish this story how I think it should be finished with real change.

7. Yasmin Poole

Poole is a speaker, writer and youth advocate who champions the inclusion of young women, particularly women of colour, in political conversations.

In 2019, she was listed in both the 40 Under 40 Most Influential Asian Australians and the Australian Financial Review’s 100 Women of Influence. She was also named The Martin Luther King Jr Center’s 2021 Youth Influencer of the Year.

After the March 4 Justice, Poole criticised Morrison’s comments about the rally — he said protesters in other countries are often “met with bullets” — and the inadequate handling of Higgins’ allegations by the government.

I’m not thankful for not being shot. I’m furious. I am angry that any young woman that desires or aspires to go into politics now will have to think twice.

Poole clearly demonstrates that young women need not wait to speak up about political issues and create societal change. They aren’t simply “future leaders” but, like Poole, are already leading the way.

8. Nicole Lee

Lee is a family violence and disability activist. As a woman with disability and a survivor of family violence, Lee fights for the rights of survivors who are often excluded from this conversation altogether.

As a member of Victoria’s Victims Survivors Advisory Council, Lee has helped shaped the state’s response to family violence.

We can’t get away from the fact that women with disabilities are vulnerable. Society is slowly changing, but as much as people hate hearing it women are already on the back foot and then you add a disability […] we’re so much further behind.

9. Caitlin Figueiredo

Figueiredo is an Anglo-Indian woman, internationally recognised activist and social entrepreneur.

She is the founder and CEO of Jasiri Australia, a youth-led movement that encourages girls to be leaders in their communities, and fights for the increased representation of women in politics through leading the Girls Takeover Parliament program.

As Figueiredo said in 2017,

I want to accelerate change.

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