Women at risk

The ritual has a familiar shape by now. Four women killed in Melbourne, four public deaths in less than a year. Eurydice Dixon, Aya Maasarwe, Natalina Angok and Courtney Herron.

With each there was a shading in of the question of vulnerability – of the violence faced by women of colour, and international students, and the twin complications of addiction and homelessness.

But all four of these women were killed by men.

That the home is often more dangerous for women than the darkened park, the partner more a threat than the stranger, makes no difference to our collective fear.

And there is tension stirred by the fact these more conspicuous deaths capture the media and the public, beyond what the tragedy of a domestic killing ever could.

But they are not discrete events. They are tied – all violent expressions of the same violent phenomenon. The same obsession with holding tight the control of the bodies and the lives of women.

This week, Marise Payne was sworn in as minister for women, an addition to her vast duties as minister for foreign affairs. The latter portfolio, a time-consuming one requiring constant travel, is rarely burdened with additional responsibilities. Perhaps this is an indication of the seriousness with which the government treats the former. Since the start of the year, 20 women have been killed by violence – almost one a week.

Payne finds herself tasked with leading the push to eliminate violence against women and untangling the misogyny knotted at the heart of it – somewhere in the stolen moments between her duties as Australia’s top diplomat.

A guide circulated in Melbourne this week. It was first published on the forum of a prominent men’s rights activist. Women sent it to one another – this meticulous log, detailing for men where best to find women alone in the city. Some sent it in disgust, others disbelief, most in horror. Its misogyny was only matched by the racism of its commenters.

“The university is the most reliable area to meet younger girls aged 18-24,” wrote the guide’s author, though warning that young Australian girls are unreceptive to cold approaches from strangers.

“With this in mind I recommend targeting foreign girls, like undergraduate exchange students or PhD students.”

The guide is littered with this language, referring to women as “targets”. It tells men to approach women at tram stops and cafes and the gym, to do “reconnaissance” – sitting in the entrance of libraries and waiting for an attractive woman to enter.

Every woman knows this feeling of being watched. She knows the very specific fear stirred by these threats – a stranger with eyes on you, an empty street at night, the short fuse of a partner.

A decade-long national conversation about violence against women has done very little to quell this fear. That’s because the threat, in all that time, has not changed.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 1, 2019 as "Women at risk".

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