Australia struggles with high rate of sexual assault against women: Study

"No means No " written on the back of a woman as more than a thousand people march through the city, taking part in the first Slut Walk in Cape Town. (File: AAP)

Incidents of sexual violence against women, specifically involving perpetrators who are not partners, is more than double the global average in Australia and New Zealand, a study finds.

A study released today in the Lancet medical journal says 16.4 per cent of women 15 years old or older in Australia and New Zealand have been the victim of sexual assault by someone who wasn’t their partner  (i.e. other family members, friends, strangers). This compares to the global average of 7.2 per cent.  

The report's release comes as all eyes this week were on Simon Gittany as he was sentenced to at least 18 years in jail for the murder of his fiancée. It also follows a string of incidents of sexual violence against young women in New South Wales – an alleged gang rape of a 14-year-old girl and charges laid against security guards accused of sexually assaulting two teens in a Sydney mall.

Heather Nancarrow, Director of the Queensland Centre for Domestic and Family Violence Research at Central Queensland University says that the numbers are significant but the study should be interpreted critically.

“There are challenges for any research of this nature for reporting and under reporting. We do need to be a bit careful about seeing these figures as a genuine reflection of the actual incidents or prevalence in any particular country.”

Ms Nancarrow says while the report must be taken with a grain of salt, the rate of sexual violence cited is in line with national statistics on violence. She attributes the high rate of sexual assault to the attitude some Australians have toward violence in general.

“As a country we ought to be concerned about the level or the tolerance of violence that exists in our communities that is contributing to all kinds of crimes but particularly crimes against women.”

Although the vast majority of Australian men are not perpetrators of violence against women, Ms Nancarrow says some men participate in a culture of hyper-masculinity where they feel the need to exert their power – sometimes by violent means. 

“You need to look at cultural links, the very broad culture in Australia of continuing acceptance of male superiority and women being objectified, men feeling like they have an almost right to assert authority over women.”

One of the real challenges in breaking those cultural barriers is encouraging women to report incidents of sexual and physical assault. The dilemma many women face is the lack of support or witnesses that are able to back up their claims.

“As a country we ought to be concerned about the level or the tolerance of violence that exists in our communities that is contributing to all kinds of crimes but particularly crimes against women.”

“That’s a real challenge for many cases,” says Ms Nancarrow.

“It’s a risk I think for people reporting if then the system doesn’t respond in a way that supports the person to carry through the complaint and to be supported through that system which is an incredibly gruelling process.”

Ms Nancarrow encourages women who are the victims of sexual assault to seek professional assistance immediately either directly with the police or another organisation that supports victims of violence against women in order for the appropriate authorities to gather necessary evidence.

“The chances of a successful prosecution will depend on how quickly that forensic evidence was collected.”

Support for victims is crucial but educating men is equally as important. Ms Nancarrow says there are programs in place for perpetrators in order to attempt to change their behaviour toward women, but fostering respect must also be a preventative tactic.

“We also need to be educating young people that it’s not okay to manipulate or control or exert power over another person because that’s the fundamental problem that we have – men exerting power over women. That can be expressed through sexual violence or other kinds of violence against women.”

She says it’s vital to teach people from a young age about healthy sexual relationships and what is considered consent.

“The kind of sexual abuse that’s going on is using that grey area about whether or not consent is being given as an excuse or an opportunity to commit sexual violence with a pretty good chance of getting away with it.”

Women who are experiencing sexual or physical violence are encouraged to ring 1-800-RESPECT, a national telephone support line.

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