Enough is enough, people said. Violence against women must stop.
The march united Melbourne in grief, but it could not make violence against women disappear.
In 2018 we were horrified by the news of the rape and murder of 22-year-old Eurydice Dixon, who was killed in Princes Park in Carlton by a 19-year-old man who had followed her through town on her way home from a comedy gig. Thousands of people gathered again, this time in Princes Park on a cold June night, paying tribute to a young woman and despising the violence that took her life. I walked with my sister and my dog, standing in the crowd in the dark with flickering candles, as if our collective presence could somehow avert future acts of violence against women in our city.
It was only seven months later that another vigil was held for 21-year-old exchange student Aiia Maasarwe, who was killed after getting off the 86 tram in Bundoora on her way home. Hundreds attended a vigil on the steps of the Houses of Parliament, once again devastated that a young woman who took her own life was unable to do so safely.
More women, more unspeakable acts of violence, more outpourings of grief. A young woman, Courtney Herron, was stabbed with a tree branch in Royal Park in May 2019. Teenage schoolgirl Masa Vukotic was stabbed in a Doncaster park in 2015.
And less widely covered by no less horrific ones, such as Natalina Angok, killed by her boyfriend Christopher Bell in Melbourne’s Chinatown in 2019.
But after all the marches and vigils, do women feel safer? For me the answer is no, definitely not. I’m still not going to walk in dark places with headphones on, I’m still going to assume that violence is a very real reality, despite the thousands who marched against it.
I spoke to Karen Pickering, one of the organizers of the march for Jill Meagher, who was also one of the organizers of a series of vigils in Melbourne over two years for every woman murdered in that time.
In the last 10 or 15 years, Pickering says she thinks “the world has changed” in terms of women’s perception of safety. “I think women think that no matter what we do, we’re at risk, whether it’s running, being in our own home or on the street. It’s exhausting and no amount of activation has changed that.”
“In the middle of it all, we’ve had millions of dollars spent on violence prevention campaigns that haven’t worked.”
She also acknowledges that there are certain types of victims and crimes that tend to attract more media attention and public empathy.
Of the vigils she organized, she says that if the victim was a woman who could be recognized as “someone like them or someone in their family”, thousands of people showed up. But if this was not the case, it was sparsely visited and less widely covered by the media. “It was very clear that different kinds of women matter more in the public sphere.”
But she says it could also have been a matter of “compassion fatigue”. “People can’t sustain the level of sadness and anger and sadness that marked, say, the Jill Meagher march. People can’t stay in that state all the time.”
Eventually they stopped organizing vigils “because we were burnt out mobilizing every single week, sometimes a few times a week”. “I feel like the more we protested, the more we tried to make sure that no woman’s murder went unnoticed and unnoticed, the less it felt like people didn’t care. I think women in general are burnt out and feel more and more insecure.”
Dr. Jessamy Gleeson, a First Nations woman and a Deakin University academic who completed a PhD on digital feminist activism, is emphatic when I ask if women feel safer than they did 10 years ago. “No, absolutely not. If anything, the last decade has shown us just how unsafe women feel in online and offline spaces.
“Online, women experience image-based abuse and revenge porn, intense harassment and trolling, and offline they experience the physical attacks we’ve seen for thousands of years. And despite the changes we’ve seen at the political level, we’re still experiencing the same problems with patriarchy and misogyny.”
Gleeson says those on duty were often asked, “what do we do now?” These are the next steps we as a society are struggling with, she says.
“The bigger answers to that are what people don’t want to hear – bigger changes come from understanding the role of women in society, and those threads lead everywhere. You can’t talk about those things in isolation because you need a bigger conversation.”