Marching For, Not Against

Note: This article discusses campus sexual assault and related trauma.

The Women’s March on Washington was a show of love and power for women and women’s rights, uniting people from all walks of life to affirm a sentiment first echoed by then-First Lady, Hillary Rodham Clinton: women’s rights are human rights, and human rights are women’s rights. When I put my hand up to organise the Canberra Sister March, I fully trusted my capability to run a rally for the ten friends I could bully into coming along. Imagine my surprise when over a thousand people showed up – representatives from community groups and political factions, but also families, little girls with home-made signs and screen printed t-shirts, dogs, students, ladies who told me they hadn’t marched since the sixties, men and women. While the issues we face in Australia are not the same as in the US, the temptation for politicians to traffic in hate and division for short-term electoral advantage is creeping, and sexism is by no means dead.

Although the march was organised for the day after the Inauguration, our March was not anti-Trump. In fact, we organisers were not anti-anything – we firmly took the stance that we were pro-woman, pro-rights, pro-love and pro-tolerance. We had support from Canberra politicians across party lines, with representatives from each of the major parties joining us on the day, and many more offering their enthusiasm and well-wishes along with apologies. This is not Politics as Usual.

We heard from a broad cross-section of the Canberra community, and the words of Jessy Wu, this year’s ANUSA Education Officer, rang true for me. She talked about how we think of girls being denied access to education as something that belongs in the past, or the developing world – but these barriers to women’s education are still alive, even at the ANU. An investigation by news program Sunday Night revealed that of the 575 reported sexual misconduct cases at Australian universities, only six resulted in an expulsion. At ANU, there were 47 reported instances of sexual misconduct, but none resulted in expulsion. College residents who took demeaning and degrading photos of their neighbours without consent may no longer live with the women they victimised, but they still roam the same campus.

To Jessy’s voice, I add my personal concern. We know that from the age of 15, one in five Australian women and 1 in 22 Australian men will likely experience sexual violence. We also know that close to 50 percent of sexual assault victims will go on to develop PTSD-like symptoms. A campus sexual assault survivor myself, I know the soul-sucking quicksand of trauma, wrapping its tendrils around my mind. For me, it means sleeping for 18 hours a day, missing meals, appointments, and opportunities – because nothing is worth it, and I’m not worth it either. Some of my contemporaries like to make jokes about being ‘triggered’, but when I was still living on-campus with my rapist, triggers limited my physical movement – whom I could be in a room with, where I could go. Being triggered would send me running to a ladies’ bathroom or my room at college, crying uncontrollably and inconsolably, throwing my entire day down the toilet. How many of our fellow students carry this burden around with them, while their classmates are free to pursue their dreams? We know that many sexual assault survivors take longer to finish their degrees or drop out altogether. When sexual assault affects women disproportionately, what happens to their right to an education?

Clear-eyed on these problems, at the Women’s March I was made hopeful by the faces looking back at me as we finished the march with a cheer for everyone who had come. ‘I love being a girl’, a little girl’s sign flashed out at me. Me too little one, I thought. The most important face in the crowd for me, however, was another first-time rally-goer. My mum – who taught me how to be a feminist without ever saying the word – drove from our home in Sydney to support me at the Canberra rally. A single mum at 17, she was by every objective measure too busy to do what I do now at 23. But without her, none of this would be possible, and her pride means the world to me.

Not anti-Trump. Pro-woman, pro-love, pro-pride. We’re going to change the world.