The day Olga Edwards took her own life, five months after her former partner murdered their children, Jack, 15, and Jennifer, 13, Natasha Stott Despoja was having lunch with Rosie Batty.
“It was such a positive lunch,” says Stott Despoja, the founding chair of Our Watch, a national organisation dedicated to driving cultural and attitudinal change to prevent violence against women and their children.
“I was marvelling at Rosie’s will to bring about change and her desire for good to come from Luke’s murder. She seemed optimistic about the progress made in preventing family violence and was looking towards new opportunities to make a difference to Australia.
“I got back to the hotel and heard the news and got a text from Rosie, ‘another wasted life … but so very understandable’, she said, and I just felt this weight of this poor woman, of both of them.
“The police said it was as good as murder: he destroyed her life, he was abusive to her, he killed their children, all of us struggle to comprehend what kind of man does that, but then for her, the unimaginable pain and horror of her life.”
In 2016 Stott Despoja left her position as Australia’s ambassador for women and girls.
“There are people I have met and things I've seen in the last few years that have shaken me,” she said then.
It seems not a lot has changed. Stott Despoja, the youngest woman to enter parliament, serving as a senator from 1995 to 2008, has been a lifelong advocate for gender equality. Now she’s written a book On Violence, the latest installment, in Melbourne University Press’ challenging On … series - little books on big ideas.
It’s not an easy read but it's a book everyone should read. While we’re all aware of the statistics, or we think we are, seeing them in black and white, on the page, is startling still.
“Worldwide, more than one in three women has been beaten, coerced into sex, or abused in some way," she writes. "Every 10 minutes, somewhere in the world, an adolescent girl dies as a result of violence. Child marriage affects about 14 million girls every year, robbing them of both their childhood and a future in which they can unlock their full potential. The use of rape as a tactic of war in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere, the trafficking of women into sexual slavery and domestic servitude, sexual violence against internally displaced women and girls, the kidnapping of schoolgirls in parts of Africa, attacks on girls for simply having the determination to catch a bus to school, the daily horror of domestic and family violence in countries of the Pacific, including South Asia and Australia - these are but a few examples of the patterns of gender-based violence around the globe.
“Little wonder the World Health Organisation describes violence against women as an ‘epidemic’. In Australia, I call it a national emergency.”
During October 2018, Australia experienced a record death toll of women when 11 women were murdered in 27 days. Police get called to one domestic violence matter every two minutes: that’s 657 times a day. One in four women in Australia has experienced physical violence since the age of 15 and every week, on average, a woman is killed. Most of these murders take place in the home, and they are often the final brutal act after a long history of violence. Of the women who experience violence, more than half have children in their care.
Stott Despoja spoke at the National Press Club in November 2013, with former Victorian chief commissioner of police Ken Lay.
“Ken said imagine each week an Australian is murdered at a train station. It would be a front-page news story in each of our capital cities … our public response isn’t at all like we imagined it would be if those victims died not in their family rooms but at train stations.”
She says community awareness is an important part of primary prevention.
“But not just awareness of the death toll or statistics but people understanding they have a role to play, that this is a whole of community mission, little things that all of us do or say every day make a difference.
“Obviously, ultimately, we want perpetrators to stop being violent, there's a very clear role that certain men can play, but there are other things we can all do.
“Every time you laugh at a sexist joke, it may not result in violence but it helps create expectations of women's roles in society, it helps create a society that is not exactly ethical and equal and most importantly respectful.
“Everyone can pitch in and we can play different roles … everyone can do something that leads to a society that's more respectful.”
Stott Despoja, who, while in politics, had bricks thrown through her office window and a bullet left on the doorstep of her family home, has received backlash since the book was released.
“For me to be surprised is very unusual, I've been dealing with backlash for most of adult life, but some of the nasty comments that have been thrown since the book came out, the aggressive tone, the visceral tone of some men towards me, has been sometimes frightening and it is alarming.
“What I have learned is that when you do talk about issues in a raw and honest terms you do face backlash … but it’s surprised me that I’ve felt debilitated by some of the negativity.”
But she wrote the book to start a conversation.
“We often see seemingly trivial issues — such as a slip-up at a Bunnings sausage sizzle — generate more public engagement and policy response than the scourge of violence against women,” she writes.
“We need to do more. We all need to do something.”
On Violence, by Natasha Stott Despoja, Melbourne University Press, $14.99.
Natasha Stott Despoja, in conversation with Lieutenant General David Morrison, on her new book On Violence. March 27, 6.30pm. Kambri Cultural Centre, ANU. anu.edu.au/events