I was at the South Coast last week while the rest of the world was at work, sitting alone at a café enjoying the winter sun on my face, when a man said something that struck me speechless.
As he walked past my table, eyeing my books, my laptop, my late breakfast of salmon and eggs and a piping hot cup of coffee, he smiled. And he simply said: "Ah, life's tough, isn't it?".
That was it. Life's tough.
I felt something punch my heart. I kind of gurgled and looked up as if he'd just hit me. He paused, waiting for some kind of friendly rejoinder. I couldn't think of one. He nodded, smiled again and went and sat down and began reading the Financial Review. Life's tough.
Luckily I was wearing dark sunglasses and no one could see my eyes pooling. I dropped my head back into my books, thrashing with thoughts about what just happened. The old guy was being nice. Why am I holding back tears? This is nuts.
Now, I could blame all sorts of things for such an intensely emotional response to the idle comment of a sweet stranger. I could blame being overtired. But I'm not. I'm a month into a holiday. I could blame a sad disposition. But I don't have one. Or if I did, I've lost it. I love life. I feel incredibly blessed and lucky. So why am I crying because some random guy said "life's tough"?
I've just spent weeks travelling in South-East Asia, in five-star comfort, where the beautiful souls who served me breakfast earn in a month what I spent on a bottle of wine. Where a pregnant young Vietnamese woman told me how much she didn't want to have her baby or any more, but said she had no choice. Where a lack of clean water, clean air, safe housing, and myriad more basic human rights failings are the stuff of daily life. We've all seen it. The bits that aren't in the brochures.
But it wasn't just this awareness or thoughts of the poverty pool - to which I don't belong - that blurred my vision when sweet guy said "life's tough". Laid out before me were a bunch of books I'm researching ahead of the Canberra Writers Festival, to be held in the national capital at the end of the month. The reading brings both joy and despair. One of the panels I'll chair, titled Behind Closed Doors, will examine the hidden scourge of violence against women in Australia. And I think this is where I've just taken a king hit.
On average one woman a week is murdered by her current or former partner; and one in five have been sexually violated.
Like you, I know the oft-repeated statistics: on average one woman a week is murdered by her current or former partner; and one in five have been sexually violated. But as I read through the authors who will speak on this panel, I'm shocked and silenced all over again. Particularly at how this ongoing war against women is so darkly hidden across Australian suburbs.
As author Phil Barker says in The Revolution of Man, we have an "acute immunity" to these extraordinary statistics. He points out that, in the 36 years from 1978, a total of 113 Australians were killed by acts of terror around the world. This year alone more than half that number of women here at home will be killed by men close to them.
We know terms like "epidemic" and "national disaster" are used to describe this murderous gendered rampage, yet somehow those very words box it in and shove it off as someone else's problem. But it isn't.
The terminology "domestic violence" is broadly misunderstood, as author Jane Gilmore points out in Fixed It. Beyond the murder of a partner is a rancid Australian culture of violence against women and girls that happens in the home. Quite possibly right next door to you. It includes screaming abuse, interrogating women about where they've been and who they've spoken to, demeaning and intimidating them, threatening harm, denying access to money and freedom, and locking women in rooms, even in houses. Writer Karen Viggers explores these multiple abuses of women in The Orchardist's Daughter. The writing is strong, and the reading is bleak.
So, while the sweet stranger who smiled and quipped that "life's tough" was just being nice, it was perhaps his underlying assumption about our shared comfort, privilege and good fortune that stung me. Yes, perhaps life isn't tough for you and I, my friend. But for countless women around us right now, women we know, we pass in the street, sit near at work, for countless women - life is tough. Unbearably tough. You just don't see it.
- Virginia Haussegger, AM, is the 2019 ACT Australian of the Year. The Canberra Writers Festival will be held at various locations around Canberra from August 21 to 25.