By Geraldine Bilston*
IN a world where politics and leadership are so often characterised by misogyny, power over and patriarchy I am so happy to tell you that my mayor is my hero. I have nothing but appreciation and admiration for Mornington Peninsula Shire’s Cr Despi O’Connor.
Five years ago I escaped an abusive relationship. The Mornington Peninsula is my home. It is part of my past; it’s where my daughter and I were abused. But this place is also our future and I want a future where women are respected and safe.
Since that time in my life I have worked hard to push for change. I have shared my story publicly many times and more recently I have been working alongside the Victorian government to assist in reform and service delivery in the family violence space.
It is hard work. I am often tired, sometimes despondent, but always hopeful. I believe in a future where everyone is safe – and I know that is completely achievable – because violence against women is preventable.
We create change at the top – our policies, our systems, our legislation – those things are important. But for true social change, to achieve true social justice, that requires grassroots efforts.
Mornington Peninsula Shire participated in a women’s health education campaign. It included Facebook posts about menstrual health, access to abortion and contraception, as well as sexual pleasure.
So, what does this campaign have to do with me or my fight to end violence against women? Upholding the rights of women is about more than just making flippant statements like “I don’t support blokes bashing their wives”. Making those statements is the easy part. Doing the work to create a society and community that actually respects and values women – that’s where the work is.
So, while Despi and her team took a position in promoting and educating our community in a way that works towards a society that values women, they also copped backlash (“Shire’s sex talk a smash hit on social media” The News 5/10/21). Change is hard. Resistance is to be expected.
If you were part of the collective pearl-clutching gasp that responded to this campaign, I invite you to reflect on why. What is so offensive to you that our shire and its leadership would prioritise a campaign that works towards a future of gender equality?
In particular, if you are outraged by this public messaging around women’s sexual pleasure then I suggest you place that in the context of today’s world, a world where young men are accessing hardcore pornography as their number one point of sexual education, and our young girls are being coerced and pushed to perform sexually demeaning acts.
If counteracting that causes you stress and you feel that the shire playing its part of education on this is misplaced, you need to ask yourself on why.
We all have a role to play and I am glad that the shire is embracing its role. To find an ally in our local leadership energises and motivates me.
Over the past few years I have realised my own perpetrator stole so much from me.
He changed me and completely changed the trajectory of my life. But he could not take away my hope. And today, as I look at our local leadership, I thank them for helping me harness my hope, for my daughter, for our future, for our community.
We must all challenge the societal norms and structures that continue to allow violence against women.
Thank you Despi and all those in leadership across our community that continue to fight for a future where we are valued, respected, and safe.
* Geraldine Bilston has been deputy chair of the Victim Survivors’ Advisory Council in May 2020 and sits across several consulting and advisory boards including the Mornington Peninsula Primary Prevention Collaboration and White Ribbon National Advisory Council.