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remembering jill: a personal reflection on the death of jill meagher and the broader issue of violence against women

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A little over a week ago I read an article about violence against women and the danger of falling prey to the ‘monster myth’ – the myth that the strange man lurking in a dark alley represents the greatest danger to women, when in fact most acts of violence against women are committed by a man who is known to the victim.  Incredibly, the piece was written by Tom Meagher, whose wife Jill was raped and murdered 18 months ago by a stranger.  The piece was powerful enough on its own, but coming from a person who’d lost someone they loved to the monster-rapist scenario it was, as a friend put it, incredibly generous of spirit.  Tom Meagher’s piece inspired me to reflect on my own response and the responses of those around me to Jill Meagher’s death.  I highly recommend that you read the article and take a minute to reflect on what it says.  My thoughts are set out below.  Feel free to comment with your own.

Like most residents of Brunswick I was deeply disturbed by the murder of Jill Meagher.  To be raped and murdered by a stranger on a dark street is the worst nightmare of every woman, and to lose a loved one in that way is the worst nightmare of every father of daughters, every brother of sisters, and every man who loves a woman.  The man in the darkened alley looms large in our collective imagining, and for this worst-case-scenario pattern of events to play out on a street I cycled down late at night several times a week quite literally hit me very close to home.

Unlike most residents of Brunswick, however, I managed to miss the news of Jill Meagher’s disappearance for several days.  While the social media campaign to find her was underway, I was walking the 323 kilometres from Port Augusta to Adelaide in support of Repower Port Augusta, a campaign to replace the town’s old coal fired power station with Australia’s first concentrated solar thermal plant. The walk was due to culminate in a rally in Adelaide, with concurrent rallies held in every other capital city.

I can’t remember how many people rallied for Port Augusta – a town which has twice the national average rate of respiratory illness and cancer thanks to the coal fired power station in its midst – but I know exactly how many marched along Sydney Road following the discovery of Jill Meagher’s body.

It was in this context – of being away from Brunswick and surrounded by activists trying to mobilise people to rally for a relatively little known environmental project – that I heard the news of Jill Meagher’s murder and the march on Sydney Road.

I had a lot of conversations that weekend about what inspires people to protest.  In the age of click-tivism it’s increasingly difficult to get people off their butts and onto the street.  But Jill Meagher’s disappearance and the subsequent realisation of everyone’s worst fears stirred something deep inside those who heard about it.  At the time, many people (myself included) criticised the march for lacking purpose.  It wasn’t Take Back the Night.  It wasn’t SlutWalk.  It didn’t have a well defined goal beyond bringing together people who were reeling from the discovery of the evil hiding in their midst.

Undoubtedly, the people marching had felt a range of responses to the news of Jill’s death and had been moved to march for a number of reasons.  At their best, they marched because they recognised the utter inadequacy of words to even begin to heal the scar that Jill’s death would leave upon those who had loved her.  At their worst, they marched because they were afraid.

Let me illustrate what I mean here with an example.  Over the four years I lived in the inner north of Melbourne, several people were killed in the area.  A man was shot dead coming out of a pub down the street from my work.  Shots were fired in the carpark of my local supermarket.  Two people were killed in a warehouse on a street close to where I lived.  And every time I heard the police helicopters or saw a road blocked off I turned on the news and waited to hear those magic words that would assure me of my safety – gang related violence.  Phew, I would think.  It wasn’t a random attack.  They were mixed up with the wrong people.   I don’t need to worry – I’d never be a target of gang related violence because I’m not a member of a gang.

Too often, I fear, we have the same reaction to news of domestic violence.  We think, how awful that women feel they can’t leave an abusive partner.  How sad that some families are so messed up.  What terrible occupational hazards go hand in hand with sex work.  And then we carry on with our lives, safe in the knowledge that we don’t have abusive partners, that we come from stable families, that we would never get mixed up in the sex industry.

When I was a kid, I believed for many years that the word ‘stranger’ meant a man you didn’t know who tried to make you get in his car.  I believed this because it was the only context in which I ever heard the word used.   We have a similar problem with the word ‘rapist’.  When the word is only ever used in the context of the monster-rapist scenario, we forget that most rapes are committed by someone known to the victim.

At their worst, people responded to Jill Meagher’s death out of a self-centred fear awoken by the realisation that what happened to Jill could happen to them.  And I don’t claim to be any different here – my first thoughts on hearing the news were, holy hell that could have been me.  But as natural as it may be, the truth that this response of fear eclipses is that no matter how large the ‘stranger in a dark alley’ scenario looms in our imaginations, it accounts for a tiny percentage of men’s violence against women.

In Australia, every week a woman is murdered by her current or former partner.  Every.  Single.  Week.  And I think those women could be forgiven for looking down upon the march following Jill Meagher’s death and asking, where were you all when we needed you?  Where was the outrage against the society that allows violence against women to happen, and then blames those women for allowing it to happen to them?

Reading Tom Meagher’s humble and gracious piece last week, I was struck by so many of the thoughts I’d had but hadn’t been able to articulate.  And these thoughts were all the more pertinent coming from a man whose life had been forever altered by an abhorrent crime.  The walk from Port Augusta to Adelaide which I was taking part in while the events surrounding Jill’s disappearance unfolded was a life changing experience for very different reasons, but for me the two events will always be linked together.  My own response to the rape and murder of Jill Meagher was as flawed and human as the next person’s, but reading Tom Meagher’s piece made me realise how far my attitudes and perceptions have come, and how much further we, as a society, have yet to go.

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