Huge insult in letter to sex abuse victims
The Victorian Government has been accused of gender "bias" against men, after sending two near identical versions of the same letter to sexual abuse victims with one startling difference.
The 'women's version' of the letter offers victims "free, specialised and confidential legal advice" paid for by government, whereas the 'male version' of the letter offers no equivalent assistance or support whatsoever.
The controversy began last month, when news.com.au revealed the Victorian Government had introduced new gag laws which prohibit all sexual assault survivors from telling their stories under their real names once a conviction is in place.
Victims who break the gag law can face up to four months jail or heavy fines.
Over 200,000 people signed a petition for law reform and scores of individuals have written to the government to vent their frustration and concerns.
In response, on September 3, the Victorian Attorney-General Jill Hennessy sent two versions of the same letter to a number of sexual abuse survivors who had contacted her: one aimed at women, and one aimed at men and anyone else.
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Both versions of the letter begin by thanking the victim for "sharing (their) story". Both confirm the government will now work "urgently" to reform the law that they introduced back in February. The letters then boast about "an additional $8.5 million" allocated by the government to sexual assault services in mid-2018 bringing "the government's support … to more than $28 million in 2018-19, an increase of $6.8 million".
The letter initially incited backlash online, amid claims its tone and the reference to government funding was "insensitive", "self serving", and "inappropriate".
But now a greater point of controversy has emerged with survivors who have compared their letters, wanting answers as to why only women survivors were offered help and assistance.
The two additional paragraphs included in the 'women's version' of the letter explain the government had now "partnered" with a legal service staffed by "female lawyers" who can assist any victim who wishes to tell "her" story.
News.com.au has confirmed that the service is not available to male survivors and it is unclear whether they respond non-binary and gender diverse survivors - who are statistically more at risk of experiencing sexual violence.
The 'women's version' of the letter also includes information about Victoria Legal Aid's helpline. This too was missing from the letter to men.
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Andrew*, a male clergy abuse victim who has been gagged by the new law, has accused the government of gender bias.
"I don't think it's right that the government offer help to one set of people but not others. I think all people should be offered the same level of support regardless of if they are male, female, or non binary. Once again the law makers have got it wrong."
A second male clergy abuse survivor, Peter* says "the government need to step up to the plate and realise sexual violence against men is just as important and it's a lot harder for men to make contact with services to begin with".
A third male survivor, Adam*, says the gender double standard "reinforces the mythology and ethos that men should shut up and bear it".
"It says to us men that men are excluded from the support. That as men, you just have to bury it down, you have to shut up and suck it up and take it.
"There is already so much broken trust. This just adds to that broken trust and to the trauma. It increases the isolation of men. It means we are excluded from justice."
The three men are now all represented by Marque Lawyers who have lodged applications for court orders on their behalf, with funding provided from the #LetUsSpeak GoFundMe.
Happy to record our first success in obtaining an order for a sexual assault survivor under Victoria's ridiculous laws, allowing her to be identified with her permission and tell her story publicly. We have 10 more to follow. #LetUsSpeak @EROCAustralia @ninafunnell— marquelawyers (@marquelawyers) September 16, 2020
A number of female survivors have also decided to 'girl-cott' the government-funded service in solidarity with their male counterparts, and because they hold concerns there was no consultations with victims when the government selected which services they would partner with.
Since then, the government has now announced it will fund a second service on top of the first, to perform a similar function except the second service will cater to all survivors and be run by Legal Aid Victoria.
The government did not answer questions on how much taxpayer money was being spent on the two duplicate services, or when the second service would be ready, but it did confirm it was "working with Victoria Legal Aid to set up a complementary service for all victims of sexual assault who similarly seek to share their experience".
Dr Rachael Burgin, chairperson of Rape & Sexual Assault Research & Advocacy says the incident has left survivors even more confused and disempowered.
"A lot of heartache could have been avoided if the government had taken action back in April when they first were told of the problem," says Dr Burgin.
"If they had engaged with survivors and advocates when we repeatedly reached out over several months, this panicked and piecemeal response could have been circumvented, survivors could have been better supported, and the laws could have been reformed by now."
Nina Funnell is the creator of the #LetUsSpeak campaign in partnership with Marque Lawyers, End Rape On Campus Australia, and Rape & Sexual Assault Research & Advocacy.
Click to donate to the #LetUsSpeak campaign.
*For 24-hour sexual violence support call the national hotline 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or MensLine on 1800 600 636.
This article is supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.
Originally published as Huge insult in letter to sex abuse victims