03 Oct, 2012 Last updated: 30 Mar, 2015

By Jerril Rechter, VicHealth CEO

Opinion first published in the National Times 3 October 2012.

VicHealth CEO Jerril Rechter

On Sunday, 30,000 men and women rallied in Melbourne in a public display of solidarity in their sorrow over Jill Meagher's death and to express their disgust about violence against women.

Over the past two weeks the Victorian, and even international, community has been swept up in a wave of emotions: anger, sorrow, shock, fear and disbelief. 

As a community, we need to harness this sadness and direct it towards a solution. We need to ask not only why this has happened, but how we can prevent it from occurring in the first place. 

Here's a hard fact about being a woman in Victoria in 2012: if you are aged between 15 and 44, the biggest threat to your health is not smoking, alcohol or too much junk food – it is violence. 

Advertisement One in five Victorian women has been sexually assaulted. One in three has been a target of violence, whether it's physical, verbal or psychological abuse, or more subtle forms of violence such as threats and controlling behaviour. Despite what we often hear, this violence is most often perpetrated by a man the woman knows and trusts. And these are only the cases that are reported to police. 

On average, 77 women in Australia die every year at the hands of a violent man, usually a man known to her. In Victoria in 2011/12, police laid 17,528 charges for incidents of family violence. 

Our organisation recently produced a training video that asked a simple, yet confronting question: "What do you do on a daily basis to manage your fear of being sexually assaulted?" We asked men and women. The differences were striking. Every single man we asked was surprised by the question and simply answered: "Nothing." 

For women, the answers were unanimous: clutching car keys as a defensive weapon, double checking doors are locked, walking in the light, crossing the street when a stranger approaches, looking for an exit route, holding the phone ready to dial a friend, hastening our steps when someone is behind us, and subconsciously avoiding certain situations in public. 

So much of the recent public discussion has focused on a woman's responsibility to keep herself out of harm's way: she must not walk alone at night; it's up to her to report suspicious behaviour; she must be ever-vigilant and take extra security measures. 

Many women in Victoria – and across the country – are reflecting on their personal safety, thinking of how many times they have walked alone at night and whether it may no longer be an option for them. 

Is it fair to expect women to take sole responsibility for their safety? Shouldn't we all play a part?

The underlying message is that it is not what we must do to keep ourselves safe, it is instead what needs to change to ensure women can freely enjoy their right to safety. 

It will be White Ribbon Day on November 25. It is a good time for everyone to reflect on the treatment of women in Australia. We should all be shocked, saddened and angry about what happened to Ms Meagher, and all of us need to demand a society where this does not happen. Ever. 

Sunday's peace march in Brunswick went beyond a community's outpouring of grief; it was also a show of solidarity for a woman's right to feel safe, no matter where she is. It was heartening to see so many men take part. 

The march was also a reflection of how more and more men now understand that they are instrumental in preventing violence against women. 

They can stand up for equality, they can refuse to turn a blind eye to a mate's disrespectful behaviour, sexist joke, or thinly veiled threat hidden behind a distasteful remark at the pub, work, or on the footy field. It has to stop. These are the conditions that breed violence and harm women. 

There are a number of programs across the state that exist to create relationships based on respect and equality. Some work with new parents to ensure gender roles are balanced. Others teach young people about what a healthy relationship looks like. Others inspire local governments, workplaces, faith leaders and organisations to become leaders in preventing violence against women. 

We now know how many women experience violence, we now know about its horrific impact and we are well on the road to knowing how to prevent it. Eradicating violence against women in Australia is a cultural shift that will take time and requires support from the entire community to make a real sustainable change. But it is possible.

- Jerril