It is appalling that as a society we apparently believe that violence towards women is acceptable. I also find it reprehensible that sexist remarks and attitudes are again becoming the norm. It is well acknowledged that there is a link between racism and race-related violence or homophobia and homophobic-related violence. It is about time that we drew attention to the connection that exists between sexism and violence against women.
Helen Westwood is an Australian politician, a Member of the New South Wales Parliament, and has been active in the Australian Labor Party since 1976. Before entering politics, Helen began work at the early age of 15, holding a variety of jobs, including shop assistant, accounting machinist, clerical assistant, stay-at-home mum, and community worker. It was in her role as a community worker that Helen first had face-to-face contact with women suffering in violent marriages and witnessed the impact of domestic violence on the physical and mental health of the women and children she visited. As she remarked in her inaugural speech as an MP to the NSW Parliament, ‘I think most workers in the community services sector would agree with me when I say that as a community worker you get to see the very best and worst of humanity. You witness first-hand the very difficult, often tragic, circumstances people in our community are living in and you develop a deep desire to find the answers to eliminating the causes of social injustice. You cannot ignore the pain of others in the hope that someone else will do what is needed.’
Even as a small child, she remembers the night a neighbour came to her front door. As her mother led the woman into the house, Helen saw that her face was bleeding from cuts to her mouth and cheeks and that her eyes were swollen and bruised. As her mother comforted her, the neighbour apologised for disturbing them and asked if she could sleep under their house until her husband calmed down. This was Helen’s first experience of domestic violence and one she will never forget. Of course, her mother took care of her, took her to the hospital for treatment and gave her a warm bed for the night.
As a politician, Helen’s career has been largely shaped and influenced by her fervent and sometimes radical support of women’s rights. In 1995 she was elected to Bankstown City Council. Her main motivation for standing was the marked absence of any women. She decided that she could not continue living in a community where women did not have a voice in the decisions that affected their daily lives. Since being elected, she has become an outspoken and articulate advocate for women in the community, refusing to back down on issues such as domestic violence, child sexual offences and sexual assault. She has also organised public forums, conferences and marches to raise awareness about violence against women
In 2000, while Helen was serving on the Bankstown City Council, a series of horrific gang rapes occurred in the area. These ethnically motivated attacks were co-ordinated by a group of Lebanese-Australian boys and men against women and girls, including some as young as 14. The rapists orchestrated their movements, phoning ahead to collaborators to organise the transport of rape gang members to the locations where women were being held. This provoked fear and outrage in the community and led to civil unrest. Helen was instrumental in restoring order and protecting the women and girls of Bankstown. She later became the Mayor of Bankstown (2002 – 2006) and was elected to the NSW Parliament in 2007.
As a Member of Parliament, Helen has been actively involved in many areas connected with violence against women. In 2011 she was Deputy Chair of a parliamentary inquiry into domestic violence. This was highly critical of the status quo, finding that organisations did not have a cohesive strategy in relation to domestic violence, that they lacked understanding of each other’s roles, and there had been a lack of leadership to drive change for some time. Helen and the committee sought to deliver an integrated government response to domestic violence, focused on primary prevention, offender accountability and the long-term reduction of domestic and family violence.
Helen considers one of her greatest accomplishments as an MP was her role in establishing an inquiry into the provocation defence for the charge of murder, limiting its use (except in cases of prolonged domestic and sexual violence). The provocation defence was once used by a husband who had stabbed his wife 22 times, cut her throat and killed her, later claiming he was provoked to kill because he suspected his wife had been unfaithful and intended to leave the marriage. He was found guilty of manslaughter by provocation, not murder, by a court of law. Women all over Australia were outraged and Helen privately and publicly garnered support for debate on the reform of the provocation defence that, in the past, had helped legitimise lethal domestic violence.
As Deputy Chair of the Standing Committee on Social Issues, Helen was also involved in addressing the need for senior police to be allowed to issue apprehended domestic violence orders (ADVOs) to suspected offenders on the spot. This forced offenders to vacate a property immediately after an incident, thus reducing the likelihood of violence. ‘Our focus has got to be on removing the perpetrator rather than the women and children having to leave their home,’ Helen said.
In 2001 Helen was awarded the Centenary Medal for service to local government. She was also made a Member of the Order of Australia in 2006 for service to local government through promoting sustainable environmental management to the community through the Lebanese Women’s Association and the provision of services to people with disabilities
Helen is currently serving on the Child Sexual Offences Committee investigating the sentencing of child sexual assault offenders and reporting on whether current sentencing options for perpetrators of child sexual assault remain effective, also whether greater consistency in sentencing and improving public confidence in the judicial system could be achieved through alternative sentencing options. Helen continues to use her voice and strength of character to highlight injustice and promote equal rights with respect to the law, especially when it affects vulnerable members of the community.