Wednesday, 23 November 2022
Last night, a largely packed parliamentary theatre played host to a screening of the multi-award-winning Australian documentary Geeta, a raw and honest film about a mother's heartfelt attempt to change her daughter's destiny after a brutal acid attack. With this year's UN 16 Days calling on people to unite in activism to end violence against women and girls, the screening of Geeta in Parliament Housepresented an opportunity to explore a number of inspiring approaches for creating change.
The prevalence of acid attacks and the harm caused by them were also discussed this morning by the Human Rights Subcommittee of the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade, in a public hearing for the inquiry into the rights of women and children. The filmmakers—including the subjects of the film, Geeta and her daughter Neetu—provided an insight into the lives of survivors and their campaign to prevent acid attacks. It was an opportunity for the subcommittee to understand what drives this behaviour and what options are open in legislation to prevent acid attacks. I want to thank the team for their important contribution to the inquiry and to this parliament.
The story of Geeta and Neetu exemplifies the challenges and complexities involved in addressing gender based violence. Acid attacks are a particularly horrific form of harm facing women and children today and have long-term implications for women's health, safety and engagement in their communities. Acid violence is a worldwide phenomenon that is not restricted to any race, religion or geographical location. Globally, there are approximately 1,500 acid attacks a year, but it is a crime that often goes unreported for fear of reprisal. Eighty per cent of the attacks are directed towards women. The victims of acid violence are usually women and children, and attackers often target the head and face to maim, disfigure and blind. The impact of acid violence ranges from serious lifelong injuries and disfigurement to death. Acid survivors need long-term access to a holistic program of medical support, rehabilitation and advocacy, with many survivors requiring up to 80 operations in their lifetime.
It is a crime which, unfortunately, also finds its place here in Australia. In Australia acid attacks happen, but there is a complete absence of formal data despite media coverage of the incidents. In 2022 alone, there have been three acid violence attacks in Sydney and Adelaide. Between 2009 and 2022, there have been 21 known cases of acid attacks. Approximately 30 per cent of acid attacks in Australia are family violence related. They are predominantly targeted against women and children. Threats to disfigure and burn either by acid violence or by setting alight are commonly used in a family violence setting in Australia as a form of coercive control, intimidation and emotional abuse. We cannot sit by and report on statistics and prevalence after-the-fact. We need to proactively understand the risk factors involved as a form of prevention.
As part of the action for change, there are a number of things we can do here in Australia to support the social impact campaign. Research and funding is urgently needed to collect data on both attacks and threats to disfigure or burn with acid. Research is also needed to identify where there are gaps in data which could assist in our understanding of the prevalence of incidents of acid violence and threats here in Australia. These include improving record keeping within hospital, police and coroner's reports and within the MARAM family violence system; introducing and strengthening legislation; understanding the motives behind acid attacks and how they relate to other serious crimes; analysing how to reduce access to acid and other corrosive substances; and discovering approaches to best support those whose lives have been affected by acid attacks.
Data collection is important to addressing this issue because it allows policymakers, government bodies and community organisations to understand the need for potential law reform. This includes exploring areas such as a new classification of crime, the poisons act, updating sentencing recommendations and ensuring Australia fulfils its obligations under UN conventions and treaties. Building an Australia-wide host-a-screening campaign and education program for schools, community groups, workplaces and government bodies around family violence and respectful relationships will also play an important role. To my colleagues here: the campaign will work to ensure that the Australian parliament commits in practice to the UN obligations and responsibilities that Australia has signed up to, including UNiTE and CEDAW, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. This Friday marks International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. We can and must do more.