This newspaper can no longer stay silent about the week that was.
We cannot stay silent about the backlash.
About the hate.
About the women being made scapegoats for organisations who should have shown leadership.
And we will not stay silent about what matters.
Things shifted for our city when 'ring girls' were present during the weigh-in of Jeff Horn and Michael Zerafa - the day before their Battle for Bendigo fight.
Until that point, the event had enjoyed significant positive media exposure - including in the print and web pages of this masthead. The city was basking in the glory of luring a major event away from the metros. The event was to be broadcast to a global audience. Bendigo had everything to gain.
But during that weigh-in, things changed. An issue became apparent that needed to be talked about.
And just as the city has a responsibility to ensure all events they inject cash into reflect the values of their organisation, this newspaper also has a responsibility that is bigger than covering sporting events, and bigger than tourism.
And that is a responsibility to open up difficult conversations about issues that matter.
This was one of them. And we knew it would be - because it challenged so many people to look at themselves, and their own attitudes towards girls and women. And it challenged some organisations to reflect on their own values and what they stand for.
Most other sports have had the conversation. Most have dropped the 'trophy' woman's role from their events.
Why, in Bendigo, have we now shown ourselves to not only be incapable of having a rational, civil conversation about a role most others have moved on from - but we've broadcast to the world the value we place on women.
Is this the image we want for our global audience? A packed stadium of men wolf-whistling at women?
To be clear, this conversation was never and should never be about the individual women. Or their choices. It is about a role that still exists in sport, that should not - and all that role represents.
That we cannot see this, is our city's shame.
But equally shameful is the lack of leadership we have since seen by those who could and should have done more - and the treatment of those women courageous enough to speak out on such a divisive issue.
Women who have been supported by the comments of our state premier, Daniel Andrews, who said 'we have come a long way in making sport more accessible for women and girls, but events have a powerful message to send when it comes to the representation of women in sport. We were pleased to see the progress made by the Grand Prix in ending the use of grid girls and we encourage other events to do the same'.
The backlash directed at some of those women, particularly two city of Greater Bendigo councillors, has been abhorrent. Indeed, some of that backlash has been directed at women staff at this newspaper - who have simply reported an issue, as is their role as journalists.
Vile, personal attacks and lies have been the norm, rather than the exception.
The venomous, vitriolic behaviour from a vocal (and probably minority) crowd included comments on looks, body shapes, comparisons to animals, mental illness... the list goes on.
And why? In response to women putting forward respectful and much-supported arguments on why women and girls should not be objectified.
No one argued the boxing event should not go ahead.
But we have since seen calls for one councillor to go before a code of conduct hearing. For what? Standing up for an issue the city says, matters.
Earlier this year, the City of Greater Bendigo released a gender equity statement, which reads:
We recognise that gender inequality is a problem in Australia, and the Greater Bendigo community. Discrimination, sexism and other disadvantages affect health and life outcomes, and continue to be found where people live, learn, work and play. Gender inequality is unfair, unjust and unacceptable. Addressing it is critical to preventing violence against women, recognising and respecting the value of all people, and delivering the social and economic benefits that arise from communities that are safe, fair and just for everyone. Gender equity is everyone's business and is a shared responsibility. As a Coalition, we stand together and commit to advancing gender equity in Greater Bendigo, for the benefit of everyone in our community.
And so when a councillor shares on Facebook a powerful piece that fits perfectly with this strategy, she faces becoming the scapegoat for an organisation whose actions have failed to reflect its own strategy.
A piece that was endorsed by the mayor in the comments section. Comments already shared by another woman councillor, who spoke out through this newspaper.
We have three women councillors, including the mayor, who understand the role of the ring girl, and want that changed.
Yet, in the past week, the City of Greater Bendigo has gone quiet.
So who is silencing them, and telling them their voices should not be heard? And why?
Councillors may not, and should not, always be across operational decisions - but they are absolutely entitled to be part of the community conversations and reflect community views.
And importantly, be seen to reflect the city's values.
So if they're not being heard on this issue, how else are our councillors being silenced? And is the city complicit in fostering sexism and misogyny, in not coming out in support of councillors who stood against it?
That raises questions about the narrative for councillors going forward, which leads to further questions about who would put their hand up for local government if they cannot fully participate in important community conversations.
Is that what we want?
What this week has taught us is that we need better leadership, not just strategies that offer words, but no depth or alignment.
We need to support those who are brave enough to start the difficult conversations about issues that affect all of us. Issues that are bigger than tourism, or sport - or Bendigo.
And in this case, the bigger issue is gender equality and our attitudes towards women and girls.
This community has shown just how much we need to continue having that conversation.
- Nicole Ferrie is the editor of the Bendigo Advertiser
- If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault, domestic or family violence, call 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732).
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