THE City of Greater Bendigo's response to concerns about the presence of 'ring girls' at a council-supported boxing event "makes a mockery" of a regional gender equity leadership statement, gender equality champions say.
The Loddon Region Gender Equality and Violence Prevention Consortium's criticism comes in the wake of Yvonne Wrigglesworth's resignation from council.
Ms Wrigglesworth was one of two councillors who publicly shared concerns about the use of 'ring girls' at last month's Battle of Bendigo. The former Eppalock Ward councillor faced backlash after pointing out the need to align council action with policy on gender equity.
She resigned on Thursday afternoon, a day after a meeting of councillors, citing a difference in values.
Leaders of the Centre for Non-Violence, Loddon Campaspe Centre Against Sexual Assault, Annie North Women's Refuge and Cobaw Community Health said the consortium was disappointed that council didn't enact the principles of the Greater Bendigo Coalition for Gender Equity Leadership Statement, which outlined the vision for gender equality in our community.
"The council's actions make a mockery of this statement and all the good work and commitment expressed by multiple community and business partners in developing and committing to this statement," the consortium members said in a joint statement.
"We didn't understand that the statement was going to be selectively applied."
Story continues below leadership statement
Call for leadership
CENTRAL Victorian experts have invited the Bendigo council and the community to take up the challenge to commit to and create a world where women and girls are truly equal, valued, safe and respected.
It comes after Yvonne Wrigglesworth resigned from the council on Thursday, citing a difference of values between herself and fellow councillors.
The Loddon Region Gender Equality and Violence Prevention Consortium said it supported the former Eppalock Ward councillor's position on the use of 'ring girls' at last month's Battle of Bendigo boxing event, which highlighted a need to align council action with policy on gender equity.
"We are saddened that Councillor Wrigglesworth experienced personal attacks from members of the community and lack of subsequent support from the council, resulting in her feeling that resigning was the only option," consortium members said in a joint statement.
Chief executive officers of each of the Centre for Non-Violence, Loddon Campaspe Centre Against Sexual Assault, Annie North Women's Refuge and Cobaw Community Health said the issue was not about individual women who might have been employed as 'ring girls' at the boxing event.
"As experts in prevention of violence against women and gender equality, and on the links between gender stereotyping, objectification and violence and abuse against women and girls, we see how individual acts - seemingly innocuous or harmless - impact on women and girls more broadly," they said.
"What occurred to Councillor Wrigglesworth gives the message that women will be at risk of harassment, abuse, threats and lack of support when they speak up about these issues."
Bendigo mayor Margaret O'Rourke said it was a concern that council had lost a good member.
She said council's conversations around gender equality would continue, and its work in the space was evolving.
A number of organisations, including the City of Greater Bendigo, receive state government support to 'change the story' about violence against women and their children.
Gender inequality, rigid gender stereotypes, and cultures that accept or excuse men's violence are drivers of violence against women.
The Greater Bendigo Coalition for Gender Equity Leadership Statement, launched in March, showed the rates of women within the region reporting intimate partner violence, family violence and sexual offences were all higher than the state average.
Bendigo women experienced 102.5 family violence incidents and 68.9 instances of intimate partner violence per 10,000 people.
There were 13.7 reported sexual offences against women in the region per 10,000 people.
Coalition members pledged to stand together and commit to advancing gender equity for the benefit of all the community.
The City of Greater Bendigo was a leader in that work.
Asked how well the city was meeting its objectives in 'changing the story', Cr O'Rourke today said it was a relatively new area for the organisation.
"We are very committed to it and need to work towards having strong input to gender equity in our community," she said.
Centre for Non-Violence's Robyn Trainor emphasised the need for council to live its values in promoting gender equity, to lead by example, to advocate and to be a role model.
"It is important dialogue within community is respectful. We have seen pushback and resistance... that is a common experience," she said.
However, she said negative attitudes that went unchallenged contributed to further inequity.
"If not challenged, that sends a very strong message in itself," Ms Trainor said.
She said the community needed strong advocates and leaders to not just react or respond, but to facilitate conversations.
What occurred to Councillor Wrigglesworth gives the message that women will be at risk of harassment, abuse, threats and lack of support when they speak up about these issues.Loddon Region Gender Equality and Violence Prevention Consortium
Loddon Campaspe CASA chief executive Kate Wright suggested council align and build into its processes a consideration of gender equity, which was then applied to all future activities.
"You can't have a statement not being executed in your own organisation. Hopefully they're now reviewing how they can achieve that," she said.
The head of a national organisation created to address the drivers of violence against women and their children highlighted the integral role local governments played in setting a gender-equitable standard in communities.
Our Watch chief executive Patty Kinnersly said local governments had the capacity to positively influence people's personal and professional lives, but also to exacerbate gendered barriers and perpetuate negative stereotypes.
"We know from the research that in order to stamp out sexism and gender inequality, we need workplaces, sporting organisations and leaders to set an example for others to follow and take an active role in addressing the drivers of violence against women," Ms Kinnersly said.
Story continues below Change the Story framework
Gender Equity Victoria manager Jacinta Masters said councillors had a responsibility to look at the national frameworks and take actions at a community level.
"The conversation needs to be brought back to looking at the systems and structures that create gender inequity, rather than looking at the individuals involved in the situation," she said.
She said councillors needed to be supported and not penalised for promoting respect and equality for women because that's what was reflected in policy frameworks, including 'Change the Story'.
"It's definitely an opportunity to show leadership," Ms Masters said.
She said the response to the use of 'ring girls' at boxing had started an important conversation, and it shouldn't fall to one councillor to advocate for gender equity.
If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault, domestic or family violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit 1800RESPECT.org.au.
In an emergency, call 000.
'More that can be done'
City of Greater Bendigo mayor Margaret O'Rourke says there are lessons the council can learn following councillor Yvonne Wrigglesworth's resignation this week.
Cr Wrigglesworth resigned on Thursday, citing a difference in values between herself and some fellow councillors that made her position untenable.
She said this became apparent after she spoke up about gender equity in relation to the use of 'ring girls' at the council-sponsored Battle of Bendigo boxing event last month.
As mayor, Cr O'Rourke said, she supported Cr Wrigglesworth and councillor Jennifer Alden, who also spoke out and said the ring girls concept was not respectful of women.
Both councillors, plus other experts and advocates who voiced opposition to the use of women in such roles in sport, were subjected to some ferocious backlash.
But the mayor said there were always opportunities to learn from such incidents.
When asked whether the council did enough to support Cr Wrigglesworth in voicing her views, Cr O'Rourke said, "Personally, I think there's more that can be done there".
- OUR SAY: This is an issue bigger than Bendigo
Cr O'Rourke denounced the personal attacks that were aimed at those who spoke out. "People need to understand we have different views, and it's disappointing when... it gets personal," she said.
She said the council would also look at what it could learn regarding Cr Wrigglesworth's view that she was personally attacked by some of her fellow councillors.
Victoria's Minister for Women, Gabrielle Williams, also said the community needed to be able to have conversations without resorting to personal abuse.
"Issues around gender equality and sexism are the subject of legitimate and growing debate in our community, and this debate shouldn't be stifled," Ms Williams said.
Cr O'Rourke said the council would continue to develop its gender equity strategy and be guided by its leadership statement, but there needed to be balance because it had "a very broad church".
"Many people have different views, we need to have balance in that but society's changing... We need to move towards that," she said.
The Victorian Electoral Commission has announced a countback will take place on October 8 to fill the seat left vacant by Cr Wrigglesworth's departure.
The Bendigo Advertiser contacted all other councillors for their response to Cr Wrigglesworth's resignation and their views on the council's response to the gender equity issues raised in recent weeks. Andrea Metcalf was the only councillor able to be contacted, but declined to comment.
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