The warm-up to the AFL grand final is always an exciting one.
Even though my beloved Blues fell short this season, I still look forward to catching up with family and friends to celebrate one of the most important AFL matches of the year, and a game that I have loved all my life.
As a teenager, I idolised Carlton’s Bruce Doull and I longed to emulate his style of play.
Frustrated that there was nowhere for women and girls to have a kick, in 1989, I banded together with mates to establish Ballarat’s first women’s football team, the Ballarat Eagles.
While having a team gave us the opportunity to be competitive, keep fit and build relationships, I particularly loved that the club provided a safe and inclusive space for young women to just be themselves.
It was during that time, that I began to truly appreciate the power that sport has to positively influence communities, disrupt problematic attitudes and behaviours, and break down gendered and cultural barriers.
I have since made it my life’s work to advocate for gender equality so we can leave the world a little better than I found it.
As the CEO of Our Watch, we work with a raft of organisations, workplaces, media outlets, schools and universities to change their structures, norms and practices to be gender equitable.
Through our Sports Engagement Program, we are also working with four of the major sporting codes, including the AFL, to extend the principles of equality, respect and fairness beyond the field – into the boardroom, the coach’s box, the stands, the change rooms, and the media.
We do this because we know that putting these principles into practice right across society, is what will ultimately help prevent violence against women.
I am delighted that the AFL women’s competition is continuing to grow. Its creation has forced an important national conversation about how we treat, value and respect female athletes.
It is also highlighting other ways in which gender issues play out in the football world.
For example, this week’s Brownlow coverage was littered with gossip about AFL ‘WAGS’ – an offensive and demeaning term that reduces wives and girlfriends of male athletes’ to their relationship status.
Instead of being people with their own careers and personalities, who happen to be well-dressed, they are often positioned as simply ‘arm candy’.
Unfortunately, the other context in which we will hear women spoken about during AFL grand final week, is as victims of men’s violence.
Although the juxtaposition is sharp, both are examples of how deeply gender inequality is woven into the tapestry of our culture and value system – not just in football but in society more broadly.
Research has found that there is often a spike in violence against women during the NRL State of Origin. Similar statistics have been documented during the AFL Grand Final, Melbourne Cup and major sporting events around the world. Family and domestic violence counselling service, 1800RESPECT reports a 10 percent increase in calls and online conversations during major sporting events.
It is important to note, that while alcohol and the excitement of a sporting match may exacerbate violent behaviour, we know from the research that it is not alcohol that is the underlying driver of violence against women, but gender inequality.
One in four Australian women will experience intimate partner violence. It happens in our leafy affluent suburbs, is perpetrated by the seemingly friendly father at the footy club, and contrary to popular misunderstanding, it occurs both with and without substance abuse.
The gendered nature of this behaviour is driven by men’s sense of entitlement, and the need for power and control over their victim.
To suggest that such violence is driven by alcohol, stress, disappointment over a team losing or excitement excuses the perpetrator’s behaviour, which only further reinforces a culture, which regularly ignores, trivialises and condones violence against women.
The good news is that violence against women is preventable, and prevention work is the ‘hope piece’ we can all own.
Sporting organisations, including my beloved AFL, have the power to address the impact of gender inequality on women and girls.
Investing in the women’s game, having fair and equal representation of women in decision making roles and challenging the stereotypes that stop them from entering the sport in the first place, are some of the key ways we can make a difference.
Disrespect is at the heart of gender inequality and violence against women, and we know that structural and systemic gender imbalances persist in our society.
This must change. Women and girls have a right to safety, equality and respect – on the football field, in their relationships, in the home and in the workplace.
Because our goal is real and sustained social change, for this generation and the next, we cannot take our foot off the accelerator.
This article was originally published on news.com.au on 27 September 2019.
Image source: News Corp Australia