Our scholarship, advocacy and teaching have recognised that women’s structural disadvantage leaves them vulnerable to violent victimisation and criminalisation, while narrow legal constructions commonly fail to adequately reflect women’s diverse lives and experiences.
Since the 1970s, UNSW Law & Justice staff, students and alumni have played key roles in advocacy and law reform campaigns concerning gender-based violence. Robyn Lansdowne and others, working with Women Behind Bars and the Feminist Legal Action Group, successfully campaigned to highlight the lives of battered women and the gender bias of legal defences to homicide, resulting in significant law reform. This work and continued advocacy by Anna Cody and Kingsford Legal Centre (KLC) resulted in the release of women from prison and their subsequent pardon.
From the 1980s, UNSW Law & Justice staff including Emerita Professor Regina Graycar, alumni Professor Jenny Morgan and Emerita Professor Margaret Thornton, were central to the development of feminist jurisprudence in Australia, which included the introduction of the course, Law and Gender and publication of the leading text, Hidden Gender of Law in 1990. Our teaching programme increasingly addressed gender inequality in relation to the structure of the legal profession, the operation of property, succession, and family law, and specific courses were developed on the intersection of gender with questions of race, class and disability and on women, children and Indigenous law.
Sandra Egger’s scholarship built on her prior significant work in the public sector as a political adviser and member of state and Commonwealth taskforces and inquiries on domestic violence and sexual assault. Her work challenged the effectiveness of domestic violence orders and their portability across borders (with Julie Stubbs) and she critiqued mainstream approaches to crime prevention for their failure to engage with feminist theory. Egger contributed to successive editions of the leading text Criminal Laws, especially regarding crimes of sexual assault, domestic violence, and prostitution and her work continued to contribute beyond the university, especially to law reform, public policy and ethical standards for research.
Advocacy and law reform emanating from research was a major feature of other UNSW Law & Justice academics. For example, Professor Anne Cossins included progressive reforms in response to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Assault. Professor Julie Stubbs worked on the development of the NSW domestic violence death review mechanism, and incremental changes in sexual assault laws and defences to homicide were researched on by Prof. Cossins, Helen Gibbon, Professor Luke McNamara, Professor Alex Steel, Associate Professor Melanie Schwartz and Prof. Stubbs.
In the late 1990s, Prof. Cossins was instrumental in reforms to sexual assault laws across Australia, including the adoption of Australia’s first sexual assault communications privilege (which sought to limit defendants’ access to the confidential notes of sexual assault counsellors) and more recently, she spearheaded reforms to consent laws in NSW.
The relationship between gender inequality and violence against women has been a significant research focus of UNSW Law & Justice. Successive National Community Attitudes to Violence Against Violence surveys demonstrate empirically that attitudes supportive of violence are associated with a lack of support for gender equality. Drawing on the experience of clients, the research and advocacy work of KLC on sexual harassment has demonstrated the need for systemic change and prevention through education, with a particular focus on tackling gender-based discrimination in employment for culturally and linguistically diverse women.
KLC was also a key player in the development of some of the first women’s domestic violence court assistance schemes. After many years of campaigning, KLC successfully prevented retrospective changes to victims’ compensation that would have been prejudicial to their clients who had experienced domestic and sexual violence.
Various responses to inequality and violence against women in the form of accountability, reparation and redress have also been key themes of recent work by UNSW Law & Justice. In 2015, the Australian Human Rights Centre (now Institute) turned the gaze onto the role of universities in addressing and preventing violence against women. Drawing on decades of work undertaken by students and advocates on university sexual assault and harassment, the Strengthening Australian University Responses to Sexual Assault and Harassment Project led by Andrea Durbach, initiated the first comprehensive national student survey in partnership with the Australian Human Rights Commission, the National Union of Students and The Hunting Ground Australia Project. The three-year project investigated student concerns about reporting mechanisms and procedures, the adequacy of student support services, and the minimal presence of prevention strategies by universities. The final project report, On Safe Ground, provided the first blueprint for Australian universities to appropriately facilitate and manage reports of sexual violence and reduce and prevent its occurrence.
The use of international mechanisms as vehicles of accountability and redress has included research by Andrew Byrnes for a number of international and civil society organisations on the impact of the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and his participation in the drafting of the CEDAW Optional Protocol. And for many years KLC has led Australian NGO reporting on Australia’s international human rights compliance under CEDAW. Louise Chappell, Andrea Durbach and Sarah Williams have undertaken a major research project on the role of the state in designing and providing reparations to address the harm resulting from violence against women and prevent its recurrence in post-conflict contexts, such as South Africa and Cambodia. Christine Foster’s research has focused on women’s inequality in India and the intersection of gender, caste, religion and class and violence against women, particularly in the Asia Pacific.
The self-determination of First Nations women has been a key focus of the work of Professor Megan Davis and Dr Kyllie Cripps. Prof. Davis has worked extensively through service to the United Nations (UN) to elevate international responses to gendered violence, including serving as the Rapporteur of the UN EGM on Combating violence against Indigenous women and girls in 2011 and the UN Rapporteur for the International EGM on Indigenous Youth in 2012. She currently serves as a UN expert with the UN Human Rights Council's Expert Mechanism on the rights of Indigenous people.
Dr Cripps’ influential work over the past twenty years has informed and shaped the delivery of culturally responsive responses to family violence, sexual assault and child abuse to Indigenous communities. This has been achieved through her empirical research that has defined violence in Indigenous terms, conceptualised models for defining areas of need, established the factors influencing the occurrence of violence and articulated the many intersections that exist – that when taken together serve to entrench and further disempower victims of violence, for example, housing, family violence, and child protection. Grounded in the principles of social justice, this work is squarely focused on supporting Indigenous communities to be safe, empowered and self-determining in their responses to violence. Her research in this area has been significant for identifying gaps and opportunities for Indigenous communities and the various sectors work in partnership facilitating improved services for Indigenous violence