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Using sport to stop violence against women

Luke Ablett, a former Sydney Swans player who is now a volunteer in Vanuatu, addressed members of Parliament at a breakfast event to promote sport in development in Canberra on 18 June 2014.

Here is his speech.

Firstly, I would like to acknowledge the Ngunnawal people who are the traditional custodians of this land on which we are meeting and pay respect to the Elders of the Ngunnawal Nation both past and present.

I extend this respect to all indigenous people in attendance today.

Ladies and gentlemen, esteemed guests, it's a great honour to be here today, and given the other speakers and attendees, it is also very humbling.

(As mentioned) I used to play for the Sydney Swans in the AFL. I can still remember when my name was read out in the 2000 AFL National draft at number 24, a moment that would send me to Sydney for the next nine years. It would be an experience that would change my life, and would shape and define the person that I am today.

In the same manner, I remember the moment the direction of my life would change once again, 10 years later, when my eyes were opened to the issue of violence against women, and gender inequality in general.

I had stumbled in to a job at the AFL, and was having a conversation with my new boss, Sue Clark. Sue had worked for Victoria Police for 24 years, and had been involved heavily in the areas of sexual assault and family violence.

I remember sitting in a meeting room when she told me that 1 in every 3 Australian women above the age of 15 will experience physical or sexual violence at some point in their life, almost exclusively by a man, and nearly always by a man they know or love.

Now I know that this issue is much bigger than me as an individual, and that this is quite selfish, but I have three younger sisters, and the idea that statistically speaking, one of them will experience this violence was very confronting.

Expanding this ratio to all the women I love, know, and care about, as well as the many I will never meet, horrified me.

Men's violence against women, and I say men's violence deliberately, is generally thought of as a women's issue; not for us men to care about.

But with this reality, how could I not care? How could it not be my issue too?

The same way that being drafted to the AFL altered the course of my life, so too did this conversation.

In Vanuatu, where I currently live, approximately 60% of all women will experience violence at some point in their lives.

Men openly talk about violence being a way to discipline women, and accept that physical violence is a reasonable way to deal with conflict. Moreover, it is used as a way to either take or maintain power in a relationship.

It is a deep-seated issue throughout both rural and urban areas and is widespread throughout the Pacific.

While the term 'violence against women' focuses on the victims of violence, more and more, people are shifting their focus to those perpetrating the violence. Men.

Around the world, men perpetrate the overwhelming majority of all violence, against both men and women.

This is why the term 'men's violence against women' is so important. The language that surrounds violence is vital and we need to focus on the men in these situations.

Men's violence against women is caused by two overarching factors: gender inequality and traditional notions of masculinity. Addressing these issues is where my focus lies.

I openly identify as a feminist, something that many men are reluctant to do. To many, the term feminist is a dirty word whose meaning disappeared many years ago.

But the reason I identify as a feminist is not only because feminism focuses on issues that affect women, as generally thought, but because it also focuses on issues that affect men.

To me, feminism, as with the term 'gender', does not mean women or women's issues. They are not synonymous.

Gender refers to the expectations we have of men and women based on their sex at birth, and it is important to stress that as with women, men have a gender, and that it is not always positive.

Gendered roles say that men must be strong, be tough, and be in control.

It says that we must not show weakness, that we do not show our emotions, apart from anger, and we definitely do not cry.

Unfortunately, it is often these expectations that lead directly to men perpetrating violence.

Feminism aims to challenge these expectations so that men don't have to subscribe to such narrow ideals of masculinity, and says that they don't have to be all these things to be a good man.

I believe in this cause, and this is why I call myself a feminist.

With the help of many, many people, I have developed a four-week gender based violence prevention program that is currently being implemented with the Vanuatu Boys U17 National Cricket team.

In fact, its final session is tomorrow night, back in Port Vila.

I can't wait to get the evaluations back and see what impact we might have had with these young men.

From my experiences of doing similar work at the AFL, and now in Vanuatu, I think sport provides a unique opportunity to have these very serious and very important discussions.

It provides a structure to work within, and a training schedule that provides the chance to interact with participants on a regular basis.

Sport offers a place for participants to hear the opinions of their peers, something that should not be underestimated, and provides a comfortable setting for people to talk, where they are familiar with those around them.

It also allows participants to continue the discussion long after the formal education program has finished.

Moreover, sport holds significant power in the social setting. We only have to look at the current Australian of the Year, my good friend Adam Goodes, to see the power it can have when people become passionate about an issue and speak out.

But sometimes, just speaking out isn't enough. We need to engage high profile sportspeople to become experts in these areas, so they can speak with knowledge, not just experience, on issues that affect us all.

We need to harness the profile of famous sportspeople, so that they can speak with authority on issues that many people don't want to speak about.

These are the people that can get the conversation away from NGOs and governments, and into the home, where families are talking about violence and inequality.

It's naïve to think that sport can tackle these issues alone. Addressing these issues takes strategic, community wide campaigns that work on a number of levels. But, I can't think of a better way, possibly apart from schools, to deliver face-to-face education at an individual level.

To finish, I would like to thank Sport Matters for inviting me here today, the Australian Volunteers for International Development program and Australian Red Cross for the opportunity to work in Vanuatu, and to Live and Learn Environmental Education for the chance to work in an area I'm deeply passionate about.

Thank you once again for the opportunity to attend and speak, I am very grateful.

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