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#walkwithher spreads awareness about older women and sexual assault

Pictures of shoes have probably been appearing on your Twitter newsfeed and you may be wondering what the hashtags, #walkwithher, #olderwomencount, #inhershoes, are all about.

DPS shows solidarity with older women who have been sexually assaulted in aged care or at home. #walkwithher #olderwomencount #inhershoes [Source: DPS]
DPS shows solidarity with older women who have been sexually assaulted in aged care or at home. #walkwithher #olderwomencount #inhershoes [Source: DPS]

A March awareness campaign driven by social enterprises, Opal Institute and Older Women's Network (OWN) NSW, is highlighting the unheard voices of older women who have been sexually assaulted or experienced violence at home and/or in aged care, encouraging the wider community to show solidarity with older victims of sexual assault and violence.

The catalyst behind this campaign was the lack of mentions of older women's sexual assault by the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety in their Interim Report released in October of last year. 

Catherine Barrett, Founder of Celebrate Ageing and the Opal Institute, is proud of the campaign and the engagement they are getting on social media with many people using the hashtag and taking a photo of their shoes.

Dr Barrett says there was only one mention of sexual assault in the Interim Report, but there was no substantial reform enacted by the Royal Commission.

"It is incredibly important to have the Royal Commission understand that the community expects that they address this issue, it is not going to go away… 740 [sexual assault cases] for the last year and that is the tip of the iceberg," says Dr Barrett.

"Aged care services need the resources and support to create change. We can't just point at aged care providers and say you failed, the whole system is failing. We need resources, we need information, we need education, we need more policy. 

"Change is so hard-fought around retribution of sexual assault of older women and what I notice is that if I am talking to people about the sexual assault of older women, it is actually really difficult for people to want to engage with the topic because often people feel powerless and nobody wants to believe this could possibly happen."

She explains that there are two unique factors about older women that makes them so vulnerable:

  1. Older women with dementia are more vulnerable to sexual assault or if a partner has dementia, they may become hypersexual or sexually inhibited 

  2. The marital rape immunity laws were not changed until the 1980s, which means heterosexual couples grew up with different generational dynamics 

The project also has a few case studies from older victims, Sandra and Margarita, sharing their sexual assault and documents how their cases were handled. (Disclaimer: These case studies may be considered distressing to those who read it). 

Dr Barrett says the idea of taking photos of women's shoes is to create a visual presence on social media so people will understand that it is a very uncomfortable truth that happens in Australia.

"People think that old age is a protective factor against sexual assault, we want people to know that talking about sexual assault is a protective factor against sexual assault. The silence enables for it to continue," says Dr Barrett.

Dr Barrett adds that a strategy proposal has been put forward to the Department of Health that could create change systematically in the aged care services industry.

Manager at OWN NSW, Yumi Lee, has been working with Dr Barrett for a couple of years to raise awareness about the issue of violence against older women.

Ms Lee says that the Royal Commission needs to put a focus on sexual assault of older women no matter the setting.

"In the first instance, anyone who goes into a nursing home is already in a position where they are extremely vulnerable. Everything should be done to protect them. At the moment, we do not have processes or procedures in place to ensure that this is an area, no training for that matter, to ensure that these older women are safe," says Ms Lee.

"The second thing is the intersectionality between ageism and gender, older women are not believed when they say they have been assaulted, because [people] think 'how can they have been assaulted'. 

"They are not believed and then, therefore, nothing further is done to protect them from assault. We know in some cases, these women are repeatedly assaulted because they are not believed.

"It is this continuum of the vulnerability, of women being assaulted right from when they are young to when they are in the twilight of their lives. The fact they are not safe from sexual assault is just unacceptable to us."

While it is a taboo subject to talk about, Ms Lee says nothing is going to happen to fix it if no one is willing to acknowledge it happens at home and in aged care facilities.

Ms Lee adds, "If the Royal Commission does not investigate it, it just signals to the community that it is just an aberration when to us it is just as important as the horrendous food that they serve or the chemical restraints used in nursing homes. It is up there with all the other important issues that are happening."

Both Ms Lee and Dr Barrett encourage people to get involved with the campaign or to sign the OWN NSW petition asking the Royal Commission to investigate further into the issue. 

To find out more about the project, head to the websites of Opal Institute, Celebrate Ageing or OWN NSW 

If you want to get involved, post a picture of your shoes on your social media using the hashtags - #walkwithher, #olderwomencount and #inhershoes.

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