The attack of a woman who was on her regular run in a forest in Victoria’s Central Highlands has triggered calls from anti-violence advocacy groups for Australia to shift its attitude towards women.
Indigenous rights campaigner, Djab Wurrung woman Sissy Austin, was jogging in the Lal Lal State Forest – about 20 minutes south-east of Ballarat – late on Saturday afternoon when she was attacked by an unknown man.
Sissy Austin was attacked during her run in Lal Lal State Forest on Saturday.Credit:Facebook
Speaking outside the Ballarat Police Station on Tuesday afternoon, detective senior sergeant Tony Coxall said Austin – who was wearing headphones at the time – was about halfway through her eight-kilometre run when the stranger suddenly appeared on her right side holding what appeared to be a rock tied to a branch.
“It was like a flash from her right-hand side, and then she saw the weapon, and next thing she knows she’s unconscious,” Coxall said of the series of events.
When Austin awoke, the man had fled the scene, she said.
She said she ran four kilometres back to her car, where she called emergency services. She was eventually taken to Ballarat Base Hospital with non-life-threatening injuries, including a concussion and facial swelling and bruising.
The offender was “rough-looking”, according to Austin’s reports to the police. Coxall said the authorities had not ruled out the possibility that he was homeless or camping in the area, and were still unsure whether it was a planned or opportunistic assault.
Coxall said it seemed to be a “one-off situation” in a remote area that is usually safe. He appealed to tourists and locals to come forward with any relevant information or dashcam footage from the day of the incident.
“They were horrific injuries. Anyone that loses consciousness is at risk of losing their life. So we take it serious[ly].”
Police are now combing the area for the weapon and have increased patrols, but recommend that people run in pairs while the investigation is ongoing.
On Sunday, Austin posted on social media that she had been cleared to return home but was still in shock and nursing a “massive throbbing headache”.
“Women should be able to safely go for a f—ing run in this colony,” she wrote.
Police said the offender appeared to be a Caucasian male who was wearing black jeans, a cap and no shoes or shirt at the time of the assault.
Austin was one of the inaugural members of the First Peoples’ Assembly of Victoria and was a Greens senate candidate in the 2022 election.
Austin told the ABC she felt she had lost her safe place and that it would take her some time before she could return to the area.
“That place is my safe, go-to place. I feel like I’m [now] grieving that place,” she told the broadcaster.
Allan Ball, national director of anti-violence advocacy group White Ribbon Australia, said incidents like these were horrendous and that perpetrators had to be held accountable in a meaningful way if anything is to change.
“Instead of framing it as women need to protect themselves, the focus should be on holding those perpetrators to account for their actions and behaviours,” Ball said.
“Anyone should be able to go about as they feel safely. Simply being part of their local community shouldn’t impact them … just because somebody’s taken the opportunity to hurt, harm or cause abuse.”
The attack on Austin follows a number of similar attacks across Australia over the last few years.
In December, a woman was grabbed and pulled to the ground while jogging in Sydney’s west.
Six months ago, West Australian police investigated the sexual assault of a woman who was grabbed by a man during her morning run in Broome.
In July 2021, another woman was attacked by a stranger during her run in Perth. The man was caught and sentenced to two years and four months in jail.
Ball said gendered power imbalances and a growing culture of disrespect contributed towards these types of incidents, two things that need to be addressed regardless of the discomfort they may cause.
According to Ball, certain offenders – who are disproportionately male – feel entitled to assert their dominance over women during moments of perceived vulnerability, such as going for a run or waiting for a taxi.
“All of us have the responsibility to shift our attitudes, rethink gendered stereotypes and power structures that perpetuate violence,” he said.
“We also need to promote a culture of that tolerates respect and that puts other people’s needs before oneself. So disrespect, sexual harassment, violence against women, these opportunistic assaults against women going about their everyday lives, it needs to stop. Enough is enough.”
Anyone who witnessed the incident or with dashcam footage or CCTV is urged to call Crime Stoppers on 1800 333 000 or log onto www.crimestoppersvic.com.au
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