MELBOURNE, Australia — Wearing black and holding signs reading “enough is enough,” thousands took to the streets across Australia on Monday to protest violence and discrimination against women, as a reckoning in the country’s halls of power sparked by multiple rape allegations continued to grow.
The marches in at least 40 cities represented an outpouring of anger from women about a problem that has gone unaddressed for too long, said the organizers, who estimated that 110,000 people attended the demonstrations nationwide.
With the next national election potentially coming as early as August, experts say it is something that the conservative government, which has come under stinging criticism for the way it has handled the allegations, ignores at its own peril.
The public anger over violence against women mirrored sentiments on display in London last weekend. There, thousands joined protests over the killing of 33-year-old Sarah Everard, who disappeared while walking home at night earlier this month.
In Australia, the message to the government was that “there are huge numbers of women around the country that have had enough, quite frankly, of their appalling response to sexual assault and harassment,” said Janine Hendry, the main organizer of the marches. “We want change and we want it now.”
In Canberra, Australia’s capital, the police estimated that 5,000 to 6,000 protesters gathered Monday on the lawn outside Parliament House, where legislators meet.
Brittany Higgins, a former political aide whose allegation that she was raped in Parliament House in 2019 rocked the nation’s halls of power and prompted Monday’s marches, appeared at the Canberra protest. She said that there was a “horrible societal acceptance” of sexual violence in Australia.
“My story was on the front page for the sole reason that it was a painful reminder to women that if it can happen in Parliament House, it can truly happen anywhere,” she said.
She said she had felt treated like a “political problem” after she disclosed her assault to colleagues in the governing center-right Liberal Party. “I was raped inside Parliament House by a colleague, and for so long it felt like the people around me only cared because of where it happened and what it might mean for them,” she said.
On the other side of the doors of Parliament House, Prime Minister Scott Morrison drew jeers from the opposition Labor Party. On Sunday, he declined to join the protests and instead invited a small delegation of organizers to meet with him in his office.
The organizers refused, saying on Twitter: “We have already come to the front door, now it’s up to the government to cross the threshold and come to us. We will not be meeting behind closed doors.”
The prime minister told Parliament that the government “understands and shares the frustrations of women and men across the country.”
But he called for unity. “We must not let our frustration with the failure to achieve so many of the results we would hope for to undermine the unity needed to continue our shared progress,” Mr. Morrison said.
The opposition leader, Anthony Albanese, and a number of senior Labor leaders, as well as a handful of Liberal ministers, attended the march in Canberra.
Australia’s next federal election must be held by May 2022, and experts said the marches around the country should sound a warning for the governing Liberal Party.
Its leader, Mr. Morrison, has been criticized after saying that the gravity of Ms. Higgins’s accusation hit him only after his wife had told him to imagine that one of their daughters had been assaulted. And his defense minister, Linda Reynolds, settled a defamation complaint and agreed to pay damages to Ms. Higgins after calling her a “lying cow.”
“A government that’s been described as having a ‘women problem’ for several years is now really in trouble with women,” said Sarah Maddison, a politics professor at the University of Melbourne.
“I can’t remember a time I’ve seen and personally experienced the level of distress women are experiencing now,” she said. “I think there’s something here with this level of distress that is producing quite an extraordinary moment in our politics.”
Support for the Liberal Party has been slowly declining among women for years, said Sarah Cameron, a lecturer in politics at the University of Sydney, although it was not enough to stop the party from winning the last federal election in 2019. Dr. Cameron added that the party “ignores this trend at their peril.”
In Sydney, organizers estimated that at least 10,000 people gathered in the central business district.
There, Michael Bradley, the lawyer for a now-deceased woman who had said she was sexually assaulted in 1988 by a man who is currently a member of Parliament, called for reforming the justice system. Earlier this month, Attorney General Christian Porter, 50, confirmed that he was the subject of the allegation.
Mr. Porter has strongly denied the allegation, and the police said earlier this month that it had closed an investigation, citing a lack of evidence.
The woman died by suicide last year. It is not known if her death was related to her rape accusation.
“It is not fair that the whole burden of the system is on survivors,” Mr. Bradley said.
In Melbourne, organizers unrolled a banner listing the names of women and children who have died as a result of gender-based violence since 2008. Protesters chanted “to hell with the patriarchy.” Organizers estimated that at least 5,000 people attended — the maximum number allowed under the state’s coronavirus restrictions.
“We’re here today because for some reason men are still able to control us,” said Ebonie Grinlaubs, 21, a bartender. “We start on the streets, we start marching, and eventually it gets all the way to the top.”
“In the 1970s and 80s we were doing this work, and we’re still doing it now,” said Jill Wilson, an 62-year-old educator who said she had been campaigning for women’s rights for decades. “It’s time for men and women to make change,” she said.
The marches happened on the same day that Mr. Porter started a defamation lawsuit against the Australian Broadcasting Corporation over an online article about the 33-year-old assault allegation. The statement of claim filed by his lawyers said that the article, which did not name Mr. Porter, made defamatory imputations.
In an email statement, the ABC said it “will be defending the action.”