Back to All News

Speech: International Aid (Promoting Gender Equality) Bill 2015 Second Reading

Speeches in Parliament
Lee Rhiannon 5 Mar 2015

Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (12:46):

I move: That this bill be now read a second time. I table an explanatory memorandum and seek leave to have the second reading speech incorporated in Hansard. Leave granted.

The speech read as follows-

I am very happy to speak today in support of the Greens Bill, the International Aid (Promoting Gender Equality) Bill 2015. If passed, this Bill would help to put Australia's aid program back on track. The measures set out in this legislation give guidance to an aid program which has lost its way in terms of funding and purpose.

An important aspect of the Bill is that it requires the Minister to report on how funds were spent, and how these funds help to promote gender equality. The assumption that simply increasing economic activity will benefit people in low income countries fails to recognise the specific historical and cultural bases for gender inequality.

The measures set out in this Bill are needed to help recalibrate Australian aid to meet the needs of women and girls in low income countries. In some cases, projects with the simple aim of increasing economic activity may actually exacerbate gender inequality.

This Bill seeks to make the Minister accountable. It clearly sets out that those who determine how our aid money is spent must take into account how specific projects will help reduce gender inequality.

I have been involved with the aid sector for over two decades, and it has been a sad journey to see the direction taken by both the Labor and Coalition governments in recent years. This year, however, has been one of the most disturbing. Off the back of the biggest cuts to the aid budget in history, and the subsuming of AusAid into the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, there has been a lot of talk about the importance of gender equity in relation to aid. Minister Julie Bishop speaks with passion about the needs and rights of women and girls in low income countries. She claims gender equality as one of the key tenets of her approach to aid.

Minister Bishop's own words underline why this Bill should be passed. In a booklet produced by the Department of Foreign Affairs, she states:

'The Australian Government gives priority to gender equality and women's empowerment in our foreign policy and in our overseas aid program. We recognise that one of the best ways to promote economic growth and to achieve stronger communities and societies is to empower women and girls.'

In a 2011 address to the Committee for Economic Development of Australia, Minister Bishop said:

'I believe that as more women around the world take on leadership positions - in their communities, countries, across continents - the impact of female leadership will be profound.'

In 2012, Minister Bishop was quoted as saying:

'Report after report, survey after survey, indicates the absolute truth that investment in gender equality yields the highest returns of all the development investment we can make.'

Early this year, discussing the impact of the aid cuts on gender equality, Minister Bishop told the Sydney Morning Herald:

'I will continue to work closely with Australia's Ambassador for Women and Girls, Natasha Stott Despoja, to ensure the challenges facing women are addressed.'

This is the opportunity for Minister Bishop and the Coalition to back up these public claims and ensure women and girls in low income countries are not left with a few photo opportunities and pages of rhetoric to show for the years of a Coalition government. This Bill is intended to ensure that the little aid money we have is spent to benefit the most vulnerable.

There is a great deal of research on the need for aid to be focussed on community based outcomes with a particular emphasis on women and children. Minister Bishop clearly has many who agree with her on this issue. However, there is a major flaw in the Minister's position as her comments go hand in hand with the policy that Australian aid must deliver for our national interest. Blind faith in the marketplace cannot close the gender gap in low income countries.

The Australian government's policy shift from poverty alleviation to the national interest being the key driver of Australia's overseas aid is just the 1990s trickle-down theory of economic growth with a new coat of rhetoric.

In some regions of the Pacific, the prominence of the informal sector, male dominance and domestic violence are real barriers that prevent women (and often their children) benefitting from aid and development programs. Aid programs need to be culturally sensitive, and they need to have active participation of women in their design and implementation. That is the focus of this legislation.

As we reach the end point of the Millennium Development Goals it is timely to note that there have been a number of problems with reaching the third goal, which is to promote gender equality and empower women. This Bill encourages a twin track approach to this problem. It encourages those responsible for the aid budget to address gender inequality through specific programs, as well as ensuring that all programs funded by the department, which may focus on more general aims, will also help reduce gender inequality. By ensuring that any assessment of programs for which we provide aid funding will improve gender equality, we will be making a real commitment to this issue.

It is well-known that women disproportionately bear the cost of the problems of poverty. The International Women's Development Agency has provided some startling information to the recent Senate Inquiry on our aid budget. They noted that the Pacific has the highest incidence of violence against women in the world. In some of these nations, more than 60% of women who have ever been married have experienced physical or sexual violence from a partner. These statistics are a terrible burden for the women, and they are also a cost for their economies in terms of lost income from work absences as well as health. The solutions to this problem are complex, but in particular they need to be addressed through community engagement and women's empowerment.

A starting point would be to increase women's access to education. As we know the ability to access education is hampered by both costs as well as cultural expectation. Twice as many girls as boys fail to attend school. Among illiterate adults there are twice as many women as men. When women are as well educated as men, they have greater self-esteem and greater potential to contribute economically. Gender gaps in education are estimated to cost the Asia and Pacific region up to US $30 billion a year. This Bill would encourage the department to fund aid projects which will increase women's education, offering them a stronger base for participation in both the workforce and the community.

We know, too, that there are problems in developing communities relating to women's access to resources. Turning again to the International Women's Development Agency, their analysis says that if women had the same access to productive resources as men, farm yield could be improved by 20-30%. If women were to work in the same types of jobs as men, average output would be 7-18% higher. There are further benefits from women's participation in the economy, which is that when women earn more money, there is a stronger flow on to improvements in children's health than if the same money were being earned by a man.

But as women enter these arenas, ongoing support is needed. Initiatives supporting women in leadership and peer mentoring programs are crucial to assisting this. These must always, however, be carried out in partnership with the women, and empowering them to take control. This is where Australia's aid programs have a key role to play.

There are many such excellent initiatives that are already being funded by the government, such as the Pacific Women Shaping Pacific Development and the 'We Rise' programs in Fiji. This Bill would encourage more of these types of initiatives that are guided by the recipients themselves.

It is important to note that improving the outcomes for women and girls is extremely unlikely to happen unless it is specifically prioritised and funded. By contrast, we have seen under both Labor and Coalition governments that cuts to the aid budget disproportionately impact on programs that are aimed at assisting women. Under Labor in 2013, 61% of the $375.1 million that was cut from the aid budget came from programs affecting women.

The massive cuts we have just seen under the Coalition are shaping up to be even worse. While Minister Bishop made claims that we would have 'a generous aid program that puts Australia among the top 10 donors in the OECD world', we are now, according to the Australia Council for International Development, a paltry 19 out of 28.

A recent analysis by Plan International has uncovered shocking figures on the impact of these cuts. In terms of education, they say there could be 220,000 fewer girls enrolling in school in the next financial year; 750,000 fewer textbooks for girls; and more than 3000 fewer classrooms built or renovated. 150,000 girls are at risk of having access to safe drinking water cut off, and 400,000 fewer girls may be immunised.

There can be no doubt, for all of Ms Bishop's talk, the Coalition are not looking after women and children in poorer nations.

The Coalition's concept of 'economic diplomacy' both normalises the idea that aid should be used to advance the interests of the donor country as well as implying that economic objectives will help everyone in the recipient nation.

Part of this platform includes an increased focus on 'aid for trade' programs. Minister Bishop and other government and often opposition spokespersons assert that trade between nations will help alleviate poverty. This is the trickle down theory and the backers of this flawed policy are hard pressed to find evidence to support this claim. As Anna Gero, a senior research consultant at Sydney's University of Technology, has noted, these macro interventions are not aimed at helping the poorest members of these nations. Rather, they are aimed at those who are already active in the economy.

For women, who in many of these nations contribute outside of the formal economy, these initiatives have very little benefit. How, then, do we make sense of these two apparent priorities? We have the government claiming on one hand that gender equality is a priority and on the other that aid for trade is a cornerstone of our new economic paradigm. There is a distinct lack of clarity and lack of transparency here. This is why this Bill is so important.

We should note that there is very little evidence that just raising the economic bar will help women, as seems to be presumed by the Minister. To give a specific example, we can look to India. The economic reforms begun in India in 1991 under the umbrella of 'modernisation' were also aimed specifically at economic growth. But what we see in India is that while they have had growth, the historical and cultural differences embedded in the caste system are not overcome by this.

Indeed, the push towards economic liberalisation and its concurrent reduction in the public sector as well as welfare provisions further entrench gender inequality. Rachel Kurian, an Assistant Professor at Erasmus University reports that research released in 2012 on the Dalit women has shown that issues related to caste and patriarchy have been made worse through this process. So the assumption that increased economic activity will help everyone is highly problematic. Put simply, the problems women face are not only economic, they are complex and require careful, participatory solutions that are more than simply an increase in economic activity.

For example, let us look at the Mining for Development initiative. This initiative, set up by the Gillard government in 2010, is theoretically aimed at helping developing countries become 'safer' 'miners'. It opens up developing nations to the Australian mining industry, as well as funding research which is aimed essentially at greenwashing the impact of mining. This occurs in the face of widespread local opposition to mining.

Of deep concern is that we seem to have not learned any lessons from the past. I note that Australian aid money is being used to assist Rio Tinto in reopening the Panguna mine in Bougainville. This mine has an extremely dark history. The Bougainville people suffered land appropriation, the poisoning of their rivers and worse. When villagers resisted in 1989 the PNG military responded. Citizens faced years of horrifying attacks involving internment camps, aerial bombing, assassinations and rape. Children were killed by mortar attacks. There was a blockade on humanitarian assistance. Rio Tinto and some Australian authorities have been linked with these crimes.

The actions of Rio Tinto on Bougainville and Australia's role in the Panguna mine have been to the detriment of women and girls on that island. Minister Bishop's fine words cannot change this harsh reality.

Again under this Coalition government Australia is assisting Rio Tinto. Women there, however, are resisting this move and have set conditions on the reopening of the mine which should be met. Papua New Guinea Mine Watch has report that the women have demanded:

- that the mine be 100% owned by the people of Bougainville;

- that Rio Tinto pay compensation for the lives already lost and other outstanding issues including cleaning up the on-going environmental damage; and

- that people displaced by the mine be properly relocated.

These women have learnt about what it's like to be living with a mine owned by a multinational, and they are not going to stand by and let it happen again.

These are some of the issues that Minister Bishop should address if she is concerned about women and girls in low income countries. To turn her fine words on women and girls into meaningful, effective actions the Minister should stand with these women, not with Rio Tinto.

In so many of these places where mining companies barge in, they displace people living off the land and remove their autonomy. And it's the women and children who suffer most. The women often lose their livelihood, their access to water, their food. Research from the Australian National University has found that the job opportunities in these situations for women were limited, and that the displacement meant they lost their authority in their families. Evidence of any benefits for women from these mining projects are very limited. On the contrary, they destroy local cultures and disempower communities.

This is what we saw with the Cambodia Railway Project, where a $143 million project to repair a railroad in Cambodia forced the relocation of more than 3,000 people. This project was funded by AusAid and the Asian Development Bank. The relocation was a disaster, prompting an investigation by the Asian Development Bank's Compliance Review Panel. The problems were many. Families were moved 20 to 30 kilometres from their place of employment, access to medicine became a problem, and services were poor.

The Asian Development Bank's review found that plans to pay special attention to woman-headed families and enact a gender specific consultation program throughout the development simply did not occur. The report suggested these women should also be provided financial compensation for the damage incurred by the project. This project is a shameful mark on the record for Australian aid, and is the exact type of practice that this legislation seeks to avoid. An important aspect of the Bill is the requirement for the Minister to report on how funds were spent, and how these funds helped to promote gender equality. This seeks to make the Minister accountable, in the hope that the types of mistakes made in the Cambodia Railway Project are not repeated.

It is clear from these examples that our aid paradigm is somewhat contradictory. Ahead of International Women's Day we can see that there is developing agreement around the importance of gender equality. The Greens Bill provides a pathway to remove the contradiction in our aid program and lock in a commitment to gender equality as an essential plank in the country's aid program.

The current proposed Sustainable Development Goals, which will be agreed upon in September next year, include a demand for women and girls. It states in part: 'achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls'.

This will require a concerted effort from us all. The Greens Bill now before the Senate represents a significant step to ensuring our words on closing the gender gap become reality. I urge all Senators support this Bill.

Senator RHIANNON: I seek leave to continue my remarks later.

Leave granted; debate adjourned.

Back to All News