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Speech: International Womens Day

Speeches in Parliament
Lee Rhiannon 29 Feb 2012

Adjournment speech, Wednesday 29 February 2012

Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (19:41): All women should have the right to access abortion services with privacy and dignity and without harassment and intimidation. As we approach International Women's Day, this issue remains very relevant. Over the past week, just a few blocks from my office in Sydney, there has been a gaggle of protesters stationed outside an abortion clinic. There is a very large banner urging people to pray and fast for an end to abortion, and there are leaflets. I can only guess what disturbing images and guilt-making rhetoric they may contain.

This clinic and others throughout Australia are being targeted as part of the 40 Days for Life campaign. This campaign was started in 2007 by a US based antichoice group. It calls for people to spend the 40 days of Lent praying outside abortion clinics. On the website they list their so-called achievements since 2007: 21 abortion facilities completely shut down following local 40 Days for Life campaigns; 61 abortion workers have quit their jobs and walked away from the abortion industry; and reports document 5,045 lives have been spared from abortion.

In 1980 I was working with some women's organisations and was also part of the New South Wales Women's Advisory Council. I was often approached about this very issue. I vividly remember taking calls from extremely distressed women who had faced lines of protesters and had been harassed, intimidated, often abused and sometimes obstructed from walking to and from clinics, all because they had made the choice to visit an abortion centre. It is 20 years on and it is deeply sad that not much seems to have changed. The decision to have an abortion is not easy for women. Women and their partners deserve privacy, dignity and security when visiting clinics.

Governments in parts of Canada and the US have sought to limit the presence of protesters through what have become known as 'bubble zones'. Bubble zone legislation creates a physical zone around a clinic that protesters may not enter or where there are conditions on speech or action. Their purpose is to provide for the safety of patients and workers at abortion clinics, ensure safe access to health care and ensure privacy and dignity for those involved. Acting to create bubble zones would be a proactive and clear step that governments and local councils around Australia could take up to protect women's rights. In response to 40 Days for Life, there is a growing movement of women turning 40 Days for Life into '40 days of treats', taking baked treats into the clinics for workers and patients to show solidarity and hopefully go some way to neutralising the effect of having to run the gauntlet outside. I congratulate these women and, when I get back to Sydney, I will certainly take a baked treat up the road, past the protesters, the banner and the leaflets, and through the front door. I would like to move on to the issue of International Women's Day. As a woman MP, I have many reasons to celebrate International Women's Day. One hundred and two years ago, courageous women kicked off what today is arguably the most famous and influential of international events. Reflecting on the history of International Women's Day is a reminder of how equality for women has been won through struggle and sacrifice. I pay tribute to our forebears who have campaigned for women's rights. It is a great credit to these women, and the men that have supported their campaigns, that today people of diverse political persuasions come together to mark IWD. It is a day that has a rich and proud history. It has been a century of sacrifices and achievements.

International Women's Day was initiated as a strategy to promote equal rights. The proposal was put forward in August 1910 at an international women's conference that preceded the general meeting of the socialist Second International in Copenhagen. The 8th of March was chosen, as on the same date in 1848 the King of Prussia had promised votes for women. Interestingly, though, the promise had been made but not kept and so the women decided to revive that date. Clara Zetkin, a famous leader of the social democrat women's movement in Germany, moved the motion. In March 1911, the first IWD rallies were held and our sisters certainly went into action. History records that over one million participated in rallies and meetings in Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland. In Vienna, women honoured the martyrs in the Paris Commune. Today, International Women's Day is celebrated around the world and is a national holiday in many countries, including Afghanistan, Russia, China, Uganda, Madagascar, Cuba and many countries in Central and South-East Asia.

Born at a time of great social turbulence and crisis, International Women's Day has a rich history of protest and political activism. At the beginning of the 20th century, women in industrially developing countries were entering paid work in large numbers. The jobs were sex segregated, mainly in textiles, manufacturing and domestic services, where conditions were shameful and wages were low. Many of the changes taking place in women's lives pushed against the political restrictions surrounding them.

The first IWD event in Australia took place in Sydney's Domain on 25 March 1928. Organised by the Militant Women's Movement, the key demands were for equal pay for equal work, an eight-hour day for shop workers, no piecework, the basic wage for the unemployed and annual holidays on full pay. The movement spread, especially among trade union women. Equal pay, including for servicewomen, became a major issue during the war years from 1940 to 1945. IWD was a continuing vehicle for discussion about the key issues of equal pay and child care, but the main emphasis was on the war effort, including support for women's resistance in occupied countries and campaigns such as Medical Aid to Russia. In 1944, issues such as housing and education and the rights of Aboriginal women were being raised at IWD events.

In the years after the war, women's pay rates were generally set at 75 per cent of the male rate. Many of the comprehensive full-day nurseries and other childcare centres which had appeared during the war started disappearing, with federal funding being cut to such projects. These discriminatory practices were taken up by International Women's Day committees.

This brings us to the Cold War period. During the 1950s, politics of all kinds were played out against a background of intolerance and dwindling democratic practice. It was a time during which anticommunism was used to smother political dissent or to vilify opponents. A one-off development was that left and radical groups, including International Women's Day committees, were often refused the use of public halls.

I remember International Women's Day rallies in the 1960s and the early 1970s, when small groups of women rallied in Australian cities. They often faced bigotry, harassment and discrimination when they celebrated and protested to mark International Women's Day. I would like to thank some of the women who were involved and inspired me throughout my political life: Mary Wright, Ina Heidtman, Audrey Macdonald, Joyce Stevens, Freda Brown, Edna Ryan, Paula Sharkey, Jessie Street, Vera Deacon, Kath Walker, Henrietta Greville and Della Elliott. Their contributions to women's struggle has been immense.

International Women's Day continues in so many forms. An exciting year that I remember was 1975 because it was in the previous year that International Women's Day was for the first time officially recognised, and it was by the Gough Whitlam government. Then, in 1975, the start of International Women's Decade, thousands and thousands of women came to the streets for the first time in such large numbers in Australia to celebrate International Women's Day.

Now International Women's Day provides a common day for globally recognising and celebrating women's achievements. As I said in my opening remarks, there is still so much to be done to ensure that women's full equality is achieved in terms of our rights at work, our rights in the home, our health rights and our education rights. But I do warmly congratulate the women who have achieved so much for those of us who stand here today.

Attached below: Report on 'bubble zones'.


Attached Files
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