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Speech: United Nations, Violence Against Women

Speeches in Parliament
Lee Rhiannon 19 Mar 2013

Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (17:07): by leave—I thank Minister Collins for reporting back on 57th session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women in New York, particularly on the important issue of working to prevent violence against women both in Australia and internationally. Violence against women is endemic and should be a critical issue for governments. One shocking fact helps to spell out why: more women between the ages of 15 and 44 are killed by violence each year than by malaria, HIV, cancer, accidents and war combined. Another to illustrate the point: some 603 million women currently live in countries where there is no law against domestic violence.

I understand that the 17-page communique agreed upon in New York was particularly hard won in the face of opposition by conservative member states and groups such as Iran, Russia, Syria and the Vatican, with some taking issue with, for example, language suggesting a husband does not have the right to rape his wife. US pro-life groups set themselves against the statement because it claimed women have a right to their own bodies. Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood claimed:

The declaration, if ratified, would lead to complete disintegration of society…

This is a puzzling response considering the statement covers sharing of roles within families between men and women such as child care and home chores, and removing the need for a husband's consent to travel, work or use contraception.

The communique involved months of lobbying and weeks of tough negotiations. The level of concern about the conservative push-back at what most rational people would see as no-brainer statements about women's rights is witnessed in the statement of feminists and women's organisations from around the world, issued on International Women's Day this year. The groups included Catholics for the Right to Decide Mexico and Women's Front Norway. These many groups reflected an alarming trend to try to negotiate away women's rights and freedoms during negotiation on the language in the outcome document.

In the face of such opposition, Minister Collins is correct to conclude that this year's UN Commission on the Status of Women produced a landmark agreement, particularly as the year before there was no outcome document agreed upon at all.

It is a breakthrough. The participants agreed that custom, tradition or religious consideration should play no part in denying women equal rights or justifying violence against them. The documents call for an end to harmful traditional practices, such as child marriage, and to ensure that governments do the hard yards in working to meet the needs of marginalised groups like female migrant workers, women with disabilities, older women and indigenous women, which is also important. Promoting gender equality, women's empowerment and women's reproductive rights and access to sexual and reproductive services are all goals of the agreement, a key to achieving equity for women across the globe. The challenge now is for nations to act to implement the resolutions, not leave them gathering dust in the bottom drawer.

Senator Collins's statement also discussed Australia's work on the women, peace and security agenda, which she says was a priority for Australia during our term on the UN Security Council. What Senator Collins omitted to note was the history behind Australia's national action plan for the implementation of UN Security Council resolution 1325, dealing with women, peace and security. Sadly, it seemed this resolution was never actually a priority for Australia, as the senator suggested. This is a very important resolution. It affirms the important role of women in the prevention and resolution of conflicts, peace negotiations, peace building, peacekeeping, humanitarian response and in post-conflict reconstruction. It stresses the importance of their equal participation and full involvement of all efforts for the maintenance and promotion of peace and security. Yet it took Australia 11 years to issue a draft action plan for consultation—yes, 11 years to come up with a draft action plan. What a failure by Labor and the coalition to act on women's rights.

At the last estimates hearings, in February, I asked the branch manager of the Office for Women to explain what actually happened and why we dragged our heels when producing Australia's plan. Ms Steele revealed that Australia was still in the early stages of the implementation. I found out that we are yet to develop or issue monitoring and evaluation criteria, so we are still a long way from knowing whether our fledging plan may in future make—or may have already made—a difference. Ms Steele did try to reassure me that there were measures in place prior to the plan being finalised: just because we did not have a plan did not mean that actions were not already being undertaken. But when I asked Ms Steele to explain what the measures were, what has been done and how far advanced things were, Ms Steele was forced to take my questions on notice.

The Greens are a little concerned that in reality not much has been achieved at a domestic level. We examined a number of government speeches on Australia's priorities for our term on the UN Security Council, and we were unable to even find any specific mention of resolution 1325, dealing with peace and security issues. I hope this does not reflect a general lack of commitment to Australia playing its part in ending violence against women around the globe, considering that around the world at least one woman in every three has been beaten, coerced into sex or otherwise abused in her lifetime—one in three.

We know there is a need to do much more internationally and domestically to end violence against women. On International Women's Day, just passed, leading feminist Ms Anne Summers publically called for governments to treat violence against women as a crime epidemic and devote to it the kinds of resources they would mobilise if this were, say, a terrorist attack. She also suggested proper labelling of crimes to ensure we know the extent of the epidemic and zero tolerance towards those individuals who are convicted of crimes of violence against women. Finally, she suggested never forgetting the women who have died in this epidemic.

An estimated 1.2 million women around Australia over the age of 15 have experienced domestic or family violence. The negative effects of violence against women—physical, emotional and economic—must be addressed through adequately funded, appropriate health and education programs. In recent times the Australian Greens have been campaigning to broaden discrimination laws, to introduce domestic and family violence as a separate form of discrimination, and to see the federal government inject funding to provide women across the nation to access Victoria's award-winning Bsafe program, which provides personal safety alarms to women and children at risk of domestic violence, linking them to emergency services and allowing them to remain in their homes. We all need to do more to help women and children to live lives free from violence, and support them to remain living where they are, to avoid homelessness that can result from domestic violence.

Successive coalition and Labor governments for 11 years have dragged the chain on developing a national action plan in response to UN requirements. This is an international embarrassment. Now is the time for Australia to pick up its game on women's rights and work with other progressive governments to resist those countries blocking change to improve women's rights and in some cases attempting to turn back the clock to overturn women's rights. A key test of the worth of Australia's role on the Security Council will be our work for women's rights in Australia and globally. The Greens will be watching closely. Thank you.

Question agreed to.

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