Speech by The Hon Tanya Pibersek MP

Speech to UNIFEM AGM

Location: Reserve Bank Training Centre, Sydney



Thank you Ros (Strong, President, Australian National Committee for UNIFEM).

It is great to be here on United Nations Day – an excellent way to remind us of the ideas of peace and harmony the United Nations promotes.

I, like UNIFEM, believe that not only raising awareness, but actually addressing issues surrounding gender inequality and security for women, are vital in improving the lives of all females.

The Government’s, and UNIFEM’s priorities are closely aligned.

My three priority areas for improving Australian women’s lives include economic outcomes for women, reducing violence against women and promoting equality.

The Government is a strong supporter of UNIFEM Australia – Prime Minister Kevin Rudd is a UNIFEM Australia patron.

Economic security

Since the election last year, I have been working hard to deliver on the Government’s commitments to improve the lives of Australian women.

Women continue to suffer poorer economic outcomes than men. This is largely because of unpaid women’s caring roles make it difficult for women to participate fully in paid work.

But discrimination remains an issue.

From the moment a woman enters the workforce she is likely to earn less than her male colleagues; regardless of her career, industry or level.

Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Agency research shows that male graduates are commencing employment on a median salary of $45,000 while female graduates are starting work on $3,000 p.a. less than that.

The result is that women continue to be less financially independent in retirement than men.

Recent figures show that almost half of women retirees rely on their partner’s income as their main source of income.

We need to do more to make sure that women and men’s choices in life are not limited only because of their sex. I want to see some real change in improving women’s economic security. We are implementing a wide range of initiatives, for example making our industrial relations system more balanced, to address this.


It’s also absolutely vital that we work to reduce both the impact and the incidence of violence against women.

No violence is acceptable and it is distressing to know this problem is still so prevalent in our society.

Australian Bureau of Statistics data reveals that one in three women will experience physical violence in their lifetime, and one in five women will experience sexual assault.

As many of you are already aware, in May this year, the Prime Minister and I announced the formation of an eleven member National Council charged with the responsibility for developing a National Plan to Reduce Violence Against Women and their Children.

It is my pleasure to see the Chair of the National Council, Libby Lloyd, present tonight.

Libby has made an outstanding contribution to Australian and international civil society. During her tenure as President of UNIFEM Australia, Libby’s commitment to advancing women’s human rights drove the expansion of Australia’s White Ribbon campaign.

The Council is doing an excellent job of developing an innovative, evidence based National Plan that will enable all levels of government and the community to:

  • better support victims of violence;
  • ensure that the legal system is effective; and
  • reduce violence for future generations.

I look forward to receiving the draft plan in December.

United Nations

In addition to working to improve the lives of Australian women, the Government is also committed to Australia, again, playing an integral role in the international community.

Australia is re-engaging on an international stage through its alliance with the USA, engagement with Asia and its commitment to multilateral organisations.

While Australia’s population is quite small compared to that of many other countries, we are in the top 15 largest economies.

In terms of living standards, measured by income per capita, we are among the top 20 countries.

As such, the importance of our country taking leadership on human rights is unquestionable.

Australia is deservedly proud of our long standing record promoting and advocating for human rights.

Indeed Australia has been instrumental in pushing for stronger human and women’s rights since the UN was established so many years ago.

For example, Jessie Street, Australia’s only female delegate to the UN founding conference in 1945 was instrumental in the establishment of a permanent Commission on the Status of Women within the United Nations.

She also assisted in the successful insertion of the word ‘sex’ in the clause ‘without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion’ wherever it occurs in the Charter of the United Nations.

In her biography Truth or Repose she wrote, “The basic principle” of the UN Charter “was the sovereign equality of all member nations, and the settlement of all disputes by peaceful means.”

Three years after the establishment of the UN in 1948, another exemplary Australian, H.V. ‘Doc’ Evatt, played a crucial role in the establishment of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

At the time, the relationship between human rights and peace and security was made profoundly apparent by the events of two world wars.

Doc Evatt had much to say about human rights and equality and was instrumental in forging a strong relationship between Australia and the UN.

10 December of this year marks the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights. This anniversary provides an ongoing opportunity to consider the protection and promotion of human rights in Australia.

It also serves as a reminder of the work yet to be done.

Rudd Government and human rights

The Rudd Government considers human rights and the rule of law as cornerstones of our system of government and society.

That’s why our commitment to human rights begins at home.

During the election, we committed to removing same-sex discrimination from a wide range of Commonwealth laws.

Much of this reform is currently before the Parliament and the Government is hopeful that all of the changes will be implemented by mid-2009.

The Government also committed itself to consulting the Australian people on the further protection of human rights and responsibilities.

The 2020 Summit convened by the Prime Minister earlier this year confirmed what we suspected – human rights are very much a contemporary concern.

Robert McClelland, the Attorney General is currently working through arrangements for the consultation.

Ultimately, the consultation will seek community views on how best to protect and promote human rights and responsibilities.

A range of options will be canvassed, and any new approach to human rights that follows will be drawn from the views of the Australian people.

With regard to women’s rights specifically, we have been celebrating a momentous occasion this year.

August marked the 25th anniversary of Australia’s ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).

In those 25 years, much has been done to advance women’s rights in Australia.

In particular, CEDAW provided the authority and momentum required to introduce legislation, such as the Sex Discrimination Act, which in 1984 made discrimination against women illegal.

But we can still do more.

The Rudd Government is now taking another important step for the rights of women in Australia.

Last week, the National Interest Analysis the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties recommended that Australia accede to the Optional Protocol to CEDAW.

Australia’s accession to this Protocol would enable Australian women to complain directly to the United Nations if they feel that their Government is not meeting its international obligations in protecting and promoting gender equality under CEDAW.

We are confident that Australia’s laws and practices do meet our international obligations.

It is high time Australia stood up to our international human rights responsibilities and imposed on ourselves the same high standards we expect of our neighbours.

It is our hope that, before the end of the year, we will be able to lodge our instrument of accession to this important Protocol.

I am also finalising Australia’s next report on our implementation of CEDAW and plan to lodge it with the UN before the end of the year.

UNIFEM helping developing countries implement CEDAW

We recognise in Australia that there is more to be done to strengthen our human rights.

It must be recognised, however, that compared with international standards we are now well and truly on the right track.

Some of our female sisters living in neighbouring countries are fighting uphill battles to improve the lives of women in their regions.

That’s why the work of UNIFEM is so important.

UNIFEM is helping developing countries implement CEDAW.

Your programs are helping to equip women with the necessary skills and development to translate CEDAW into a context relevant for their nations.

For example, UNIFEM’s presence in Indonesia supports the passage of an amendment to the Law on Political Parties to require new parties to have at least 30 per cent female membership and women must also comprise 30 per cent of managerial and political appointments.

These changes demonstrate the great work and impact you are having.

This is also shown through the assistance you give to countries in our region.

You may be aware that the Australian Government recently provided $6.2 million to support a UNIFEM Pacific project to promote women into parliament over the next five years.

I believe UNIFEM’s work promoting women into parliament has already produced tremendous results.

In Australia we are proud to have Julia Gillard representing us as Australia’s first female Deputy Prime Minister and Quentin Bryce as our first female Governor-General, but wasn’t it amazing to witness the incredible changes that took place in Rwanda recently!

In Rwanda’s parliamentary election in September this year, the second since the 1994 genocide, women won 45 out of 80 seats, making the Parliament the first in the world to have women as the majority.

UNIFEM’s work within Rwanda training women candidates was essential to the success of these women in their campaigns.

The Rwandan example can be seen as a step in the right direction, not just for developing countries, but all nations around the world.


I strongly support the work of UNIFEM Australia.

I congratulate you on your efforts in organising events to celebrate International Women’s Day, involvement in White Ribbon Day, funding of Peace Scholarships, support for the UN Trust Fund to End Violence Against Women and contributing other important UNIFEM activities.

Working together, we can make a lasting difference to the lives of women, both here in Australia and on the international stage.

Working together, gender equality will become a reality.