Speech by Senator the Hon Kay Patterson

Women’s Human Rights Workshop, Opening Address

Location: Women Taking Action Locally & Globally Workshop, Centre for Refugee Research, University of New South Wales, Sydney


Ms Pru Goward – Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Dr Eileen Pittaway – Director of the Centre for Refugee Research, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen.

The Howard Government is a strong advocate for the promotion of women’s human rights through international fora such as the UN General Assembly, Commission on Human Rights and Commission on the Status of Women. Making connections between the local and global context is imperative for progressing women’s human rights.

Australia annually sends a significant delegation to UN Commission on the Status of Women meetings and, in recent years, this has involved the active and invaluable participation of NGO representatives. The Australian delegation at this year’s CSW 48 meeting in New York in March made an important contribution to the successful negotiation of agreed outcomes for both themes – the role of men and boys and women in conflict and peace-building.

At the 7th Commonwealth Women’s Affairs Minister’s Meeting in Fiji last week, a new Plan of Action for Gender Equality was negotiated and agreed.

The Beijing Platform for Action and the Beijing Plus Five Outcomes Document are fundamental international plans which the Government has used to enhance its efforts towards achieving equality for women in Australia and around the world.

Australia affirmed its commitment in this area by being one of the first countries to develop an Action Plan based on the Beijing Plus Five Outcomes Document to encourage innovative initiatives and build on existing work, through partnerships between governments, communities, the media, businesses and women’s groups.

Since becoming a signatory to CEDAW in 1983, Australia has developed a comprehensive range of social, economic, political and legal frameworks that seek to advance the status of, and eliminate discrimination against, women and girls. The Sex Discrimination Act has played a crucial role in promoting a greater acceptance of the need for equality between women and men, and this year we mark its 20th anniversary.

In December last year, the Government submitted a combined 4th and 5th CEDAW report to the UN which highlighted significant activities and major initiatives undertaken from June 1997 to June 2003 to further improve and progress the status of women.

There have been major advancements in the status of women in Australia in all spheres of life since the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995. Since Australia’s 3rd CEDAW report, women and girls have made steady progress in their participation in education, training, employment, decision-making and leadership.

An example of positive changes for women is in the area of education. In 2003 women made up more than 57.4% of higher education students commencing an undergraduate qualification and 51.5% of post-graduate students. This compares to 56% and 50% respectively in 1993.

There has also been a general upward trend in the labour force participation rate of all women, which was 55.8% in March 2004, compared to 52.4% in December 1993.

Australian women are taking the lead in many areas of public life. In 2003 women held more than 33% of Commonwealth government board positions and comprised 26.5% of Federal parliamentarians. While we’ve made great progress here, there is more to be done.

Women’s health is improving. In particular, Australia has recorded significant decreases in the number of deaths resulting from breast cancer. In 2001 there were 24.7 deaths per 100,000 females, compared to 28.1 deaths per 100,000 females in 1996. Mortality from cervical cancer declined by nearly 53% between 1982 and 2001.

While we have made great gains for Australian women in recent years, some areas of challenge remain, including preventing family and domestic violence and sexual assault. The under-representation of women in some occupations and in positions of decision-making also needs to be addressed.

The 2004-2005 year is an important time in history for the international women’s human rights agenda. The contribution of the women’s and community sector is essential to the success of processes such as the lead up to the global Beijing+10 review of progress to be held at the UN extended 49th Commission on the Status of Women meeting next March.

The Government would like to acknowledge the joint efforts of the Centre for Refugee Research [CRR], Australian National Committee on Refugee Women [ANCORW] and the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission [HREOC], in organising their extensive nationwide consultations, the recently concluded Women’s Human Rights Court, and now this Women’s Human Rights workshop.

The Government values the importance of consultation, and regularly consults with state and territory governments, the women’s sector and general public on a variety of issues. Through the Office of the Status of Women, the Government funds four national women’s organisations to provide national secretariat services on behalf of Australian women.

During the next six months OSW will conduct consultations on Beijing +10 on behalf of the Australian Government. We regard government consultations as a complementary process to those leading up to this workshop. I hope that you will all continue with your active involvement with Beijing +10 and take the time to contribute to this upcoming Government consultation process.

I have looked at the workshop schedule and you have a very extensive programme. I would like to take the opportunity to comment on a few issues that you will be actively discussing.

In the various sessions you are covering a range of issues – poverty and globalisation, violence against women and participation and decision making to name just a few.

Poverty is perpetuated by continued gender inequalities and therefore Australia’s aid programme views gender equity as an integral part of poverty reduction strategies. Raising the status of women in developing countries is a priority in overseas development cooperation, particularly activities to support improved governance, capacity building and training. In 2003-04, it is estimated that $55 million will be provided to directly address gender equity in developing countries.

As I am sure you are all aware, as part of the ongoing campaign to eliminate violence against women the government recently launched a national campaign – Violence Against Women, Australia Says NO – which raises the very serious issues of domestic violence and sexual assault. This campaign is a comprehensive effort to raise awareness of the issue, to provide immediate, confidential, practical help 24-hours-a-day, seven days a week, and which sends a clear message that violence against women will not be tolerated.

The Howard Government recognises that Indigenous communities are still suffering the effects of family violence. Indigenous family violence is an issue which requires local solutions developed in partnership between the community and the Government.

The Government committed $37.3 million over four years for the Family Violence Partnership Program in the 2004-05 budget.

This will support a number of state and territory and local projects which will address Indigenous family violence, particularly in remote areas.

We are doing a lot of work on women’s leadership. Through the National Leadership Initiative, the Government funds a number of activities aimed at supporting women’s participation in leadership and decision-making. Indigenous women’s leadership activities are assisted through funding to enable them to take part in formal training programmes run through the Australian Indigenous Leadership Centre [AILC] in Canberra. In 2003, we provided funding to enable eight women to attend the AILC’s Leadership Certificate programme. This year, four women who are recognised as leaders in their own communities have been sponsored to take part in the AILC’s inaugural year-long Diploma course.

Through non-traditional leadership activities such as sport leadership, the Rural and Remote Sport Leadership Grants provide assistance to women to undertake coaching or similar leadership training.

To encourage the appointment of women to government boards and bodies, OSW maintains a database of skilled women and it provides an Executive Search service to other government agencies to ensure that women are considered when new appointments are made. I am sure that there are many at this Workshop with skills and experience that would equip them to contribute in this way – if you would like to register email your details to womenonboards@pmc.gov.au to add your name to the database.

Under the Women’s Development Prgramme, the government funds projects and activities which also support women’s leadership. In last year’s programme, the Women on Boards goes national project received funding to run a number of events that successfully brought together key executives from the corporate sector, those who make decisions about board appointments, and women who are potential board appointees.

I note that you will also discuss the issue of trafficking. Australia strongly condemns and is committed to preventing trafficking in persons, prosecuting perpetrators, and protecting victims of trafficking. In October 2003, the Australian Government announced a $20 million whole-of-government package of measures to combat trafficking in persons. The package is a robust, well-considered and determined response to trafficking in persons. It includes a $5.6 million victim support package which includes income support, access to Medicare, personalised support to find appropriate accommodation and develop social networks as well as training that will give the victims skills for their future. The Government is confident this suite of measures puts Australia at the forefront of best practice efforts to combat trafficking.

Although significant progress has been made for women in the past decade against Beijing’s 12 critical areas, there undoubtedly remains much to be done. Public dialogue and exchange through forums such as this workshop provide a valuable opportunity to reflect, take stock, and identify remaining gaps and challenges.

I am sure you will all enjoy the programme organised for the next two and a half days, and I wish you a successful and fruitful workshop and I look forward to hearing about the outcomes.