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Speech by The Hon Kate Ellis MP

Gender and Women’s Rights Workshop, Commonwealth Peoples Forum

Location: Perth

Good afternoon everyone, and thank you for inviting me here today to the Gender and Women’s Rights Workshop at the Commonwealth People’s Forum.

Many of you are here from across the Commonwealth, so I would firstly like to say: welcome.

Today you have been looking at the role of civil partnerships achieving gender equality – specifically, how you can work through the Commonwealth Plan of Action for Gender Equality to improve the status of women across the Commonwealth.

I am here today to make some closing remarks about your proceedings and talk more broadly about the role of the community sector in securing meaningful change for women.

It will come as no surprise to you all here today that civil society – with a reach right across the community – is vital to securing gender equality.

Gender equality has ramifications for every aspect of our daily lives – and it underpins the achievement of a fair and just society.

As Aung San Suu Kyi, freedom leader and Nobel Peace Laureate has said:

“The … empowerment of women throughout the world cannot fail to result in a more caring, tolerant, just and peaceful life for all.”

Truly – gender equality is at the heart of the society that we aspire to.

But to make real change, to sustain our impact – gender equality needs to resonate with people at a fundamental level.

It needs to be part of our expectations and our attitudes.  It needs to be something that children grow up with and the older generation teaches.

We need strong voices on this issue if we are to ensure women’s equal place around the world.

We need strong voices who talk about gender equality and the issues that people rarely want to acknowledge: violence against women; unequal outcomes for women in the workplace and the home; the lack of women in leadership roles.

We need strong voices if we are going to change community attitudes that are holding women back.

And, of course, when I say ‘strong voices’ I mean the voices of you here today, your organisations and your members.

We have so much work to do to ensure that girls and women can lead fulfilling lives and become leaders in their communities – and you, the community sector, are the reason why we will be successful.

The role of Government and the role of the community sector

I know that today, you’ve been talking about the Commonwealth Plan for Gender Equality and how the community sector can work with that Plan.

I’d like to talk briefly about the respective roles of civil society and Government in the development and how we can work together to deliver powerful strategies to protect and promote women’s equality.

When it comes to gender equality, as a Government, we can set laws.

We can make international agreements. And we can make Plans of Action.

But – in many ways – this is the easy part.

The making of these laws or Agreements or Plans is neither the start of an issue, nor is it the end of it.

In order to pass laws or make Plans relating to gender equality, Governments need the support of the community.

In many countries, lobbying by civil society and even international pressure is essential to simply getting laws to protect women on the record books or to get gender equality on the government agenda.

Once the Plans are made or laws are passed, there is the challenge of implementation.

Without the support of the community or civil society, some Plans are in danger of sitting on the shelf, gathering dust.

Governments may need the support of the community sector to take these Plans and make them real for women.

This has certainly been our experience in Australia – in tackling the issue of violence against women – which I’d like to reflect on briefly.

Violence against women – partnering with civil society

In Australia, like in many countries around the world, violence is a significant issue facing women.

As some of you may know, in this country, nearly 1 in 3 women has experienced physical violence and almost 1 in 5 women has been the victim of sexual assault.

Now, as many of you know, unless women are safe, they cannot prosper.

But it goes deeper than that.

If 50% of the World’s population are at risk of assault in the places where they should feel safest – in their own home – then all other efforts that we make to achieve gender equality will be meaningless.

Indeed, all of our efforts to develop, to become a better, more just society will be pointless – unless we change the fundamental fact that so many women live in fear.

Truly, it is one of the most significant human rights violations taking place in our country.

As a Government, we know that inaction is not an option.

But given the nature of this insidious crime, it is not something that we can do alone.

Thankfully, it is not something that we have to do alone.

Earlier this year, I announced Australia’s National Plan to Reduce Violence Against Women and their Children.

It is a 12 year plan to systematically put an end to the fear and the suffering that has been largely unrecognised in our country.

I am very pleased to say that the idea for this Plan came from the community sector.

For many years, the community sector lobbied Governments at every level and of every political persuasion to take concerted action on violence against women.

I am proud to say that governments from across Australia heard that call, and in February, we launched the National Plan to Reduce Violence Against Women and Their Children.

This Plan is the first of its kind in a number of ways, including its sustained, 12 year, approach and its strong focus on prevention – both to a level that we have not previously seen in this country.

But the important feature of the Plan that I wanted to discuss today is its focus on partnering with civil society to deliver its outcomes.

Under the Plan, our focus is very much on building respectful relationships so we can prevent violence before it occurs.

A major feature of the implementation of our $86 million National Plan includes partnering with community organisations across the country, especially in primary prevention.

The aim of this work is to strengthen the ability of communities to discuss the problem of violence against women and to take responsibility for the solutions.

As you know, the only way that we have a hope of changing attitudes is for the community members themselves take the initiative in denouncing violent behaviour within their own communities.

And I am pleased to say that communities are doing just that – developing local solutions and putting them into action.

Because this is what civil society does best.

And our approach to the National Plan has been to embrace this and support and partner with the community sector to deliver better outcomes for women.

As I said earlier: the community is why this Plan came about.

And partnership with the community is why this Plan will be a success.

Conclusion

I believe that the same can be said of any government Plan of Action.

Whether it is an intergovernmental agreement, whether it is a National Plan, or whether it is a plan for local action – the community sector must be engaged early and often to ensure success.

This is especially the case for Plans to achieve gender equality – because this is an issue so closely linked with entrenched community attitudes.

The only way to change those attitudes is to talk to the community.  And the people who are best placed to do that work is the community sector.

In closing, I would like to thank you all of your hard work today.

I trust that your work during this workshop has been productive and I look forward to hearing more about how civil society working to progress gender equality across the Commonwealth.