Skip to main content

Fiji Women's Rights Movement Young Women's Forum

News, speeches and media


Speaker: Ambassador for Women and Girls, Natasha Stott Despoja AM (speech as delivered)

DeVos on the Park, Suva

Good morning, everyone. Bula. Namaste. Good morning. G'day.

What an honour and a pleasure to be here. I love the topic – the glass ceiling. But it reminded me just then of something I haven't thought about for a long time. And that is the actual Parliament House ceiling in Australia – Federal Parliament House – is made of glass. So if you wanted a daily reminder as a woman in that place of the ceiling you needed to break, it's literal – quite literal.

Can I of course begin by acknowledging our sponsors, NGOs, civil society, other development partners, my colleagues from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, acknowledge particularly the work of the YWCA, of DIVA, of FEMLINK and of course the Fiji Women's Rights Movement. Thank you for hosting me today. It is a pleasure to be here. I can't tell you how many times I looked out in Federal Parliament as a Senator and wished that it looked a bit like this, as opposed to a very strongly male-dominated institution – still is, and it was at the time of my election.

Thank you fellow panellists for making the rest of us feel like underachievers. What extraordinary CVs. So it's great to share a podium with you today. Thank you for your introduction, your very kind introduction. Thank you for reminding me that it was actually a really, really long time ago that I got into Federal Parliament. So every time someone introduces me by saying, 'She was the youngest ever woman to get into Federal Parliament'. When I go to schools now they all look at me and say, 'But she's really old.' Because ladies and gentlemen, it was a really long time ago, back in 1995. So I'll talk a bit about that today but first of all I do want to say how important it is to me to attend and address forums that involve the empowerment of women and young women in political life, in particular celebrating the diversity and difference of young women and how that deserves to be reflected and represented in all our powerful institutions, all our decision-making bodies, especially in politics.

Roshika, I love it when you describe yourself as a feminist and a politician. That's how I describe myself and I still do, as a feminist, no longer the politician mind you. And it worries me terribly when people often say, 'Oh, I can't use the 'f' word.' There is nothing wrong with the 'f' word. Feminism is a wonderfully empowering word and it's one that I embrace. And it's something that was inculcated in me from a very young age, my single-parent mother who made it very clear to me that sisterhood was powerful but it was also essential. That you had to support other women. And it wasn't enough for you to make it. You had to contribute to and support those women who are coming along beside you and indeed after you. And that's an important part of my work as Ambassador for Women and Girls.

You've heard about my position. Genevieve has possibly done a better job of articulating what my role is. But to give you a bit of a snapshot – the position was created to specifically empower women. So my focus includes economic empowerment, promoting leadership of women and whether that's community leadership, whether it's in politics, whether it's in Parliament. And thirdly, perhaps the one about which I'm most passionate, and that is the issue of eliminating violence against women and girls and boys. Because I don't think that we can enjoy or celebrate or utilise the talents and the skills of women in societies today until we are free of the fear of violence, let alone the actuality of violence.

Obviously it's a great time to be having your Forum with Fiji having recently concluded its elections. I know that democratic rights, I know that electoral and other processes, democratic institutions are all at the forefront of your thinking. And I know that many young women were actively involved in the lead-up to the elections as well as during the election process itself. I congratulate you on your participation and on your determination to promote young women's engagement as voters and as leaders – not just voters but candidates and leaders.

When the Government of Australia decided to appoint an Ambassador for Women and Girls, there was a debate but a very deliberate decision to include 'Girls' in the title. And I often get asked, I was saying the other day at an event that not a day goes by without – usually a man – asking me, 'Why do we need an Ambassador for Women and Girls'? And I'm talking about people in high positions. Former foreign ministers, former leaders of opposition parties, the security guy that I went through the airport with the other day. Why do we have an Ambassador for Women and Girls? So there's still a lack of understanding in my country, and I suggest globally, and indeed in the region, as to why we need to invest in not just gender equality generally but specifically, it's important to me that women and girls are part of that role. And you know the statistics as well as I do so I won't harp on them today but when you have 66 million women at least who are girls, out of school, when you have extraordinary levels of coercion or forced or early marriage, when you have trafficking at high levels or high levels of violence and abuse, then you know why girls are an important part of my job as well.

But lifelong commitment to gender equality is how I describe my world and my life. And I've been asked today to reflect on a bit of my history, or should we call it herstory, as a former politician. So forgive the personal indulgements but Genevieve I was assured that that was some of the issues, especially for those of you who are aspiring to getting involved in politics and indeed Parliament. And I'm sure there's some of you here that I can't teach anything to because you've already been seasoned candidates at relatively young ages.

I went into politics as an adviser. I understood the power of the pen. The fact that with the stroke of a pen legislation could change lives for the better. Often sometimes for the worse as we all know. So I went as an adviser, as a speechwriter. I was very lucky that a Senator decided to take a punt on me. That despite being young, relatively, 21, he decided that maybe I didn't have the necessary qualifications, the Masters or the experience. Had a Degree or what have you, and a background in student politics and representation. I was more comfortable being an activist. In fact, I still feel more comfortable sometimes on the street holding placards. But I lament perhaps the lack of political activism in my home country these days. But he decided he was going to see if I could get involved in legislative and policy work and see where that led me. Of course I developed a passion. And this is with the third party in Australian politics. A party known as the Australian Democrats. We don't exist these days I'm afraid. But we were the third force in Australia. The first environmental party in Australian politics. A party that had the first female national political leader. A party that ensured that women weren't discriminated against by ensuring that every policy, every pre-selection was postal ballot. So that women at home, women with busy lives in the workforce, could actively engage in the process without having to go to all the meetings that sometimes their time precluded them from.

So I realised very quickly that we could change lives with legislation. And I talked about young people and the need for indeed increased representation of young people and in particular women. Until finally someone said to me, 'Can you stop talking about this? Why don't you run?' So I did. I ran in 1993 for the Senate and I lost spectacularly. But what I did learn and I know that there are some comparable experiences, certainly on the panel today, that it was actually there was a youth vote there. That young people and older Australians wanted something new. They wanted fresh faces. Well some of them did, I'm not sure. I ran in 1993, we discovered that there was an appetite for a change. In 1995, I was the accidental politician. I was one of those people on a ticket that because my former Senator became ill, and my former Senator looked exactly like you'd expect a Senator to look. Beard, grey, male, suited. Seriously. Roman, almost. Contrast that with, you know, a Doc Marten-wearing, then turned 26-year-old. And I know 26, we say its relatively young in politics but it's not that young really. There are a lot of young people in the Western Suburbs of Sydney and teenage boys who didn't necessarily relate to the 26-year-old girl that was getting into politics. Having said that, I entered through a by-election. And suddenly life changed quite radically.

I won't go into many of my experiences, suffice to say being a novelty in politics, whatever that may be, young, female, different background, whatever – it's never easy. There's an added scrutiny. I suggest a double standard. Maybe some ridiculous stereotypes and headlines that you have to combat. Seriously, the number of articles that I have relating to 'Blondes Leading the Blonde', 'Blonde Ambition', 'Suicide Blonde', you get that – News Limited in Australia is very creative. The fact that I always wore a sensible shoe – Doc Martens, highly recommended if you're walking the corridors of power. Seriously, it takes four minutes to get to a division. Who wants to do stairs in heels? The fact that my headline on getting into Parliament was 'Senator Gets In…Boots and All'. No reference to my, eventually, you know, references to my policies or my feminism or my strong views, that changed over the years.

I still suggest there's a double standard that is inexcusable for women in Parliament. You may have watched the experiences of the former Prime Minister in Australia, Julia Gillard. Even now, my boss, the Foreign Minister Julie Bishop. A ridiculous level of scrutiny on marital status, personal status, whether or not you've had children, what you wear, how you are perceived. So these double standards aside though, I ended up having a very long – for a minor party person – because we sort of age minor parties in kind of dog years. So every year that you do it's about seven times that of a normal politician because it's a tough road. I went on to lead my party. And I'm not going to suggest it was easy to be the youngest person in the room and a leader. But you know what and this is something Julia Gillard said when she left Parliament. You made it easier for the next woman who came along. Because the two major parties then discovered there's a youth vote, there's an appetite for women and young people to be represented and reflected in Parliament. So miraculously they started running candidates for positions because they wanted our vote. And that was the best thing that could happen. I'm not suggesting that the Australian Federal Parliament has changed radically, but I'll tell you what it has revolutionised a little in the past twenty years. It's not the same ridiculous stereotypes and betrayals when we have young women in positions of power, be they Ministers or Opposition members or indeed your average local member.

When I got in one of the first questions I used to get was, 'Did you go into politics to meet a husband?' Now I don't know if you've looked at the Australian Parliament. And despite the calibre available, that wasn't my objective. I used to get Members of Parliament saying to me, they'd comment on my clothing. 'You should wear a dress, it makes your legs look better.' Or, 'Isn't it past your bedtime?' We recognise these now as not so subtle sexist references, but a lot of those men thought it was avuncular at best that, you know, they were being nice to me, paternal. Not realising that constant belittling and undermining just drives you a little nuts.

So a bit of advice. Know your stuff. If you're good on your policy, if you've done your homework, if you're confident in your facts and figures; then they can't get you. You cannot be defeated on that. And I think that was a great annoyance to a lot of my opponents, the fact that I did know my stuff. So they could parody, they could portray me in a way that was superficial and ridiculing and trivialising on occasion. Know your stuff.

Integrity. Integrity is everything in politics. You know that. You know that it matters for the people who you vote for. You vote for people who you perceive to have integrity. Who are honest, who are accountable. It doesn't mean they're not flawed. So if you're thinking of running trust that instinct. Stick with it. Feel comfortable. I joined a political party that had a conscience vote. So I never had to vote in a way that I couldn't sleep at night. Didn't mean I didn't compromise on occasions, but integrity is everything.

And the other advice, support networks. Support each other. Women, support your sisters. Doesn't mean we can't compete. Doesn't mean we're always the same and it certainly doesn't mean we agree on everything. But I think support networks are critical. I've just been with your Minister for Women. And just talking about the importance of not burning out, looking after each other to ensure that at the end of the day there is a support structure. Whether it's family, whether it's children. But so you have time with family and friends, but support networks are critical. So any support networks that you already have, and I know that they're palpable here, they are, they exist but across your organisations and indeed as friends. Absolutely important.

Just some general reflections on politics today. I think that Australia's often held up in the region as having a high percentage of female members of Parliament. Yes, high relatively. But you know what, my state of South Australia was the first in the entire world to give women the right to vote and stand for Parliament. 1894. Now, between 40 and 60 years it took our Parliaments to get a woman elected. And that's extraordinary. For a Parliament that had the right to vote since 1902 for most women. At that stage not all women. Indigenous women have been discriminated against in Australian political history of course. But it's taken us more than a hundred years to achieve, what, 31 per cent. That's what we are at the moment. We have one woman in the Cabinet.

I stood up on Monday on the eve of the Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women in Parliament House with every state, territory, federal police commissioner, and from New Zealand. And the Governor General. And the Prime Minister. And the Leader of Opposition. To declare an opposition to violence against women. But the paradox was, I was the only woman. So when we talk about issues like violence against women, as you all know, it's inextricably linked to the issue of gender inequality. So it was good that these men and these leaders were taking a stand but also a part of the problem was actually there for all to see, that there was one woman in a room of all these men.

Worldwide, we know that women hold 22.2 per cent of Parliamentary positions. Again not good enough. And you know better than I do the statistics in the region, the Pacific and indeed in Fiji. But that gives us all quite a bit of hope in the sense that I don't think anyone could take as long as Australia to reach 30 per cent. When I first got into Parliament it was 14.9 per cent so, you know, roughly comparable to what we're talking about here in Fiji now. And you have the highest rates of female representation in the South Pacific region.

I think you know a lot about the work that Australia's doing in the region but I just wanted to highlight a couple of areas where we feel very strongly about supporting young women. We recognise the critical role that women and girls play in national and global prosperity and security. We've made this a central part of our foreign policy and an absolute and critical part of our aid and development work. In fact, our Minister, who happens to be the first female Minister to be a Foreign Minister, she's identified that 80 per cent of everything we do, our investments, regardless of their objectives, they effectively have to address gender issues. Now that's unheard of, particularly for Australia. We are investing in areas where women are empowered or how we can assist with empowerment or leadership and indeed I mentioned eliminating violence against women.

In terms of young women though, I want to refer particularly to the work that we're doing. We have committed, and I know that there will be a number of women in the room who will be familiar with the Pacific Young Women's Leadership Alliance. Well, we got a request from the Alliance for the Pacific Women Shaping Pacific Development initiative board. I see some nodding up the back. A request that there should be a young woman's voice on that Board. Indeed there should be. And there will be. In early 2015 that will happen. Your voices are being heard in that context. Our program Pacific Women Shaping Pacific Development, covers 14 countries over 10 years, $320 million investment – now I do sound like a politician – but we're very proud of it. Because so many of those areas are so important to ensuring regional prosperity. But it's targeted too, so its women who come up with what their needs are.

Apart from that we're also actively supporting the world YWCA. We really want to support the work of the YWCA in relation to young women's leadership across the Pacific. We're contributing to YWCA's program mobilising young women's leadership and advocacy in Asia and the Pacific which is working in five Pacific Island countries to build the capacity of young women to be leaders in their communities and of course to advocate for their rights.

One of my favourite stories recently was a young woman from Papua New Guinea. She was supported by the World YWCA through this program to attend this international conference. She went to the conference. She saved her per diem. She returned to PNG, purchased a smartphone so she could take an online course and improve her literacy. With the money that she had leftover, she decided that she wanted to open a bank account. So of course she went to try and open a bank account. The branch manager said she wouldn't be able to open a bank account without the permission of her husband – something that some of us are familiar with from all parts of the region. Well the woman said that this was impossible. She didn't want her husband to know about this bank account. So they said, 'Why don't you go and ask for the support of your pastor and return?' That would be the compromise. But instead she returned to the bank with the General Secretary of the YWCA of Papua New Guinea. And suddenly the bank manager was all ears and she got her bank account. I love those stories of empowerment. Just little things like that make such a difference. And I love the fact that Australia in some small way partners with different countries in order to achieve those outcomes.

In an Australian survey recently - all you would be aware of International Day of the Girl Child, I spent it in India this year - but I also was part of some great work in Canberra with Plan International. As part of that event, they commissioned a survey. It was around a thousand young women, aged 14 to 25. They were interviewed about their experiences of sexism and their career aspirations, 49 per cent of those young women said that sexism affected their choice of career. And fewer than one per cent, less than one per cent, said that they would consider a career in politics. I really hope if I surveyed the room today they'd see completely the opposite to that. That there'd be so many of you willing to undertake or at least aspire to, if not a career in Parliament, but a career in politics or activism or legislation or something that helps, changes the lives of women generally but their communities as well.

Statistics like this make me really determined about my job to ensure that women, but particularly young women, and their leadership aspirations are encouraged and supported. I just want to reinstate that your voices are essential, absolutely essential, so keep on going. And we want to support you in the decisions that you make. Especially when you raise your hand to be involved in a leadership role. Statistics like those reflect why we still need an Ambassador for Women and Girls. In the face of these survey results, it's incredibly reassuring to meet an organisation, or a number of organisations represented here today, and to meet young women like yourselves who are aspiring to be leaders of your communities, who are conscious of the fact that women deserve to be equal in leadership roles and in their communities and their region. And it's particularly important as you all know, as we get closer to setting the post-2015 development agenda. Women's and girls' voices are going to be integral to this agenda.

But we face common obstacles across the Pacific in encouraging women, especially young women, who have leadership aspirations. But those obstacles only serve to underline why we need you to step up and take charge. So women, girls, sisters, one and all, this is your time. And I look forward to being there to partner and support in any way that I and my country can. But in the meantime, having seen your efforts so far, I'm pretty impressed and think there's possibly a lot that I can learn from you here today. Thank you for having me. Vinaka.

Last Updated: 27 November 2014
Back to top