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Justice and equality in the global context Keynote Address: Australian Women Lawyers 4th National Conference

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Speaker: Penny Williams, Australia's Global Ambassador for Women, E&OE

ANU University House, Canberra


I begin by acknowledging the traditional Ngunnawal custodians of the land on which we stand today and recognise elders past and present of the oldest living culture in the world.

It is a privilege and an honour for me to be here this morning to address you all, and I thank the President of Australian Women Lawyers, Rebecca Lee, for inviting me.

In fact, my gratitude extends significantly further back than this event, to the participants of the 2008 Australian Women Lawyers Conference, who, as Rebecca noted in your conference invitation, called for the creation of my position in the Conference Communique that year.

You may think that the wheels of government move slowly at times; but move, indeed, they do.

And in September last year I was appointed as Australia's first Global Ambassador for Women and Girls.

The Government's unprecedented creation of the role I hold speaks volumes about the importance of women's issues in Australia's foreign, policy – and about the message we wish to send to the world about the status of women.

So if any of you are new to this gathering and are harbouring even the quietest of concerns about what you and your peers can achieve by being here, I stand before you as evidence that the investment of your time and intellect this weekend will reap useful results.

  • Because these conferences have immense value in
    • (a) identifying weaknesses in Australia's existing architecture to promote women's status and wellbeing both in Australia and internationally,
    • o and (b) proposing innovative initiatives to strengthen and secure that architecture.

I have been busy since my appointment almost one year ago. I have been working closely with women and men across the Pacific and in Asia, with diplomatic counterparts at the Commission on the Status of Women in New York, with business and government leaders at the APEC Women and the Economy Forum in San Francisco, with domestic women's alliances and non-government organisations, with young women through organisations such as the YWCA and the Girl Guides, and with my colleagues in the department, in AusAID and in the Australian Government Office for Women. Together we have been working:

  • to promote a world where women and girls are free of violence and the fear of violence
  • free of forced marriage, servitude or of being trafficked
  • free of discrimination
  • where women participate equally in their countries' political and economic lives
  • and participate equally as leaders of peace.
  • We have also been working to promote a world where women and girls are involved equally in reconciliation processes
  • where women and girls have equal access to education and necessary access to healthcare – including sexual and reproductive health services
  • where women have equal access to jobs, to markets and to finance and
  • where there is equality of aspiration and equality of opportunity.

As one of Australia's primary diplomatic advocates for gender equality, I feel my responsibilities keenly; but mine is one voice among many, as much as it is one voice on behalf of many.

Women in Australia have the opportunity and and responsibility not only to raise our own voices against inequality and injustice, but also to empower others to raise theirs. By contributing to the advancement of women's rights and the rule of law, we can help to build those voices to a crescendo.

As Prime Minister Gillard said last year during her Emily's List oration, "Our empathy mustn't stop at Australia's own borders. Women's rights, being human rights, are universal and indivisible. The suffering of millions of women diminishes us all and obligates us. As one of the world's top 20 economies, we have a responsibility to contribute to women's equality globally."

This is why I am particularly grateful for the opportunity to address you:

  • because among the many people engaged in this endeavour, you have voices which are especially articulate, persuasive and compelling and
  • your professional skills are especially relevant to these collective efforts to fight for justice and equality and to empower other voices.

For each of us here, privilege comes with responsibility.

Justice and equality for women – the current context


I want to talk today about some of the challenges facing women and girls today in relation to justice and equality. But before I get to the doom and gloom, and what the Australian Government is doing about it and what you can do about it, I think it is important to stop and reflect on the long way we have come in a relatively short period of time.

In 1995, the United Nations convened the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing. That event proved to be a milestone in the articulation of an ambitious blueprint for women's equality.

Of the many thousands of inspiring words recorded at the conference – words which shifted individual lives, which shifted communities, nations and the international community in new directions for the world's women and girls – the most often quoted came from the keynote address delivered by Hillary Clinton, then First Lady of the United States.

Itemising a litany of abuses confronted by women and girls at every point in their life cycle - from forced abortions to dowry burnings to domestic violence to rape as a tool of war - she prefaced each with the statement that it was a violation of human rights.

She said, "If there is one message that echoes forth from this conference, it is that human rights are women's rights and women's rights are human rights."

Almost two decades later, it can be hard to appreciate how revolutionary it was to describe women's rights in this way. And to appreciate that it precipitated a fundamental shift from viewing women's issues as a discrete concern, a concern often shoved off to the side, to part of the main event, an issue at the core of social, economic and political progress.

Beijing generated a movement which made a call to action out of every element of a woman's life in which she experienced discrimination or abuse – and that's a long list.

The Beijing agenda – including the pursuit of justice and equality for women – is far from finished.

The world's women

Women and girls are still the majority of the world's poor and illiterate. They disproportionately suffer from inadequate healthcare and education. The violence perpetrated against women and girls is an appalling global scourge.

Let me give you a few facts and figures to give a brief description of the problem faced by women and girls some colour and shade:

  • Women make up 70 per cent of people living on less than one dollar a day.
  • At least one in three women is beaten, coerced into sex or otherwise abused in her lifetime.
  • Mothers in Papua New Guinea are on average 80 times more likely to die in childbirth than mothers in Australia.
  • More than 35 million girls worldwide are not getting even basic primary-level education.
  • Ten million girls under the age of 18 marry each year, often resulting in illiteracy, violence, abuse and forced sexual relations and poor sexual and reproductive health.
    • In fact, a girl in South Sudan today is more likely to die in childbirth than she is to finish primary school.
  • Women are half the world's population, yet they hold less than 20 percent of positions in national governments, and in the Pacific, around three per cent.
  • Of the 193 members of the UN, only about 10 per cent have ever elected a female President or Prime Minister.
  • Although women and girls suffer disproportionately during and after war, far too often, women are excluded from the negotiating table where conflicts are to be resolved
    • Indeed, less than eight per cent of the hundreds of peace treaties signed in the past 20 years were negotiated by delegations which included women, despite the fact that history tells us women's experiences and actions are critical to sustaining peace.

Efforts to achieve environmental sustainability all too often exclude women.

And across the world, economies suffer because of women's limited access to employment opportunities.

The International Labour Organisation (ILO) estimates that in the Asia-Pacific region alone this equates to a loss of $47 billion annually.

Australian women

Even in Australia, equality of opportunity does not equate to equality of outcome.

Of course, there are many recent positives:

  • We have a National Plan to Reduce Violence Against Women and their Children, a paid parental leave scheme, and since March this year, a National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security.
  • Women's representation on Australian Government Boards has risen to an all-time high of 35.3 per cent and in partnership with the Australian Institute of Company Directors, the Government is running a Board Diversity Scholarship Program to boost the number of women in the country's top boardrooms.
  • and this year, the Government introduced legislation to address inequalities in the workplace (the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Amendment Bill, March 2012), as well as legislation to combat all forms of slavery and people trafficking, including criminalising forced marriage (the Crimes Legislation Amendment (Slavery, Slavery-like Conditions and People Trafficking) Bill, May 2012).

But, one hundred and fifteen years since women first cast a vote in this nation, women are still not paid equal wages and we are under-represented in business and politics.

According to Goldman Sachs, closing the gap between male and female participation in the economy would boost Australia's GDP by 11 per cent.

And while for the first time in Australia's history, our Head of Government and Head of State are both women, our own record on parliamentary representation leaves room for improvement.

Women members currently make up 29.2 per cent of the Federal Parliament and just over 30 per cent of the Federal ministry.

As our Prime Minister has herself said, "It's all well and good to have a woman in the top job, but that is no substitute for widespread and lasting change across our system of government".

Finally, an example that this particular audience is no doubt all too familiar with, although women have been graduating from law schools in equal or greater numbers than men for three decades, they remain under-represented at the Bar, the bench and in senior positions in law firms.

Earlier this week, I was listening to the Law Report on Radio National and was fascinated by the discussion with Trish Mundy who has been interviewing lawyers as part of a study of the experience of women lawyers in country Australia.

I'm aware that Trish will be speaking to you later today. Not wishing to steal her thunder, but rather as a promo for her presentation on female lawyers practising in rural, regional and remote communities, I found the reflections of Trish's interviewees about ongoing insidious discrimination along gender lines in the legal profession disturbing but, sadly, unsurprising.

In short, the message, applicable both in Australia and in the international context, is: let's roll up our sleeves - there's much work to be done.

What Australia is doing

While the problems faced by women and girls are significant they are not insurmountable. Australia has demonstrated significant global leadership in this arena both as a tenacious international advocate and a provider of practical support to the world's women and girls.

  • We are one of only a handful of countries with an Ambassador for Women and Girls.
  • We are a founding supporter of UN Women, the UN entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women and one of the primary funders of the agency's work
    • And we look forward to welcoming the Executive Director of this agency, Michelle Bachelet, to Australia as a Guest of the Australian Government at the end of August.
  • We are an active participant in the UN's Commission on the Status of Women and we are signatory to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women and its Optional Protocol
  • Our proactive role in these bodies, the UN General Assembly and the Human Rights Council, enable the government to contribute to the setting and strengthening of global standards for the protection of women's rights
    • and to speak out against discrimination and violence against women.

Australia has funded and continues to support a range of international programs to advance the legal framework around women's rights.

The Pacific is a particular, though not exclusive, focus; not only because this is the region where we believe we can be most effective but because this is the region where we need to be most effective.

For example...

We have been working with UN Women, to run a five year Gender Equality in Political Governance program in fifteen Pacific Island countries with the aim of increasing political participation of women as active citizens and leaders.

In Vanuatu, Australia has supported the development and implementation of new domestic violence legislation, the Family Protection Act, as well as the establishment of a National Family Protection Taskforce.

In Samoa, our assistance through the Samoa Law and Justice Sector Program in 2011 helped train 73 female and 61 male law and justice officials in law reform, legislative drafting, judicial administration and a mentoring program for young lawyers.

Through the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands, Australia has actively supported the training and promotion of women to progress through the ranks of the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force to senior ranks.

In Papua New Guinea, we are helping local organisations run programs which help women take up leadership positions across all sectors – in government, the judiciary, business, education and within communities.

Australia has also contracted legal specialists to advise on the preparation of constitutional and organic law amendments required for the introduction of reserved seats in the PNG Parliament for women.

While relevant legislation has not yet been passed by PNG's parliament, the results of recent elections in PNG are a vindication of long running efforts to increase female political participation. Three women parliamentarians have been elected, the largest number of women to sit in PNG's parliament since 1977.

Of the three women elected, two undertook leadership training targeted towards female electoral candidates through the Centre for Democratic Institutions, here at the ANU, a program funded by the Australian Government.

This historic outcome is a legacy of efforts over many decades by Dame Carol Kidu, who was PNG's sole female member in the previous parliament, and the unrelenting work of local organisations to breed a new generation of women equipped and empowered to lead. Australia has been proud to support that work.

Our support for PNG's women has also focussed very specifically on the law and justice sector. The PNG Australian Law and Justice Partnership, with Australia's contribution of $150 million for the period 2009-2014, has assisted the implementation and monitoring of PNG's Law and Justice Gender Strategy.

Under the umbrella of the partnership, Australia's contributions have

  • improved the way police respond to victims of family and sexual violence
  • Family and Sexual Violence Units have been established in eight locations with over 4,400 victims seeking support in 2011.

Our support for the roll-out of Interim Protection Orders within PNG's Magisterial Services has seen a doubling of applications received and almost a tripling of orders granted.

And a particular success in the sector has been our assistance to village courts and, specifically, the appointment of female magistrates in PNG's provinces to better address the needs of women.

With support from Australia, PNG now has over 1000 appointed women justice officials. Of these, 700 are female magistrates (a tenth of the number of male magistrates, of whom there are 7000) and another 200 are in the process of being appointed. The other 300 female justice officials are clerks and peace officers.

If these numbers don't seem overwhelming, let me set them against a baseline: in 2004, across all of PNG, there were just 10 female magistrates.

And if a picture paints a thousand words, a story, perhaps, puts flesh on a thousand statistics:

Rhoda Geita is a village magistrate in PNG. As with most village magistrates, she comes from the village she works in, and hears cases in settings as informal as under trees, houses or in local meeting places – a vision that may have some appeal to those of you who practice in the big smoke.

Rhoda's role is to resolve disputes, deal with minor offences and help maintain peace and harmony in villages. In a country where more than 80 per cent of people live outside urban areas, for many the village magistrate may be a person's only way of seeking justice.

Levels of domestic violence are high in PNG and cases often go unreported because women are intimidated by the largely male-dominated justice system. This makes the appointment of magistrates like Rhoda crucial – it encourages victims to come forward, and as more perpetrators are called to account, a clear message is delivered: domestic violence is unacceptable.

Rhoda recalls a case where a man hit his wife for not getting his food. She said: "I made him switch places with her for a week so he could learn what it was like for her running her stall all day, looking after children, cooking his food and so on. After three days he came and said he now understood why I made the order. I told him he had to finish the week as that was his penalty. At the end he came and apologised to his wife."

This is innovation at work. This is the seed from which justice and equality grow. It gives women a real voice and this voice enables them to speak up on other issues of equality, like property ownership and land tenure.

In these, and so many related ways, I'm proud of the leading role Australia plays in our region, through our advocacy, through our development assistance programs and through the work and example of our vibrant civil society.

The role of law and lawyers in promoting justice and equality for women

Just as, at the community level in villages like Rhoda's, Australia is supporting a shift in the balance between power and law in favour of the latter, the government is a strong advocate for a rules-based (rather than power-based) international order.

As a middle power democracy, Australia views the emphasis on law in contemporary international relations as being in our national interest as well as a moral imperative. We vigorously support the ongoing development of an international order in which relations between States and individuals are conducted within the framework of agreed and transparent norms.

A key example is Australia's active role in the development of international criminal law and our strong support for the International Criminal Court.

This year marks the 10th anniversary of the entry into force of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.

As you may know, one of the principal achievements of the Rome Statute was its incorporation of specific references to rape, sexual slavery, enforced prostitution, forced pregnancy, enforced sterilisation and other forms of sexual violence as crimes against humanity and war crimes.

Gender is recognised as a basis for the crime against humanity of persecution.

And the Elements of Crimes specify that genocide by causing bodily or mental harm may include rape and sexual violence.

The reflection of gender equality in the Statute, the incorporation of requirements for gender expertise, the special protections afforded to women and victims of sexual violence, and the requirement under the Rules of Procedure and Evidence to take gender sensitive measures to facilitate the participation of victims of sexual violence were equally important developments.

Yet, despite these landmark developments ten years ago, sexual violence and other gender based crimes are as prevalent as ever.

A common refrain is that in contemporary armed conflicts it has become more dangerous to be a women fetching water or collecting firewood, than to be a fighter on the frontline.

Statistics about the incidence of sexual violence are notoriously unreliable because of widespread under-reporting.

To give you a sense of the extent of the problem, however, I'd like to refer to a study published in the American Journal of Public Health that concluded that over a 12 month period in excess of 400,000 women were raped in the Democratic Republic of the Congo with the highest rate in the notorious North Kivu province.

And let me be clear – that number includes some of the most horrific, the most brutal, crimes that one can imagine.

Crimes that include women being shot in the vagina after being raped and male relatives being forced at gunpoint to rape their own daughters, mothers or sisters.

Such crimes are a silent, cheap and effective weapon. Sexual violence not only devastates its victims mentally and physically but can also destroy entire communities because of the unfortunate reality that in many societies victims are ostracised because of what has happened to them.

Victims, especially those infected by sexually transmitted diseases and women who fall pregnant as a result of being raped, as well as the children born of such violence, are, sadly, often rejected by their own communities.

This has a serious impact on the ability of communities to re-establish peace.

Honorata Kizende was one such woman. She had been a sex slave and kept in captivity by armed militias in eastern Congo for almost a year. She was repeatedly gang-raped in public. After she escaped, her family rejected her as a result of the unwarranted stigma that rape attracts in her community.

Alone and destitute, she found refuge in a friend's house but was raped again when armed men looted the property. This time her daughter had to watch.

Today Honorata runs a small tie-die business with a group of women who pooled their resources. And she is advocating for an end to sexual violence and calls on members of her community to restore the rights of women who have gone through rape and stigmatisation.

As the former Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict, Margot Wallström, has said, "There is a lingering myth that rape is inevitable in times of war. But if sexual violence can be planned, it can be punished; if it can be commanded, it can be condemned."

A confession, perhaps a little late in this speech to this audience: I am not a lawyer.

I am, however, a strident advocate for the indispensable role that the law plays, both in enshrining the formal equality of women, and as a tool for women to secure, advance, enforce and give voice to their interests in all fields of public and private life.

In codifying the formal equality of women, the law has both an expressive and a functional value.

First, the law recognises the equal place, and hence the equal rights and equal say that women are entitled to in every society, in international and domestic social, political and economic institutions and in the home and family life. This is law's expressive value.

Second, once a legal system enshrines the equality of men and women before the law, then the law itself becomes an invaluable practical tool for securing, advancing and enforcing women's rights and interests across all of those same spheres. This is law's functional value.

Undoubtedly, the rule of law is a women's issue. Because in societies where the rule of law is respected and upheld, it provides both a formal and symbolically powerful basis for the recognition of the equality of women, and it gives women the tools to assert that equality.

So support for the rule of law both internationally and domestically must be at the heart of our efforts to secure the place of women in all nations, and especially in post-conflict societies and as part of state-building efforts.

Call to action

The troubles faced by most of the world's women can be mind boggling, and sometimes even daunting to the point of paralysis. What can we do to help? Where do we start?

The answer is as with every challenge in life. We simply start. One foot after another. Small steps, bigger ones, maybe small steps again, we just keep pressing forward. Our biggest strides are usually taken in the company and with the support of fellow travellers, people bent on the same destination.

All around the world, women like Honorata in the Democratic Republic of Congo, like Rhoda the village magistrate in Papua New Guinea, are blazing new trails and triumphing over both horrific personal histories and long-entrenched obstacles as they create a better world for all of us. How can we not join them? How can we not seek opportunities to walk beside them?

With them, with women from every continent, you and I are on the road to justice and equality for the world's women.

And there's an extra mile that some of us ought to travel because we have the resources and the wherewithal to do so, none more so, perhaps, than members of the legal profession.

I consider that legal practitioners have a special capacity and therefore a particular responsibility to advance the interests of women and girls.

In our efforts to promote women's access to justice, raising our voices for equal rights and treatment under the law is important, but it is not by itself sufficient. Passing laws is necessary but it is not enough. Laws must be implemented by effective and committed governments and enforced by courts.

And legal practitioners are in a crucial position both to influence how laws are made and to ensure they are properly implemented and enforced. To invoke the theme of today's gathering, this is part of being a woman lawyer in a public world.

In working as lawyers, as key protagonists in the system which supports and upholds the rule of law, you play an essential role in the creation of the level-playing field, which is key to women's advancement, but which, as yet, is some considerable way from being realised in so many societies internationally.

I encourage you to support women in the many places across the globe – including at times, Australia - where each day women and girls are marginalised, disenfranchised, behind the eight ball simply because they were born female.

This could mean joining and participating in international organisations which work to advance gender equality, acting in an advisory capacity to projects, contributing to debate on legislation – to take a current example, the legislation to criminalise forced marriage, or mentoring and collaborating with women legal practitioners around the world to share best practice, exchange experiences and provide support. There are myriad ways to contribute.

For all that you are already doing to promote equality, justice, international law, women's progress, and human rights, I thank you. For what remains to be done, I encourage you to continue boldly; and I urge you to consider ways I can assist your endeavours. I am always keen to establish new partnerships to progress our common goals.

We need to continue our effort, to push the agenda forward. To do otherwise is to deny one of the most powerful, positive forces for shaping the globe.

Thank you.

Last Updated: 13 August 2012
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