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Opening of Symposium on preventing and responding to violence against women: issues, challenges and best practice

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

Flinders University, Adelaide

May I begin by acknowledging we are meeting on the traditional country of the Kaurna people of the Adelaide Plains. I recognise and respect their cultural heritage, beliefs and relationship with the land. I acknowledge they are of continuing importance to the Kaurna people living today.

It is a pleasure to be here to open this symposium on Preventing and responding to violence against women, and I thank the Gender Consortium at Flinders University for the invitation.

As many of you will be aware, this symposium is the culmination of a ten week program, Preventing and Responding to Violence Against Women in Mongolia and Vietnam, which has been funded by AusAID through its Australian Leadership Awards Fellowships program.

The Fellowships program is an important component of the Australian Government's work to build linkages between Australian organizations and their partners in developing countries around the world and to develop leadership to address priority regional issues.

The program is a valuable opportunity for future leaders to extend their professional skills.

So, to those future leaders presenting to us today, the 18 Australian Leadership Award Fellows from Mongolia and Vietnam who have participated in the Gender Consortium's program, I extend a warm albeit belated welcome.

I realise you've been in Australia for some weeks already.

I hope you will be taking home many happy memories of your time here as well as a useful network of contacts, fresh perspectives and renewed motivation to continue your valuable work in this field.

And I look forward to hearing from you about your research and your recommendations regarding strategic directions to prevent and respond to violence against women.

This is an issue which has been a major focus of my attention since my appointment as Australia's first Global Ambassador for Women and Girls in September last year.

The Australian Government is strongly committed to advancing gender equality, empowering women and girls, and championing the rights of women and girls both in our own community and internationally.

A fundamental enabler of women's empowerment is ensuring that all women and girls can live their lives in safety, free from all forms of violence.

Australia has zero tolerance for violence against women, here in Australia and internationally.

As United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has said: "there is one universal truth, applicable to all countries, cultures and communities: violence against women is never acceptable, never excusable, never tolerable."

Just as violence is a consequence of continuing inequality between men and women, it is also a significant hurdle to achieving gender equality.

The World Bank's recent World Development Report states that violence against women is "the opposite of freedom" in the way that it limits women's choices and opportunities.

And the cost to women becomes a cost for society: in terms of a loss of women's potential contribution to the economy and the impact on the next generation.

The World Development Report noted that childhood witnesses to or victims of domestic violence are more likely to later perpetrate or experience domestic violence as adults.

Men who have witnessed domestic violence in childhood were two to three times more likely than other men to perpetrate violence.

And in developed countries, men and women who experienced violence in the home as children are two to three times more likely to suffer from cancer, a stroke, or cardiovascular problems, and five to 10 times more likely to use alcohol or illegal drugs than those who did not.

As part of Australia's international aid budget last year, the Government announced that it will invest an additional $96.4 million over four years for initiatives to eliminate violence against women and to support women affected by violence in developing countries.

The focus of the Budget measure is to prevent violence against women and change community attitudes towards violence against women; to have health, education and legal response services in place that respond to needs of women who have been subjected to violence; and to expand efforts to address violence against women in conflict and post-conflict affected environments.

This funding delivers on commitments made in AusAID's 2008 Stop Violence report and will expand AusAID's work to end violence against women in the Pacific, Asia, and in countries such as Afghanistan and Pakistan.

A particular focus for Australia's efforts to prevent and respond to violence against women has been in the Pacific region.

This work is a significant priority not just because the Pacific is the region where we believe we can be most effective but because it is the region where we need to be most effective.

In some Pacific countries, two out of three women and girls experience physical or sexual violence in their lifetime, which is a truly horrifying statistic.

A sample of the types of work we are involved in across the Pacific is at once inspiring as a record of what can be achieved and daunting as it underscores the magnitude of the challenges presented.

I ask your indulgence for a quick tour through some of our programs in the Pacific.

A major focus is Australia's support for the UN Women Pacific Fund to End Violence Against Women. We are providing small grants and building the capacity of organisations working to end violence against women.

In its first year of operation, the fund helped to train 65 organisations and provided grants to 13 others for services for victims of violence and prevention activities.

The beautifully named Suva based 'Homes of Hope', for example, provide safe shelter for women and their children escaping violence, and a chance to improve their skills to regain their livelihoods.

We support women's crisis centres in Fiji, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu which provide immediate practical support – counselling, legal services and safe havens – to women survivors of violence.

In late 2011, Australia co-hosted with the United States, a Pacific Women's Policy Dialogue on stopping violence against women and during the course of that event, our Parliamentary Secretary, Richard Marles, announced new funding of $5 million to support the Vanuatu Women's Centre.

We anticipate up to 15,000 survivors of violence will directly benefit from this initiative.

I was privileged to have the opportunity to see the Vanuatu Women's Centre in action last October.

During a visit to the remote northern province of Torba, I met with staff, clients and supporters of the district women's centre including a local chief, Greg, who had walked for eight hours from his village in West Vanua Lava just to tell his story.

Disturbed by the high levels of violent attacks against women on his island, five years earlier Greg had become one of the local Women's Centre's male advocates working to combat violence against women.

Greg's dedication was a stark reminder of how crucial it is that men and boys are fully engaged in the fight to stop gender-based violence.

Papua New Guinea has also been an important focus for Australia's efforts to promote the rights of regional women to live free of the scourge of violence.

Our assistance to PNG's law and justice sector now means women can get Interim Protection Orders and they have a safe and private space to report offences.

Our support in the health sector has led to the abolition of hospital fees for people who present with injuries resulting from physical violence, meaning more women affected by violence can now get free medical treatment.

And we've funded counselling services for more than 6,800 women in the Eastern Highlands.

Governance, strengthening institutional apparatus to stop violence against women and support survivors, research and data collection – these are also priorities.

The list goes on.

But let's return to Australian shores.

Our national statistics are not good. So when we come to the table with our friends from across the Pacific, or today, with our friends from Mongolia and Vietnam, we come wishing to share our experiences and to discuss ways in which we can slowly turn around this appalling global phenomenon in a real and substantive way.

In Australia, domestic violence and sexual assault are the most pervasive forms of violence experienced by women.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics 2005 Personal Safety Survey, one in three Australian women has experienced physical violence since the age of 15, and almost one in five has experienced sexual violence. Such high rates of domestic, family and sexual violence are unacceptable.

The harm caused as a result of violence against women extends far beyond the immediate pain and suffering of the victim themselves.

Violence affects the children who are exposed to it, the survivors' extended families, their work colleagues, and ultimately the broader community.

Violence against women also has a significant economic impact. Too often violence leads to homelessness, mental ill health, impoverishment or joblessness.

Domestic violence and sexual assault perpetrated against women is estimated to cost the nation $13.6 billion each year. By 2021, the figure is forecast to rise to $15.6 billion if extra steps are not taken.

In 2011, in an effort to combat the profound impact of violence against women, the Australian Government launched a ground-breaking National Plan to Reduce Violence Against Women and their Children 2010-2022.

The 12 year Plan is a single, unified strategy that brings together the efforts of not only all Australian governments, but also the non-government sector and the community more broadly to ensure women can live free from violence in safe communities.

Together, we are saying we need to take real action to prevent the largely invisible crime of violence against women and children in this country.

An essential part of reaching this goal and, therefore, a key focus of our historic $86 million National Plan, is investing to prevent violence from happening in the first place.

The National Plan gives high priority to primary prevention by building healthy attitudes and understanding of respectful relationships among young people and working to increase gender equality, to stop violence before it occurs.

We are striving for attitudinal and behavioural change at cultural, institutional and individual levels, with a particular focus on young people.

And we are committed to building primary prevention into the work of community and sporting groups, as well as local government and business organisations.

Effective coordination of prevention and response strategies across governments and communities is vital, as are effective partnerships across sectors.

To promote this coordination, we have created a National Plan Implementation Panel which comprises representatives from the Australian, state and territory governments, as well as non-government organisations.

The panel will deliver advice to government on ways to address and reduce violence against women and their children.

By working together and challenging the attitudes and behaviours that allow violence to occur, all Australian governments are saying a very loud 'No' to violence.

The role systemic discrimination plays in the perpetration of violence against women must also be acknowledged.

While significant advances have been made in raising the status of women in our community, there are still many ways in which deeply entrenched discrimination against women occurs, and this affects the level of violence perpetrated against them.

Achieving gender equality must remain a priority, especially as long as broader structures and norms continue to contribute to and even support violence against women.

Anu has asked me to speak about best practice in preventing and responding to violence against women, but in view of the expertise represented by our keynote speakers this morning I will simply make a few general comments.

What I would like to highlight from my own experiences, is the importance of engaging the broader community in a united front to prevent violence against women.

Primary prevention is not just about empowering women, but, it involves engaging groups such as youth and men.

In Vanuatu's case, men like the Torba province's local chief Greg.

It is vital that primary prevention initiatives are relevant to, and tailored for the targeted audiences.

For example, as set out in the National Plan, Respectful Relationships is a primary prevention program that mitigates sexual assault and domestic and family violence through education.

Using interactive workshops, peer education and counselling support, young people are assisted to develop ethical and protective behaviours; and to develop their skills in conducting respectful relationships.

Reaching young people through a range of mutually reinforcing mediums is also a key element of best practice in primary prevention.

'The Line' is an innovative, world leading social marketing campaign that aims to change attitudes and behaviours that contribute to violence. The campaign is the first of its kind in Australia, and has enjoyed significant success with almost 80,000 Facebook fans.

'One-size-fits-all' initiatives are limiting so Australia's National Plan recognises the diversity of the needs of women with disabilities, women from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, Indigenous women, same-sex attracted women and older women, and provides scope to tailor programs and responses based on individual needs.

I look forward to more detailed reflections from our panel of keynote speakers on these issues and with that in mind, should hand over to our eminent panellists.

In closing, I note that while we have made significant progress, all levels of Australian government and the broader community must continue to work together to challenge the attitudes and behaviours that allow violence to occur.

Our friends from Mongolia and Vietnam would no doubt make similar observations about their own communities

Just as living free from violence is every person's right, reducing violence is everyone's responsibility.

This is why we are here. This symposium is not simply a discussion, this is about practical steps forward, about building on what we have done – in Mongolia, in Vietnam, in Australia – evaluating where we have gone wrong, and improving on that.

It's about making changes so we can achieve change.

I am delighted to formally open this symposium.

Last Updated: 19 September 2014
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