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Seminar with students of the Institute of Gender and Development Studies

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University of the West Indies, St Augustine


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

Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago

Remarks by Penny Williams, Global Ambassador for Women and Girls

I am honoured to have been invited to participate in this seminar today and I thank the Institute of Gender and Development Studies for hosting this event.

It's a pleasure to be in Trinidad and Tobago and to have the opportunity to meet with people – this active academic community, members of parliament, officials, representatives of civil society and the media – all of whom have such a keen interest in, and commitment to, the cause of gender equality

Australia and CARICOM countries share significant interests in climate change, natural resource management, in food security, in economic prosperity bolstered by trade and investment cooperation, in international security including through a strong Arms Trade Treaty, and – from my point of view, of particular priority – in our cooperation to promote gender equality.

This cooperation was underscored in a very public way at the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Perth last year.

Following a bilateral meeting between Prime Minister Persad-Bissessar, then the outgoing Chair of the Office of the Commonwealth, and Australia's Prime Minister Julia Gillard as the new Chair, our respective heads of government announced they would work together to encourage Commonwealth leaders to sign a Joint Statement on Advancing Women's Political Participation.

They also said they had agreed to jointly promote women in political leadership as a priority issue in the Pacific and the Caribbean and they announced that I would visit Trinidad and Tobago in support of this Pacific-Caribbean cooperation.

Almost a year to the day – for that announcement was made on the 25th of October 2011 – it is a pleasure to be with you at this seminar, giving substance to those commitments made in Perth last year.

I would like to take a few moments to provide a snapshot of the work Australia has been engaged in over recent years to promote gender equality domestically and internationally, and also to describe the historical foundations on which recent activity has been built.

Australia's gender history and credentials

The rights that Australian women enjoy today represent more than a century of activism by women of matchless courage and resolve.

Catherine Helen Spence, is a case in point. As a journalist, social reformer, novelist, and the leading woman in public affairs in the early 1900s in Australia, she was in the vanguard of first-wave feminism seeking equality of opportunity for women. She championed the rights of women, lobbied for greater child welfare provision, and argued for a more democratic electoral system.

The opportunities my peers and I now enjoy for participation in education, in the workforce, in the media, in public life, and in high office are a gift from women like Catherine, who through countless acts of defiance, across many decades, affirmed the right of every woman to a life of opportunity, freedom and choice.

I know the same could be said of the forebears of the feminist movement in the Caribbean.

In preparing for my visit to Trinidad and Tobago, I was interested to read about another Catherine – Catherine McKenzie who in Jamaica in the early 1900s attacked laws which discriminated against women. She urged women to join the fight to change them saying, "...the rights accorded to women have left much to be desired. Just why woman has been denied all the rights which are accorded to man is one of the unexplained relations of life, except that it is man who has made laws denying her such rights."

Some forty years later, in 1946, I understand that Audrey Jeffers, was appointed as the first female member of the Legislative Council of Trinidad and Tobago.

For Australia, women's political representation occurred somewhat earlier.

April the 25th, 1896, was a milestone in Australia's feminist movement and also the world's. That day state elections were held in South Australia.

It was the first Australian parliamentary election in which women could vote, and it was the first in the world where women were permitted to run for office.

The state's newspaper, the Adelaide Advertiser, expressed its faith that women would not, and I quote, "leave their electoral privileges unexercised for fear of losing the bloom of their delicate and retiring femininity."

Another paper, the Adelaide Observer, pointed out the "air of responsibility" on the faces of the newly enfranchised voters.

So began women's journey in Australian political life.

But whether those first women voters knew it or not, they were doing more than just casting a ballot.

That vote was the key that unlocked the door to everything else:

The right to learn, to work and demand a fair day's pay;

To choose our partners and our family structures, and manage our own health;

To strive to live free of coercion and violence;

And to shape the destiny of the nations in which we live.

Even though Australia lays claim to being the first country in which women were permitted to run for office, it was not until 2010 that we elected our first female Prime Minister.

Your record in CARICOM is significantly more impressive with a list that includes Dame Eugenia Charles (Prime Minister of Dominica 1980-1995), Claudette Werleigh (Prime Minister Haiti, 1995-6), Janet Jagan (Prime Minister Guyana, 1997, and then President) , Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller of Jamaica (Prime Minister Jamaica 2006-07 and since January 2012), Michele Pierre-Louis (Prime Minister Haiti, 2008-09) and Prime Minister Persad-Bissessar.

In fact, the Caribbean is to be applauded for the fact that it currently provides the Commonwealth with two of its four female Prime Ministers. And of the 14 CARICOM member states, two have female Ministers of Foreign Affairs (Barbados and Guyana), whereas in Australia, we have not had ever had a female Foreign Minister.

Gender equality in contemporary Australia

Australia's strong commitment to gender equality is well-established and pursued at the highest levels of our government.

Our Prime Minister, our Head of State, the Deputy Leader of our Federal Opposition, just over 30 per cent of our Federal Parliamentary Ministry and almost 30 per cent of our parliamentarians are women, many working actively to promote the role of women.

The presence of women in the highest of our public offices is not sufficient – in Australia, in the Caribbean, in any part of the world.

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.

We have 15 houses of parliament in Australia across federal, state and territory governments, along with 565 local councils.

The time is overdue for anything less than 50 per cent representation of women in all these bodies.

We aspire to equal representation at all levels of government and on public and private sector boards, and equality in the workforce.

But in my country, the contemporary picture leaves room for improvement.

Women's representation in Australia's Federal Parliament is, in fact, stagnating.

As at September this year, women held 38.2 per cent of seats in our parliament's upper house, the Senate, and 24.7 per cent in the House of Representatives, down from the record high of 27.3 per cent in the previous parliament.

We have made progress in the workplace. Over the past 50 years, women's workforce participation has risen from 34 per cent to around 60 per cent.

There are 5.2 million women in jobs today, comprising around 46 per cent of the workforce.

But we're still not paid equal wages and we're underrepresented in business.

In 2012, our gender pay gap remains persistently high at 17.5 per cent, showing little change over the last three decades.

And according to Goldman Sachs, closing the gap between male and female participation in the economy would boost Australia's GDP by 13 per cent.

The Government has set a target to achieve a minimum of 40 per cent women on Australian Government boards by 2015.

We are tracking well towards this target, with 35.3 per cent of positions being held by women as at 30 June 2011.

But as of September this year, only 14.6 per cent of board members on the Australian Stock Exchange top 200 companies are women - this is an improvement on previous figures, but there is clearly still a long way to go.

Australia is changing regulations regarding its military service so that women can participate in all aspects of military life, but there have been longstanding, systemic issues affecting the capacity of women to contribute effectively to Australia's defence and security agenda.

This year, the Australian Human Rights Commission tabled its Government-commissioned Review into the Treatment of Women in the Australian Defence Force.

The Review made a number of recommendations aiming to address issues of under-representation of women at decision-making levels, as well as harassment, discrimination, and sexual assault.

More broadly in Australian society, gender-based violence remains an issue of deep concern.

Rates of domestic violence and sexual assault are alarmingly high.

In addition to the devastating social and psychological impact of this and the damage it causes to individuals and families over generations, it brings huge economic cost. It is estimated that if we eliminated violence against women, we would also save the Australian economy $13.6 billion each year.

Around one-in-three Australian women have experienced physical violence and almost one-in-five have experienced sexual violence since the age of 15.

In 2011, the Government launched an $86 million National Plan to Reduce Violence Against Women and their Children which is now being used by the UN as a model for countries around the world.

The 12 year plan draws together the efforts of governments across the nation to achieve a real and sustained reduction in the levels of violence against women.

It focuses on preventing violence by raising awareness and building respectful relationships in the next generation.

Australia's domestic reform agenda

Australia is committed to advancing gender equality domestically and internationally.

Over recent years, there has been significant momentum in our domestic agenda.

Economic empowerment

Women's economic empowerment is a priority.

A new Bill was introduced into our federal parliament earlier this year, proposing significant reform to existing legislation governing employment participation.

Once passed, the new Act – called the Workplace Gender Equality Act - will help increase women's participation in the workforce and their economic empowerment with a new focus on the unequal burden of caring responsibilities.

The new Act will help ensure that both women and men have equal options to balance their paid work and caring obligations.

It will also focus on equal remuneration, recognising that closing the gender pay gap is central to achieving equality.

Another important legislative reform – the Fair Work Act – has resulted in an historic pay equity decision. Social and Community sector workers – the majority of whom are women – will benefit from substantial pay rises based on a finding by Fair Work Australia that their work had been undervalued on gender grounds.

In 2011, the Government introduced a Paid Parental Leave scheme providing up to 18 weeks of Government-funded Parental Leave pay at the National Minimum Wage for eligible parents of newborn or recently adopted children.

And, from next year, Dad and Partner Pay will give eligible fathers and partners two weeks' paid parental leave. This sends another strong signal that taking leave to care for children is part of the normal course of work and family life for both parents.

In 2008, the Government rebate for out-of-pocket child care expenses was increased from 30 to 50 per cent, increasing the take home wages of women returning to work.

National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security

And on International Women's Day this year, Australia launched its National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security, implementing our commitments under UN Security Council Resolution 1325 and related resolutions.

This National Action Plan establishes a clear framework for a coordinated approach across government to integrate a gender perspective into Australia's peace and security efforts, to protect women and girl's human rights, particularly in relation to gender-based violence, and to promote their participation in conflict prevention, management and resolution.

These are important reforms, touching every Australian woman in some way.

International engagement

But Australia's work to achieve gender equality doesn't stop at our own borders.

As one of the world's top 20 economies, Australia is keenly aware of its responsibility to contribute to women's equality globally and to be a strong and persistent voice on behalf of the world's women and girls.

It was for precisely this reason that I was appointed as Australia's first Global Ambassador for Women and Girls in September last year. My key focus is high level international advocacy to promote the political, economic and social empowerment of women and girls around the globe.

Australia has demonstrated significant global leadership both as a tenacious international advocate and a provider of practical support to the world's 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. From January next year we will be a member of UN Women's Executive Board.

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.

We work energetically within our other partnerships too – with the Commonwealth, with ASEAN, with the East Asia Summit, APEC and the Pacific Islands Forum to name an important few.

And we value working with civil society including women's organisations around the world to respond to global challenges.

For example, we have cooperated closely with Trinidad and Tobago towards an Arms Trade Treaty, co-hosting three Arms Trade Treaty negotiation workshops with Trinidad and Tobago's Women's Institute for Alternative Development (WINAD) in 2010, 2011 and 2012.


Human trafficking is a priority area for Australia's international cooperation.

Since 2003, the Australian Government has had a comprehensive whole-of-government strategy in place to target trafficking in persons (TIP) in all its forms, including for sexual and labour exploitation.

The measures under this strategy, to which the Government has committed more than $100 million, address the full cycle of trafficking from recruitment to reintegration.

They reflect four central pillars: prevention; detection and investigation; prosecution; and victim support and protection.

Australia's response to TIP reflects our obligations as a party to the UNTOC since 2004 and its supplementary Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children since 2005.

We have strong anti-trafficking laws with severe penalties, including offences relating to slavery and trafficking persons into, and from, Australia for exploitation, sexual services or activities involving debt bondage.

In May this year, the Australia Government introduced legislation into Parliament to further strengthen our legislative framework

The Crimes Legislation Amendment (Slavery, Slavery-like Conditions and People Trafficking) Bill will help ensure that the broadest range of exploitative behaviour is captured and criminalised including by introducing new offences of forced labour and forced marriage [the Bill was passed by the House of Representatives on 22 August 2012 and is currently being considered by the Senate].

Australia has taken an active role in international efforts to combat TIP, including as Co-Chair of the Bali Process on People Smuggling, Trafficking in Persons and Related Transnational Crime.


Australia is making new investments to promote the empowerment of women and girls through our aid program which identifies gender equality as a critical and cross-cutting issue.

To deliver real results and improve the lives of women and men, their families, and their communities, AusAID is organising its work on gender equality and women's empowerment around four pillars.

    • Advancing equal access to gender-responsive health and education services.
    • Increasing women's voice in decision-making, leadership and peace-building.
    • Empowering women economically and improving their livelihood security.
    • Ending violence against women and girls at home, in their communities, and in disaster and conflict situations.

In 2011-12, 52 per cent, or AUD 2.16 billion, of all ODA expenditure by Australia's aid agency, AusAID, was on activities with a primary or secondary objective of improving gender equality and empowering women.

Australia has introduced a number of new initiatives focused on women in recent months.

Our Foreign Minister, Senator Carr, announced in July that Australia would double aid funding for family planning services in developing countries, increasing our support to $50 million a year by 2016.

This increase in funding will help women in the Asia-Pacific access reproductive health services, family planning information and modern contraception.

Australia is also taking a lead in reducing domestic and community violence against women.

In Afghanistan, Australia has a $17.7 million program to help change community attitudes and reduce retribution attacks against women.

In Indonesia, Australia will help around three million women with jobs, family planning and increased protection against domestic violence, through a $60 million aid program.

Most recently, our Prime Minister announced a new ten year, $320 million program in the Pacific to promote women's political and economic empowerment.


Equality is not something that Australia or Trinidad and Tobago, or any multilateral organisation, or any institution can achieve alone.

As the head of UN Women, Michelle Bachelet, said during her visit to Australia in August this year, "Equality depends on each and all of us. From the government that changes its laws, to the company that advances equal pay and equal opportunity, to the mother and father who teach their daughter and son that all human beings should be treated equally, to the students who speak out and demand change. We are all part of the solution."

And on behalf of Australia, I am delighted to be working on that solution with Australia's friends in the Caribbean during this visit.

Thank you.

Last Updated: 10 December 2012
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