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The role of legislation in responding to family violence

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Speech by the Ambassador for Women and Girls to open the Pacific Women's Parliamentary Partnerships Forum


Speaker: The Ambassador for Women and Girls, Natasha Stott Despoja (check against delivery)

Suva, Fiji


Ni Sa Bula

The Honourable Prime Minister, Josaia Voreqe Bainimarama

Dr Jiko Luveni, Speaker of the Fiji Parliament

I acknowledge distinguished guests from around the region and my compatriots from Australia. It is wonderful to see so many familiar faces here – women I've met during my Pacific travels but also some with whom I have worked in multilateral fora, most recently at the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women in New York last month. I also welcome the speakers of Pacific parliaments who are joining this gathering for the first time.

I am not only among friends but also among family. We would all agree, politics runs very deep in the blood and although I left Australia's parliament some seven years ago, the truth is that you can take the woman out of politics but you can't take politics out of the woman.

Although I'm no longer a serving member of Australia's parliament, I am glad to participate in this gathering and to build on the connections we established at the 2014 Pacific Women's Parliamentary Partnerships Forum in Tonga, and since.

These fora are not just important occasions to network, to build a strong and effective community of women leaders across the Pacific and to share experiences, they are also a vital foundation for the development of regional responses to our shared, most pressing challenges and a chance to influence change. Having focussed on matters relating to women's parliamentary participation in the first two of these Pacific Women's Parliamentary Partnerships meetings, it is time to turn our attention and our combined leadership to the issue of family violence.

It is an issue central to my role as Ambassador and as Chair of OurWatch, Australia's Foundation to End Violence Against Women and Their Children. Domestic, family and sexual violence have been priorities for my advocacy in the Pacific and beyond.

Only six months ago I visited Fiji to mark International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women on 25 November. I was honoured to meet some of Fiji's women parliamentarians, only very recently elected at that point, so it's great to be able to continue that contact.

On the International Day, I hosted a dialogue with regional businesswomen leaders on the impact of family violence on businesses and the economy and heard of private sector efforts to address violence against women. We identified best practice examples from around the region of how the business community can support survivors of violence. It was a very practical application of the sorts of conversations I anticipate we'll be having in this forum.

I value the opportunity to continue the discussions held during my visit last November, and to shift focus to the important realm of legislative responses, frameworks, reform and implementation.

Family violence remains one of the greatest barriers to gender equality in our region, as well as one of the most heinous expressions of gender inequality.

It is crucial that we engage effectively across all levels of government, across bureaucracies, law enforcement agencies, the judiciary, business and civil society to stop violence and to build communities where all people - women and girls, as well as men and boys – can safely reach their potential and contribute actively and equally to the prosperity and well-being of their societies.

The theme of this forum - the role of legislation in ending violence against women – has been a focus for me as a Senator, as Australia's Ambassador for Women and Girls and Chair of OurWatch.

We know that, given sufficient attention and intervention by government and civil society agencies, gender-based violence is preventable. That's why this gathering is vital – a global problem requires a concerted global response.

Global context

Across the world–in all countries–women are being beaten, trafficked, raped and killed.

The World Health Organisation calls violence against women an "epidemic".

Globally, including in Australia, more than one in three women have been beaten, coerced into sex, or abused in some way. In some parts of our region, over 60 per cent of surveyed women and girls report having experienced violence.

Overwhelmingly, these attacks are perpetrated by intimate partners and in the home.

In Australia, I consider this issue to be a national emergency.

On 24 November last year, Australia's outgoing Chief Police Commissioner, Ken Lay, described it as our 'dark secret' at an event in Parliament House where our Prime Minister, Opposition leader and 10 police commissioners from Australia and New Zealand gathered to take a stand against gender-based violence.

Since the start of this year, an average of two Australian women per week have been killed in violent attacks. 27 per cent of Australian women have reported experiencing physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence over their lifetime. Under-reporting prevents us seeing the full picture.

This is an emergency in terms of the cost to lives of individual women and their families – physically, psychologically, socially and financially – and it comes at a devastating economic and social cost to our communities.

The Australian legislative and regulatory context

I am aware that during the forum, there will be a stocktake of legislative responses to family violence from around the Pacific. In that context, I thought it might be useful to provide a snapshot of Australia's situation, because, as the statistics I've referred to indicate, we are at something of a crossroad nationally.

Commonwealth and state and territory laws in Australia criminalise family violence and are designed to protect and assist persons against whom family violence is perpetrated or threatened.

Australia's 2nd Action Plan under our National Plan to Reduce Violence Against Women and their Children seeks to bring together the efforts of all Australian governments to make a significant and sustained reduction in violence against women and their children over a twelve-year timeframe.

But despite Australia's legislative and policy efforts, family violence continues.

Our Prime Minister has acknowledged that Australia's current system is fragmented and that we need to provide better, more integrated support to women across Australia.

In January this year, the Prime Minister announced the Council of Australian Governments (Australia's peak intergovernmental forum) would drive a national-level approach to addressing violence against women. Of immediate priority is the implementation of a national Domestic Violence Order scheme, so that if a protection order is issued in one state, it will apply across borders, in all states.

This month, the Council agreed to introduce such a scheme. Its legal framework and a trial of its application is expected to be completed this year with full implementation by 2016.

Federal and state governments will also work together on a $30 million national awareness campaign on family violence.

Our Prime Minister has created a high-profile national advisory panel to oversee these efforts.

The announcement of Rosie Batty as Australian of the Year in January has also given new impetus to national discussion about gender-based violence. Rosie Batty is an anti-domestic violence campaigner whose 11 year old son tragically was killed in an attack by his father last year.

In Australia, as in our region and globally, momentum to end violence is building, but, as I think you'd agree, it has been a long, slow haul.

In 2008, the UN Secretary-General launched a multi-year global campaign called UNiTE to End Violence against Women. He appealed to all partners to join forces to eliminate this scourge.

The campaign recognises the power of the law: one of its five key goals is for all countries to adopt and enforce, by 2015, national laws that address and punish all forms of such violence, in line with international human rights standards.

Significant efforts have been made in our region to meet this goal and the level of political commitment, historically enunciated in the Pacific Gender Equality Declaration of 2012, is commendable.

I congratulate governments around the Pacific for the priority they have given to passing legislation that criminalises domestic violence and establishes greater protection for women, most recently Solomon Islands, Kiribati, Tuvalu, Tonga and Korae State in the Federated States of Micronesia. Tonga's decision to ratify CEDAW earlier this year was another milestone.

Around the world, legislative frameworks have been expanded and strengthened, but significant gaps remain. Many perpetrators are not held accountable. Impunity persists. Women continue to be re-victimised through the legal process.

So what remains to be done in our region?

As a former legislator, it strikes me there are several threshold questions to frame discussions at this forum:

First of all, do we have comprehensive legislation that provides the foundation for a holistic and effective response?

Second, is our legislation consistently enforced and monitored, and are adequate resources allocated to address this?

Third, do the personnel and officials working in the field have the skills, capacity and sensitivity to understand and then apply the spirit and letter of the law?

Fourth, do our laws inform a concerted effort that includes education raising awareness of people's rights and responsibilities, and community mobilisation?

Fifth, do they contribute to tackling discriminatory stereotypes and attitudes?

And, finally, do they mandate the research and knowledge-building necessary to support policy development?

To address the first question, the issue of whether we have comprehensive legislation, I'd like to focus our attention on what makes for comprehensive legislation to end violence against women.

Comprehensive legislation includes broad definitions of all forms of violence against women in accordance with international human rights standards. It explicitly recognises violence against women as a form of gender-based discrimination and a violation of women's human rights.

Comprehensive legislation not only encompasses the criminalisation of all forms of violence against women and children and the effective prosecution and punishment of perpetrators, but it also addresses the prevention of violence, and the empowerment, support and protection of survivors.

It contains provisions for effective implementation, evaluation and monitoring.

  • Ideally, it provides an organic link to a national action plan or strategy;
  • it mandates a budget for its implementation;
  • it provides for the elaboration of rules, regulations, and protocols necessary for the law's full and effective implementation;
  • it requires the training of all relevant officials;
  • it mandates the creation of specialised institutions and officials to implement legislation on violence against women;
  • it emphasises the critical importance of monitoring the implementation of the law and recommends that legislation establish institutional mechanisms, such as multi-sectoral task forces or committees, or national rapporteurs, to undertake this task;
  • and it also requires the regular collection of statistical data and research to ensure an adequate knowledge base for effective implementation and monitoring.

Best practice family violence legislation will have a focus on prevention through awareness-raising campaigns, training of media to report appropriately on family violence and with sensitivity to survivors, and inclusion of material on violence against women and women's human rights in educational curricula.

It will aim to prevent the secondary victimisation of the victim/survivor throughout the legal process, through appropriate evidentiary rules, the collection of evidence, legal procedure, and the rights of victims/survivors during legal proceedings.

In addition to criminal proceedings, family violence legislation should recognise civil lawsuits as a supplement or alternative to criminal prosecution, civil protection orders, and other available legal remedies.

And family law should be examined and amended to ensure the sensitive and appropriate consideration of violence against women in family law.

Against these measures, I suspect that we could all identify legislative deficiencies in our jurisdictions.

And leaving aside the legal foundations themselves in place in our countries, we all face similar challenges of implementation.

In short, there is a lot to discuss at this forum.

The elimination of violence against women and girls is a key priority in Australia's foreign policy agenda and aid program. It's an area where successive governments have been working in partnership with Pacific countries for a number of years.

Recognising that the design of family violence legislation must be evidence-based, since 2008, we've supported research for ten Family Health and Safety Studies in the Pacific.

We have seen this data have an impact. The 2010 studyconducted in Kiribati has brought discussion of violence into the public domain. I congratulate the Kiribati Government for unanimously endorsing the study findings and committing to a policy of 'zero tolerance' of sexual and gender-based violence. The study findings were also translated into the National Policy and Strategic Action Plan 2011-2021 and underpinned Kiribati's Family Peace Act.

As we know, enacting legislation is only the first step. The real challenge comes with implementation.

Under our Pacific partnership, Australia has contributed to the development of costed implementation plans for Kiribati's and Tonga's family violence legislation.

And our 10-year $320 million Pacific Women Shaping Pacific Development initiative is funding programs to prevent violence against women and support survivors, including through Women's Crisis Centres in Fiji, Vanuatu and Tonga. In Solomon Islands, Australia funds SAFENET, a 24-hour crisis hotline and referral service which provides access to counselling, medical treatment, temporary accommodation and legal assistance.

Complementing our focus on service provision, Australia is also working with Pacific law-enforcement agencies, and the justice sector, to support survivors of violence.

For example, in Papua New Guinea, Australia has funded

  • Family and Sexual Violence Units in police stations – I was honoured to open one at Boroko Police Station in Port Moresby in April 2014
  • the roll-out of Interim Protection Orders within PNG's Magisterial Services,
  • the introduction of dedicated Victim Liaison Officers in PNG to support witnesses and victims through the prosecution process, and to obtain victim impact statements,
  • and we have funded the training and appointment of provincial female magistrates to better address the needs of women.

More than 1,300 women have been recruited since 2004 to work in the approximately 1,650 Village Courts in PNG. Rhoda Geita was an early appointment as a village magistrate under this program. Her role was to resolve disputes, deal with minor offences and help maintain peace and harmony in villages.

In the face of high levels of domestic violence, and with cases often going unreported because women are intimidated by largely male-dominated justice systems, the appointment of magistrates like Rhoda is crucial. It encourages victims to come forward, and as more perpetrators are called to account, a clear message is delivered: domestic violence is unacceptable.

Reflecting on her work, Rhoda recounted a case where a man hit his wife for not getting his food. She said she made him switch places with his wife 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 Rhoda made the order. She 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 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.

Primary Prevention

Holding perpetrators of violence to account, bringing justice, supporting survivors – these are all important.

But our focus needs to be on primary prevention as well as stopping the violence before it occurs.

International studies and experience confirm that we can create the change that is necessary to stop violence against women from happening in the first place.

The evidence is clear that to prevent violence against women, we must address gender inequality, challenge rigid gender stereotypes and promote social and attitudinal change so that this issue is no longer justified, excused or hidden.

Primary prevention is the focus of OurWatch, an organisation I have chaired since its inception in 2013.

Australia is working with partners in the Pacific on similar primary prevention programs, with a particular focus on engaging men and traditional leaders, including faith leaders, to address gender equality in their communities.

In Solomon Islands, the Channels of Hope program works with 30 communities to encourage positive behaviours in relation to the roles of men and women, and boys and girls. And as part of raising awareness of Tonga's Family Protection Act, we are supporting community conversations on the root causes of violence against women.

Addressing multiple disadvantage is also a priority for us. Studies show that women and girls with disabilities are two to three times more likely to be victims of physical and sexual abuse than those without disabilities.

Responding to this, the Pacific Disability Forum, with Australian funding, has developed a toolkit to assist organisations and communities to prevent violence against women and girls with disabilities. I look forward to launching this toolkit tomorrow.

As this forum gets underway, it is worth keeping in mind that in all our efforts to eliminate violence against women, we must include measures to assist those with particular vulnerabilities, to encourage the participation and active involvement of those with a disability, and to ensure their access to justice and support services.


The magnitude of the challenges we all face in this work can be daunting.

Violence against women is so deeply entrenched and so inextricably linked to gender equality and negative perceptions of women's status and roles. Effecting social change takes time and effort well beyond legislative reform.

But with many new laws condemning family violence recently enacted throughout the Pacific, this is a time for optimism and a time to capitalise on the momentum.

I know the conversations and collaboration at this forum will be inspiring and fruitful – how could it be otherwise with some of the best minds in the Pacific gathered here! I look forward to the new ideas which are generated. And I hope this forum will encourage you as you continue your work – as representatives of your communities and of your countries' women and girls – to put an end to family and sexual violence for once and for all.

Vinaka vakalevu. Thank you.

Last Updated: 23 July 2015
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