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Women’s economic empowerment: why it’s important to Tasmania, Australia, the region and the world

News, speeches and media


Speaker: Her Excellency Professor the Honourable Kate Warner AM, Governor of Tasmania

Fundraising lunch hosted by the Tasmania State Office of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and Women Chiefs of Enterprise International.

The following facts starkly demonstrate the need to fight for gender equality globally:

  • Two-thirds of the 774 million people in the world who lack basic literacy skills are female, a proportion that has remained unchanged and spans most regions.
  • Participation rates in employment: in 2013 the male employment-to-population ratio stood at 72.2%, while the ratio for females was 47.1%.1
  • Globally women are paid less than men and in most countries women earn on average between 10-30% less than men for the same work.
  • Globally it is estimated that women could increase their income by up to 76% if the employment participation gap and the wage gap between men and women were closed, which is calculated to have a global value of USD17 trillion.
  • Women are under-represented in government – globally they comprise 21.7% of parliamentarians – in the Pacific it is worse, they comprise just 5%.
  • Rates of domestic violence: approximately one in three women in South East Asia, and two in three women in some Pacific countries experiencing physical and/or sexual violence by their intimate partner.
  • Every day, approximately 800 women die from preventable causes related to pregnancy and childbirth – 99% of all maternal deaths occur in developing countries.

When I began to think about women's economic empowerment and gender inequality globally, three stories spring immediately to mind.

The first is the story of Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani activist for female education and the youngest ever Nobel Peace Prize laureate. Her story is well known but is worth repeating, to acknowledge and celebrate her courage and to highlight the obstacles to gender equality in developing countries. Malala was born on 12 July 1997 in the Swat District, a province of North West Pakistan, where she grew up in a Sunni Muslim family with her parents and two younger brothers. Her father is a poet, school owner and educational activist who ran a chain of private schools in the Swat District. She was just 11 years-old when she first spoke out about education rights – at the local press club in Peshawar, where in a speech reported in the press in the region she asked: 'How dare the Taliban take away my basic rights to education?' Towards the end of that year (2008) the Taliban's power and influence in the Swat Valley was increasing. They were banning television, music, girl's education and women from going shopping. Malala was recruited to blog anonymously about life under the Taliban by the BBC Urdu website. Her first entry was posted on 3 January 2009. She was 11. In her town, Migora, the Taliban had set an edict that no girls could attend school after 15 January 2009. They had already blown up more than a hundred girl's schools. Malala spoke out against the Taliban on a national current affairs show on 18 February.

Whilst the ban on girl's education was lifted and attendance in Malala's class improved a little, skirmishes and shelling between the Military and the Taliban was on going. Malala continued to publicly advocate for female education and her public profile increased over the next three years with more media appearances despite death threats, which failed to silence her. On 9 October 2012, when she was just 15, she was shot by a Taliban gunman as she travelled home with school friends on a bus after sitting an exam. She was seriously injured and unconscious. The bullet entered her forehead and travelled through her face and embedded in her neck. A week later she was transferred to a hospital in Birmingham in the United Kingdom for treatment. She was discharged in February 2013 following skull reconstruction and an operation to restore her hearing. Since March 2013 she has been a pupil at a girls' school in Birmingham. Her activism and public speaking has continued. She has spoken at the United Nations to call for worldwide access to education and last October, at the age of 17, she was the co-recipient of 2014 Nobel Peace Prize for her struggle against the suppression of children and young people and of the right of all children to education.

When she was interviewed by the Guardian and asked if she was the frightened of the threats of the Taliban directed at her, she said:2

Fear, was spread all over the valley of Swat, but we [she and her father] were not afraid of fear. At nights our hearts were beating fast, but in the morning were like normal people, and we said we'll continue our campaign. Our courage was stronger than fear.

Malala Yousafzai has recently spoken out criticising Nigerian and world leaders for failing to help free the missing 219 Nigerian schoolgirls who were abducted by Boko Harum from their school in Chibok in Borno state, north eastern Nigeria, on 14 April last year.3 The Islamist group Boko Haram aims to institute an Islamic caliphate in Nigeria. The name Boko Harum apparently means Western education is sinful. It has targeted schools since 2009 and believes that girls should not be educated. Boko Harum attacks intensified in 2014 and on the night of 14-15 April, a group of group of Boko Harum militants broke into the Government Girls' Secondary School in Chibok. The school had been closed for four weeks prior to the attack because of the security situation, but final year students, aged 16 to 18 and in their final year, had been called back to take the final physics exam. The militants, who broke into the school, pretended to be guards and told the girls to get out and come with them. Many were taken away in trucks probably to the Sambisa Forest where Boko Harum had fortified camps. It is not completely clear how many were taken. Some escaped. The police claimed approximately 267 were taken, of whom 53 escaped by 2nd May.

On 5 May 2014, the Boko Harum leader, Abubakar Shekau, claimed responsibility for the kidnappings and claimed that Allah had instructed him to sell the girls and that he would carry out his instructions. He also said, "Slavery is allowed in my religion, and I shall capture people and make them slaves."4 He said the girls should not have been in school and instead should have been married since girls as young as nine are suitable for marriage. As Shekau acknowledged, many of the girls seized were not Muslims as Chibok is primarily a Christian village. On 30 May it was reported that two of the kidnapped girls had been found, they had been raped and tied to a tree. Villagers said the Boko Harum group had killed four other girls and buried them. On 12 October 2014, it was reported that four girls from the original kidnapped group had escaped and walked for three weeks from a camp in Cameroon to safety in Nigeria. They said they had been held in the camp and raped every day.

The Chibok kidnapping was by no means an isolated incident. In June 2014 it was estimated that there could be as many as 600 girls held by Boko Harum in three camps outside Nigeria. The group lost ground in a recent military offensive and has retreated to the Sambisa Forest in Borno Provence. But it still remains a force and the 200 or so abducted school girls have not been found.5 One year after their abduction, the BBC reported that Abubakar Shekau claimed they all had converted to Islam and been married off.6 The reality of their fate remains unclear. They may well have been forcibly married to Boko Haram fighters or sold into slavery. Many of them may have been killed. Nigeria's newly elected President, Muhammadu Buhari, who was inaugurated last Friday, has promised to track down the girls.7

The third news story that highlights the need to champion the empowerment of women globally is the horrifying story of the rape and murder of the young Indian physiotherapy student, Jyoti Singh Pandey in Delhi in December 2012. In April 2015, Four Corner's showed the documentary, India's Daughter, recounting the story. Jyoti's family were not well-off. Her father had wanted to be a teacher but was from a village where education was not valued. He was determined to give his daughter, who loved school, a good education. He sold his land and worked double shifts to pay for her to go to college. On the evening of the rape she was returning home from watching the film the Life of Pi with a male friend. They caught a private bus, which deviated from its normal route. When they objected, the six men on the bus, including the driver taunted them for being out together at night. They attacked Jyoti's friend and then brutally raped her. The facts of the rape are horrifying and I will spare you the details. She and her companion were thrown from the bus and were left lying badly injured and disrobed on the roadside. Jyoti Singh died six days later from her injuries.

As disturbing as the incident itself was the response to it of some of some respected members of the Indian community, defence counsel and one of the defendants. The Verma Committee, appointed by the Government to investigate the need for sexual assault law reform following the public outcry over the horrific incident, noted that after it, many political leaders, spiritual gurus and other eminent persons responded to with statements reinforcing rigid gender roles.8 Some even blamed the victim for having facilitated the rape by her own behaviour. Quoted comments including the following from Shri Assam Bapu:9

The victim is as guilty as her rapists… She should have called the culprits brothers and begged before them to stop… This could have saved her dignity and life. Can one hand clap? I don't think so.

One of the defendants, interviewed for the film India's Daughter, expressed victim blaming views and displayed rigid gender role attitudes stating:

A girl is far more responsible for rape than a boy … A decent girl won't roam around at nine o'clock at night …. Housework and house-keeping is for girls, not roaming in discos and bars at night doing wrong things, wearing wrong clothes.

AP Singh, a defence lawyer in the case, was shown as saying:

If my daughter or sister engaged in pre-marital activities and disgraced herself and allowed herself to lose face and character … I would put petrol on her and set her alight.

And another defence counsel, ML Sharma, said:

If your diamond's on the street, certainly the dog will take it home.10

These stories should not be read as suggesting sexist attitudes to women and women's education are confined to developing countries. Gains have been made in the social position of women in Western Countries including Australia in recent decades. For example, Australian men and women have similar literacy levels. In 2006 more than half of Australian men (54%) and women (59%) aged 16-65 years had a prose literacy skill that placed them at Level 3 or above.11 Level 3 is regarded as the "minimum required for individuals to meet the complex demands of everyday life and work in the emerging knowledge-based economy". As with literacy, Level 3 numeracy is considered the minimum necessary to meet the complex demands of everyday life. In 2006 similar proportions of Australian men (55%) and women (45%) had Level 3 or above numeracy skills.

Educational attainment for women has been steadily improving. For more than a decade young women have been consistently more likely than young men to attain Year 12 qualifications. And since 1987 they have been more likely to be higher education students. In contrast, in the 1950s only one in five University students were female. One of the explanations for this is that entry into qualifications traditionally dominated by women (nursing and teaching) now requires university qualifications, another is that young men have more vocational options than young women. 12 But women moving into previously male dominated professions is also part of the explanation.

That is the good news. The bad news is that despite these gains participation rates in employment are worse for women. The latest figures show that labour force participation for women is 58.5%, and for men it is 71.2%.13

And the gender pay gap is increasing. In the workforce as a whole, full time weekly earnings for women are, on average, 18.8% less than for men.14 In Tasmania, the gap is smaller, at 12.8%,15 but of course average weekly earnings are lower. Average graduate salaries for women are 9.4% less than for men. When factors such as personal characteristics, occupation, industry and education are accounted for, average graduate salaries for women are 4.4% less than for men.16 And average superannuation balances for women are 46.6% less than for men.

As for women in leadership, women hold just 12% of chair positions and 23.7% of directorships in Agency reporting organisations. In the period January-April 2015, 20.4% of directors in the ASX 200 were women.17 And in Australia, just 29% of parliamentarians are women, and 20% ministers.18

Women and girls are also disproportionately victims of domestic and sexual violence. Whilst men are also victims of both, women are more likely to be victims of both physical violence by a partner (17% compared with 5%) since age 15, and sexual assault since the age of 15 (17% compares with 4%).19 More than one woman each week dies at the hands of her partner or former partner and domestic violence is the leading cause of death and injury in women under 45 in Australia.

There are clear benefits in the economic empowerment of women. When more women work economies grow.20 Evidence from a range of countries shows that increasing the share of household income controlled by women, either through their own earnings or cash transfers, changes spending in ways that benefit children.21 Increasing women and girls' education contributes to higher economic growth. Increased educational attainment accounts for about 50% of the economic growth in OECD countries over the past 50 years of which over half is due to girls having had access to higher levels of education and achieving greater equality in the number of years spent in education between men and women.22

A study using data from 219 countries from 1970 to 2009 found that, for every one additional year of education for women of reproductive age, child mortality decreased by 9.5%.23

Gender equality is central to economic and human development and an important right. It supports economic growth and helps reduce poverty. This evening, Sally Moyle is speaking about the importance of understanding gender inequalities in working towards addressing poverty and promoting growth and stability in the Asian region in a public lecture. She is better placed than I to speak about Australia's aid efforts in this respect. I will just mention that Australia's aid program aims to promote gender equality and empower women in partner countries. The Gender Equality Fund, which is part of the 2015-16 aid budget, aims to accelerate support for gender equality. The first investment supported by the fund will bring together business partnerships to commit to equal employment opportunity and promotion of women at all levels. And it will work to raise awareness and change behaviour towards women's greater economic empowerment across the region.

What about the economic empowerment of women at a national level? We have seen that gains have been made in education in particular. But that gender inequalities remain striking in terms of workforce participation, economic security (the gender pay gap, superannuation balances and so on) and in leadership. And that in Australia, family and sexual violence disproportionately affects women. There is convincing evidence that there is a link between gender inequality and gender violence and that underlying both economic inequality and gender violence are socially constructed gender role identities and expectations that shape the behaviour of men and women.

Recent public attitudes surveys reveal concerning findings. The 2013 National Community Attitudes Survey found the whilst most Australians support gender equality in education (only 5% said a university education is more important for a girl than a boy) and in employment (12% said when jobs are scarce, men have more right to a job than a woman), more than a quarter believe that men make better political leaders (27%) and up to 28% endorse attitudes supportive of male dominance of decision making in relationships – for example, 28% believe women prefer a man to be in charge of the relationship and 19% believe that men should take control in relationships and be the head of the household.24 Our Watch, the national organisation established to drive changes in culture, behaviour and attitudes that support domestic violence, commissioned a survey to inform its Line Campaign approach from 2015 onwards and found that 28% of young people (aged 12-24) thought it important for men to be tough and strong, 15% thought it important for women to allow men to make decisions in relationships and 16% thought women should know their place.25 These findings are particularly concerning because dominance in decision making in relationships is a risk factor for partner violence.

How to tackle gender inequalities underlying the gender pay gap, the leadership deficit and the problem of gender violence is a challenge in Australia. Tackling rigid gender role stereotypes that see men as the primary bread-winner, women as the primary carer of children and that pose an obstacle to men having flexible work practices which would allow them to share child care and domestic work is core. The economic empowerment of women will benefit society in general - men and children as well as women. In Australia, just educating our girls to the same standard as boys does not go far enough. This is an important lesson for our international aid programs.

  • 1 International Labour Organisation, (2014), Global Employment Trends, 2014, Risk of a Jobless Recovery? p 19 Accessed on 29 May 2015,
  • 2 Kamila Shamsie, 'Malala Yousafzai: the pride of Pakistan, but she can't go home, The Guardian, 11 October 2014.
  • 3 ABC News, 'Chibok kidnappings: Nigeria marks one year since abduction of schoolgirls by Boko Harum', 14 April 2015.
  • 4 BBC News, Africa, 'Boko Harum "to sell" Nigerian girls abducted from Chibok" 5 May 2014, viewed 3 June 2015,
  • 5 Tom Olidipo, 'Why Boko Harum remains a threat', BBC News, Africa, 7 May 2015.
  • 6 'Chibok kidnappings: Nigeria marks one year since abduction of schoolgirls by Boko Harum' ABC News 14 April 2015.
  • 7 Aislinn Laing, 'Nigeria's President Goodluck Jonathon hand over to former dictator Muhammadu Buhari' The Telegraph, 29 May 2015.
  • 8 JS Verma, L Seith and G Subramanium, Report of the Committee on Amendments to Criminal Law (the Verma Report), 23 January 2013.
  • 9 Above, n 8, 11.
  • 10
  • 11 Australian Bureau of Statistics, Education differences between men and women, 4102.0 Australian Social Trends, Sep 2012.
  • 12 ABS, n 11, p 5.
  • 13 Australian Government, Workplace Gender Equality Agency, Gender workplace statistics at a glance, May 2015, viewed 1 June 2015
  • 14 Australian Government, n 13.
  • 15 Australian Government, n 13.
  • 16 Australian Government, n 13.
  • 17 Australian Government, n 13.
  • 18 Parliament of Australia, Representation of Women in Australian Parliaments 2014.
  • 19 ABS, Personal Safety Survey 2012, cat no 4906.0.
  • 20 UN Women, Facts and Figures: Economic Empowerment, viewed 30 May 2015,
  • 21 Above n 20.
  • 22 Above n 20.
  • 23 Above n 20.
  • 24 VicHealth, Australians attitudes to violence against women, 2013 National community attitudes towards violence against women survey – Research summary, September 2014, p 6.
  • 25 Hall & Partners Open Mind, The Line Campaign: Summary of Research Findings, May 2015, p 4.

Last Updated: 5 June 2015
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