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100 years of International Women’s Day (2011)

Discrimination Sex Discrimination

100 years of International Women’s Day

Speech by Elizabeth Broderick
Sex Discrimination Commissioner and Commissioner responsible for Age Discrimination
Australian Human Rights Commission

ACT Women’s Services Network Breakfast

Kamberra Wine Company, Devine Room, Cnr Northbourne Ave & Flemington Rd, Lyneham

8 March 2011


Thank you Aunty Agnes for your warm welcome to country.

I also acknowledge the Ngunnawal people and pay my respects to their elders past, present and future. They hold the memories, the traditions, the culture and hope of all Australians. I honour them for their custodianship of the land on which we gather today.

Thank you to the ACT Women’s Services Network for inviting me to be here. I am so pleased to be with everyone and a part of the celebrations to mark the 100th year of International Women’s Day.

I want to acknowledge the Governor-General, Ms Quentin Bryce, AC who is a great inspiration to all of us, and who has been so kind as to offer me some wise words on many occasions. Despite the gap of 14 years between our terms as Sex Discrimination Commissioners, we have worked on many of the same issues – issues that will not go away.

I also acknowledge Ms Joy Burch, the ACT Minister for Women and Dr Helen Watchirs, the ACT Human Rights and Discrimination Commissioner.

Finally I want to acknowledge all the women and men here today who work or volunteer at the different women’s services in the ACT – this includes health services, counselling services, legal services, shelters, refuges, crisis services, accommodation services, employment services, welfare services, services for Indigenous women, culturally and linguistically diverse women, lesbian women, Trans women, women with disabilities, young women, older women and the list I am sure, goes on.

I am so honoured to be sharing this 100th year of International Women’s Day with you, the very women and men, whose dedication, commitment and achievements we acknowledge on International Women’s Day.

Today I want to reflect on how far we’ve come over the past century, starting with some thoughts about International Women’s Day and the achievements that have been made. I then want to talk to you about one of the areas where I think there is a lot of work that is still needed – and that is in the area of violence against women.

But first, I have the pleasure of launching the Australian Women Against Violence Alliance and its IWD project – the Australian Women’s Timeline.

It is wonderful to see that a national women’s alliance has been established that has a specific focus on eliminating all forms of violence against women. Violence continues to plague our communities, and we know it predominantly affects women and children. This has got to stop, and we can’t wait another 100 years.

It is AWAVA’s vision to ensure that all women and children are able to live free from all forms of violence and abuse.

I am also pleased to launch AWAVA’s first project which is the Australian Women’s Timeline.

The Australian Women’s Timeline has been produced to commemorate the centenary of International Women’s Day. It is a timeline of significant events and achievements affecting Australian women over the last 100 years. It includes major political, educational, legal and social milestones in Australia’s history.

AWAVA is making the timeline available as a range of resources including postcards, brochures, posters and web-based resources for use in upper primary and secondary schools and by community organisations.

Julie Oberin, Chair Of AWAVA, explaining why AWAVA had chosen to create a timeline said, ‘Over the last 100 years women have done so many things and achieved so much – and we thought that it was important to create the timeline as a means of acknowledging all the significant women and the significant events they made happen.’

And it is true. If you follow the timeline it takes you through the great strides women have made in Australia. It reminds us of when we first got the right to vote, the right to work in the public service as married women and when the first rape crisis centre was set up in Sydney in 1971, as well as the first refuge and the first women’s health centre.

However, Julie went on to say, that the timeline also illustrates that we still have so much further to go particularly in terms of eliminating violence against women.

So I ask you to join me in congratulating all the members of AWAVA, many of whom are here today, on their new Alliance. I hope that AWAVA, in conjunction with other Alliances, governments, community organisations and other stakeholders, will be able to make a real difference to ending violence against women in Australia.

We are here commemorating 100 years of International Women’s Day.

As many of you know, the first Australian International Women’s Day rally took place in Sydney’s Domain on March 25, 1928. Those women called for equal pay for equal work; an 8 hour day for shop workers; a ban on piece work; a basic wage for the unemployed and annual holidays on full pay. These don’t seem like radical demands but even today there are many working women who cannot lay claim to any of them. This is not to say that that the situation for women has not improved over the past 100 years - it has – but for many women there is still some way to go.

100 years ago Australian women finally won the right to vote in all State and Commonwealth elections, although, Indigenous women had to wait another 57 years for the same right.
But even with the right to vote, women were not represented in Australia’s parliaments until Edith Cowan entered the West Australian Parliament in 1921. And it was not until 1943 that women were elected to our federal parliament for the first time. At the same time the Prime Minister of the country was telling the Australian Women’s Weekly “...the natural urge for motherhood, husband and home is the great motivating force in a woman’s life.” [1]

Until well into the 1960’s Australian women in the public service were forced to resign from their jobs as permanent officers if they got married. It was the same in many private companies. Some women hid their marriages from employers for years, removing their rings before they reached the office.

It was only in 1965 that Australian women won the right to drink in a public bar. Up until then only certain pubs allowed women entry and they would have to sit in a small area (the ladies lounge) where they were often charged more for their drinks. But this all changed on a Wednesday afternoon in March 1965 when two women, Merle Thornton and Rosalie Bognor, entered the public bar of the Regatta Hotel in Queensland and ordered two beers. When they were refused their beers and asked to leave, they promptly chained themselves to the footrail of the bar.

This was part of the Women’s Liberation movement which started in the 1960’s. The aim of the movement was not to “have it all” as some contemporaries would have us believe, it was – among other things – to transform the power relations between men and women which lay at the foundation of our society. These women demanded equal pay for equal work, equal access to education and employment, public provision of child care, shared responsibility for the upbringing of children, and women’s right to autonomy over their own bodies.
In the early 1990s we started to see women and men working together to address gender equality. Young “DIY feminists” took the concept of men and women as equals as a given and applied it in both their professional and personal lives. Rejecting the notion of women as victims, many of these women did not identify as “feminists” even though they advocated for their own rights. This is where we are today.

And when I think about my own life, I went to university, and when my children were born I was able to work as a partner in a large law firm three days a week. Now I am a federal Commissioner and a mum with two young children. I never let myself forget that this would not have been possible but for a strong women’s movement and a strong gender equality law.

Last week I attended the UN Commission on the Status of Women, and in particular the launch of UN Women.

This is a new UN organisation dedicated to gender equality and the empowerment of women. Women’s movements have been advocating for such an entity at the UN for many years, believing it is necessary to have a single, well resourced entity to drive the agenda of gender equality.

So it was fantastic to see after years of advocacy, lobbying and negotiation UN Women finally emerge. With Michele Bachelet as its head, women’s movements from around the world are looking to UN Women to lift the visibility of women’s rights across the world. It was encouraging to hear Ban Ki-Moon declare: “I will support UN Women in every way I can, with every ounce of my energy and commitment.”

I would like to show you a short video of the history of the international women’s movement that has lead to the formation of UN Women today. This video was shown at the launch.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0ATz4dVAjuI&feature=player_embedded (1.40 minutes)[2]

Attending a forum such as CSW has all the trappings and frustrations that big UN events have. It can be challenging – on the one hand knowing how much needs to be done, and on the other convincing governments to commit to taking action to achieve substantive equality. It becomes particularly critical when you remind yourself that behind all the facts and figures, is a human story, is a women or girl struggling for equality in an often very unequal world.

At the same time, what was so invigorating was being amongst women’s movements from around the world. There are so many innovative and daring strategies that women are working on to make a difference to women’s lives.

Some of the projects involved a clever use of online technology and social networking. In Uganda, women in villages are using mobile phones to send messages on violence that are then uploaded to a website and shared with parliamentarians. Another example was the “I don’t forward violence campaign” which calls on young people not to forward messages which contain photographs or a video of someone being violated or humiliated. This came about as a result of incidents where videos of school students being raped, taken on mobile phones, had been sent out to social networking sites, emails and mobiles. If you are interested you can see more about this work at their website: www.takebackthetech.net.

But for inspirational work we need actually look no further than the initiatives and the strategies we see here in Australia by services such as yours.

Many of you are members of the women’s alliances that have launched a series of IWD projects this year. These range from the Equality Rights Alliance campaign against negative body images, to the publication of recipe books by immigrant and refugee women in Western Australia.

The National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Women’s alliance is honouring 100 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women in the last 100 years who have achieved change. While the Economic Security4Women launched a television advert on equal pay, the National Rural Women’s Coalition and Network are using the opportunity to connect women from rural and remote areas using a live and interactive webinar. New technologies are at the forefront of so much of the work being today whether it is through blogs, websites, webinars or other means.

But I also draw inspiration and hope from the face to face work being done by all of you, every day.

And by that I mean - the person at the end of the telephone advice line who provides compassionate advice late at night when a women has nowhere left to go - the lawyer who works tirelessly to help a woman protect and enforce her legal rights - the union member, who advocates fearlessly for women’s rights in the workplace despite often strong opposition - the health workers who treat each woman with dignity and respect, who ensure that women have the information they need to make decisions about their bodies, their physical and mental health - the women in the refuges, shelters and emergency accommodation who day after day provide women and children with a safe environment and commence the process of rebuilding confidence, rebuilding lives - the advocates, campaigning for changes to the system, so that it doesn’t have to be quite so difficult for individual women. You are the people who make our community viable and who inspire me.

The commitment and dedication of workers in the community services sector is overwhelming – the compassion and personal sacrifice immense. Many services are underfunded - they deliver so much with so little. There is a critical need to increase funding to both existing services, and to provide additional, culturally appropriate services in areas where they are not available.

I wholeheartedly support the pay equity test case currently running in Fair Work Australia. I hope it will lead to the important work community sector workers undertake on behalf of everyone else to be properly valued.

Lastly, I want to touch briefly on the fact that despite our achievements, there remain many areas where our progress has been insufficient – and one of the gravest examples of gender inequality that remains is violence against women - specifically domestic and family violence.

Every day in Australia, we hear about the need to make our borders safer – to plan a national response to any terrorist attack. But the stark reality is that, for a great many women, the risk of death or injury from terrorist attack is relatively low, whilst the risk of death or injury from intimate partner violence is high. These women do not fear explosions in the mall or on the train, but they do face the prospect of entering their own home with cold, bone-shaking fear.

Over the last 6 months I have visited many domestic violence and sexual assault centres all across our country - to speak with a range of service providers who assist women affected by violence.

I am in awe and inspired by what I see – services like yours, working day in day out – with dedication and compassion and the determination to create change for each individual, as well as across the system.

In October last year, I visited a Family Violence Centre in Victoria. The centre comprises a crisis care unit, family violence counselling, legal advice, police and forensic services, child protection, sexual assault services and behavioural change programs for adolescents with sexually abusive behaviour. The services are wrapped around the woman and her children.

On the evening before I arrived, a 10 year old girl had rung the crisis care number as her mother was being sexually assaulted. The woman and her children were escorted by taxi to the centre at 2 a.m. By 10.30 a.m. the woman had had all her locks changed, counselling for her and her children, an apprehended violence order underway, a plan of action and was safely ensconced back in her home. This immediate response relied on the links between the different services.

Compare that with the mid 1970s, women who were in violent relationships were seen as having a medical condition – it was believed that these women ‘had a masochistic predisposition to violent partners due to mistreatment in childhood’[3]. In other words – the violence was their own fault...It took the work of two feminist researchers, Carol O’Donnell and Heather Saville – to debunk this myth and kickstart research into this area.

Is it too easy to forget our history and women’s struggles to get violence against women into the public consciousness and on to political agendas? There were no refuges until 1974, when the women’s refuge movement was started by a group of feisty Sydney women.

Anne Summers, in her autobiography, describes the creation of the first refuge in Sydney. After encountering domestic violence, Anne and her friend Jennifer Dakers determined to open a women’s refuge. After wandering around Glebe in inner-city Sydney, Anne came across an empty house – named Elsie – which was habitable, and she was determined to take ownership. Anne and Jennifer approached the church that owned the house and asked to rent the property – and the Church refused.

Undeterred, Anne decided they would take possession of the house by squatting. She describes the moment when she and other women who also wanted to establish the refuge took possession:

‘ I felt a fluttering as we turned the corner...We were a motley band, heads high, singing, carrying balloons and buckets, streamers and shovels, taut with excitement and anticipation....we reached Elsie and the group paused. Who was going to [break in]? I found myself shrinking back. I completely agreed with what we were about to do but somehow I could not bring myself to be the one actually to break in. Shayne Kelly...did it in the end. She forced a window with a shovel, hopped in and ran to open the front door. The first thing we had to do was change the locks. That was done in minutes. We had established residency’[4].

After an initial few quiet days, the refuge was quickly inundated with women needing its services. While the support workers were busy trying to work out how to run a refuge and where to find the next meal, the residents started talking to each other:

Over endless cigarettes and cups of milky tea at a kitchen table where the veneer was peeling off and there was nothing so nice as a tablecloth, they started to tell one another their stories.[5]

The women’s refuge movement and the broader movement to end violence against women has grown and strengthened since these early days.

As I have gone around Australia hearing and talking about violence, one of the areas where I have come up against a wall is talking abut domestic violence as a workplace issue.
But we know that almost two thirds of women who experience domestic and family violence are in paid work, so there is no question that the issue of violence affects many in our workplaces.[6]

Domestic violence may result in lower performance and productivity at work, as victims struggle to put on a brave face.

It may result in frequent or prolonged absenteeism, job loss because of trauma or the need to preserve and prioritise their safety.[7]

Women who experience it are more likely to have a disrupted work history, to have to change jobs and work in casual and part time work, than women with no experience of violence.[8]

The penalties and disruptions to a woman’s working life, have profound financial consequences, and the economic price that women pay is life long.

There is hope. A number of organisations both public and private sector have developed policies to support staff living with violence. Some have included an entitlement to domestic violence leave in their enterprise agreements. Others have created workplace policies to support staff by offering flexible work, special leave, the ability to change extension numbers, the possibility of working in another office, domestic violence support information supplied with the workplace safety training at induction etc. Australia’s CEO Challenge in Queensland is an organisation breaking new ground by taking the message of domestic violence into workplaces. It would be great to see the emergence of more organisations like this all around Australia.

As Betty Taylor, a noted Australian expert and author in this area says:

“The effects of domestic violence are all-pervasive. Women suffer silently and business continues losing money unawares. Business should address it not just because of the bottom line, but because it will take all sectors of society to eliminate this blight on our nation.”

It is incumbent on all of us to work together to address this issue. The creation of innovative and bold workplace entitlements and policies is a good starting point.
As I continue through my 5 year term as Sex Discrimination Commissioner, addressing the incidence of violence against women has become an urgent priority for me. The experiences of Australian women dictate that the issue of domestic violence can not be put in the “too hard” basket.

Internationally there is now widespread recognition that women have a right to be free from violence.

There is also a clear onus on governments to prevent, investigate, prosecute and punish acts of violence against women, such as domestic violence.

The good news is that the Australian Government has now responded to these calls and just last month released The National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children.

The plan is a significant step forward for Australia. VAW is a national problem which requires a national and local response.

Although the National Plan is driven by government, it also draws together business, researchers and community organisations. Everyone will have a part to play in the National Plan to ensure that the system moves towards being integrated and seamless, best able to assist women in need and fully supporting the workers who make this possible.

The national plan is just the beginning.  You can have the best plan in the world but if it’s not implemented effectively then change will not happen. To ensure strong implementation, the plan must also be properly resourced and independently monitored and evaluated.

So to conclude, firstly let us acknowledge the efforts of the many women and men who have worked and continue to work for women’s rights. Let us acknowledge the sacrifices, the courage and the persistence.

One person’s work in particular that I would like to acknowledge is that of a fellow commissioner from the Afghanistan Human Rights Commission, Hamida Barmaki. I learnt last month that she died in a suicide bombing.  It was the birthday of her second daughter (who was turning 14) and the whole family (Hamida, her husband and four children) went out to lunch to celebrate. None of them came home. 

As a Commissioner she spoke out about the injustices perpetrated upon women and children across her country.  As a Professor at Kabul University she taught many young people about the importance of the rule of law, about democracy and the international human rights system.  She worked tirelessly to create a world where all men and women would be treated equally and with dignity.

One of the women she taught wrote movingly about Hamida. She said:

“... there is a great saying by Albert Pine: "What we do for ourselves dies with us. What we do for others and the world remains and is immortal." 

So on this occasion of International Women’s Day, let us celebrate our achievements and the work, the sweat and the commitment already expended to creating an equal, just and safe Australia. But let us not forget that much remains to be done.

Together we will be able to add more milestones to the AWAVA timeline so that when we look back in the next 100 years we can be proud of the Australia we’ve handed to future generations.

I wish you a very happy International Women’s Day.

Thank you.


[1] Australian Women's Weekly, 14 August 1943
[2] UNWomen, 27 February 2011.
[3] Ramsay (2007) ‘Policy Activism of a Wicked Issue’, Ausrtralian Feminist Studies, 22:53, 247-264.
[4] Summers, A (1999) Ducks on the Pond: An Autobiography 1945 – 1976, Viking, Ringwood, 325.
[5] Summers, A (1999) Ducks on the Pond: An Autobiography 1945 – 1976, Viking, Ringwood, 329.
[6] Australian Bureau of Statistics, (2006) Personal Safety, Australia, 2005 (Reissue), Catalogue No. 4906.0 (2006), 35, at www.abs.gov.au/AUSSTATS/abs@.nsf/Lookup/4906.0Main+Features12005%20(Reissue)?OpenDocument.

[7] Moe, A & Bell, M, (2004) ‘Abject economics: the effects of battering and violence on women’s work and employability,’ Violence Against Women, 10:1, 30.

[8]Franzway, S, Zufferey C and Chung, D (2010) ‘Domestic Violence and Multidimensional Factors: Investigating the impact of domestic violence on women’s employment, health and housing’, Our Work Our Lives National Conference, Darwin, 12-13 August 2010.

Elizabeth Broderick, Sex Discrimination Commissioner