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Brotherhood of St Laurence - Stepping Stones programme graduation (2012)

Race Race Discrimination

Brotherhood of St Laurence - Stepping Stones programme graduation

Dr Helen Szoke
Race Discrimination Commissioner
Australian Human Rights Commission

8 March, 2012


Thank you for the opportunity to be here at the first Stepping Stones Graduation. It is an honour for me to be part of your program.

I would like to begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land, the people of the Kulin Nation, and pay my respects to owners past and present.

I would also like to acknowledge the women who are the graduates at this year’s program, and the mentors who have worked with you to allow you to reach this graduation.

I am very privileged to fill the role as Race Discrimination Commissioner. I have also been fortunate as a woman who has had opportunities come her way. While there is no doubt that for women in Australia there have been many improvements and many opportunities over recent decades, I also know that there is much more to be done, to ensure that all women – irrespective of their race, their circumstance and their status in life – receive those opportunities.

It is very clear to me, in this role particularly, that the reason we have human rights protections in place is to help us realize equality and dignity and respect and freedoms, and that these are aspects of how we live that are not optional and are not discretionary. In a country such as Australia, this should continue to be our aspriational target!! For women like you, women who have chosen to make Australia your home, this should be a given in terms of what you expect.

All of our work at the Commission utilizes a human rights based approach. This is evidenced in some of the work that I will touch on today. In the human rights policy development area there is much talk about how we approach law making, policy making and service delivery in a human rights way. The human rights based approach is simple. We must ensure the participation of people who are impacted by the laws, policies and services provided by government, we must be accountable about the work that is being done, we should actively pursue non-discrimination, we should empower the people who are subject to laws, policies and services, and we should be guided by the collective wisdom and debate that has gone into formulating the international treaties and conventions that Australia has become a signatory to, and that guide the development of our domestic laws.

The role of civil society, including the non-government sector, is critical to this human rights based approach. This includes not just NGOs, but the media and business as well. And After all, without the engagement of corporate Australia, we cannot build the best possible opportunities for the people who live here!

Today, I want to reflect on women, to look at what we know about women from migrant backgrounds from my own work at the Commission, and then to reflect on what this means for all of you here today.

About Women ...

The Canadian author, Charlotte Whitton once said

“Whatever women do they must do twice as well as men to be thought half as good. Luckily this is not difficult.”[1]

She was being a bit mischievous, but with apologies to the men in the room, there is some truth to what she said, because we know that there are still many barriers to women achieving equality. That is why it is appropriate that you are part of today’s celebration on International Women’s Day.

It is worth remembering why we celebrate International Women’s Day – as this perhaps links quite directly the importance of the Stepping Stones project.

Women’s formal acknowledgement began in America early in the 20th Century, and coincided with a greater level of industrialization of the country and indeed significant changes around the world. In 1908 15,000 women marched through New York City as a protest against bad working conditions and also seeking the right to vote. A formal International Women’s Day was commenced in 1911. The impetus was sadly given greater weight in 1911, when 140 women workers died in the ‘Triangle of Fire’ in New York City. Most of the women were from Italian and Jewish backgrounds – thus emphasizing that the work was not only unsafe and poorly paid, but often being done by migrant workers who already faced significant economic challenges.[2]

From its inception International Women’s Day has stood for equality between women and men.

The first Australian IWD rally took place in the Sydney Domain on March 25, 1928. It was organised by the Militant Women’s Movement and called for equal pay for equal work; an 8 hour day for shop girls; no piece work; the basic wage for the unemployed and annual holidays on full pay.

This year, International Women’s Day has the global theme of Connecting Girls, Inspiring Futures. The United Nation’s 2012 theme is Empower Rural Women – End Hunger and Poverty.[3]

Despite over a century of formal recognition and celebration of women, it must be acknowledged that there is still not one country in the world where women enjoy equal exercise of their rights compared with men. Yet, women are the critical cogs that keep countries going around the world.

If we look at the four key indicators that are contained in the Global Gender Gap Report, we find that women have mixed results in the areas of economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment health and survival and last but not least political empowerment.[4]

All of this history might then explain why the Brotherhood of St Laurence and the AMP Foundation decided to invest in this program. But I think the reasons go beyond these global facts, and can be seen in the impact of migrant and settler women in Australian history.

Australia is of course a country of settlers since European colonization, acknowledging of course that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have been on this land for the past 40,000 years. You will be aware that Australia is one of only three countries that has a dedicated refugee settlement program for women and their families[5]

One of the things that we know about settlement is that women play a critical role in the process of settling in countries, bringing families, children, customs and beliefs and also looking to build the bridges with a new community.

What we know about women with migrant backgrounds ...

So there is recognition of the special and important role that migrant women play. And this has been found in the work of my own Commission as well, when we look at the experience of women and particularly where we look at the issue of race discrimination. Our own research with African Communities showed that there were key areas identified for further work. These included the importance of the following:

  • respecting and maintaining culture, heritage and values
  • building positive gender relations
  • addressing intergenerational issues
  • countering negative media stereotypes
  • ensuring access to transport
  • using sport to enhance social inclusion.[6]

We are also in the process of piloting a certified program for workers involved in service and support activities with Muslim women, understanding that these women play a critical role in their own communities.[7]

The Australian Human Rights Commission’s 2011/12 pilot Certificate 4 in Human Rights Education and Advocacy Project aims to


  • develop meaningful and sustainable ways of engaging and supporting Muslim women experiencing discrimination, through the provision of human rights education
  • increase the capacity of advocacy services to support women and their children experiencing intersectional discriminations, with specific reference to capacity building and leadership initiatives that promote Muslim women in community roles within their own communities and broader society.


And finally, I have responsibility for leading the development of an Anti- Racism strategy for Australia[8], a project which involves working with three government departments at the federal level, the Australian Multicultural Council, the Federation of Ethnic Community Councils of Australia and the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples. This strategy will focus on describing what racism is, of identifying strategies to prevent and reduce it, and also identifying good practice that occurs across Australia so other people can develop initiatives.


What about racism?

My role as Race Discrimination Commissioner gives me cause to reflect on how we tackle racism on a regular basis, and in the time that I have left with you, what I would like to do is to give you a sense of the rights and protections that you face as women living in Australia.


Alarmingly, some research indicates a significant increase in racism over recent years: the Scanlon Foundation’s Mapping Social Cohesion 2011[9] report found that in 2010 there was a marked increase in reported racial discrimination, and that this increased reporting was maintained in the 2011 survey. What we know from the Scanlon Foundation research, is that the reported experience of racism is quite high, and that there is a particularly negative view of immigrants and refugees from particular parts of the world. This will not be a surprise to you, no doubt, as you will have experienced acts within your own community that sometimes are negative and directed at perceptions of who you are.


That is why it is critical that in being part of these leadership programs, you understand and indeed believe in the protections and opportunities that are afforded to you in this country, in this state and in this town.


Let us look at what racism looks like.

Racism exists in many different forms. Generally, racism is a set of beliefs, often complex, that asserts the natural superiority of one group over another, and which is often used to justify differential treatment and social positions. This may occur at the individual level, but often occurs at a broader systemic or institutional level.[10]


These are some of the stories that arise in the context of our work and also in handling complaints of discrimination.

  • Accommodation is a key requirement in the settlement process and yet we find that people from different countries are often treated differently. For example, upon complaining about a refrigerator or requesting a house with extra rooms to accommodate three children, a woman from Afghanistan got told by housing providers to display a grateful attitude and was also asked whether she had a refrigerator or extra rooms in Afghanistan.


  • For many families education is seen as they key to the future for immigrant families. Yet we hear that in the school setting, some teachers and career counsellors discourage young students – from a particular ethnic and racial background – with aspirations by telling them not to aim too high.


  • Employment is critical. But we see discrimintion occurring in employment. For example, an employer dismisses a staff member, of a refugee and non-English speaking background, who has worked for the company for three years as a casual in a full-time position. Instead of employing the staff member on a permanent basis, the employer dismisses him on the basis that his English wasn’t good enough.
    • Finlly we see lack of understanding of cultural difference. A woman from a refugee background was told by staff of a child welfare department that her children would be removed because there was no food in her fridge, despite the woman explaining she got up at 5am every morning to go to the markets and buy fresh food.


What does all of this mean for you?

In this country, the first national anti-discrimination law to be passed addressed racism. Australia became a signatory to the International Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) in 1966 and then ratified it in 1975. The ICERD outlines Australia’s obligations to safeguard human rights in the political, economic, social, cultural and other fields of public life so that human rights are ensured to everyone without racial discrimination.

The Racial Discrimination Act (RDA) was then passed in 1975. It seeks to promote equality before the law for all persons and implements the principle of prohibiting discrimination against people on the basis of their race, colour, or national or ethnic origin.

Importantly, the RDA was amended in 1995 to incorporate specific provisions that relate to actions which are likely to offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate a person or group of people These provisions are important in providing additional protections against, for example, race hate.

Supporting ICERD and the RDA in a practical sense, Australia has had a Commissioner attached to the RDA since 1975, although the position has sometimes been filled on a part time basis. In 2011, the position of Race Discrimination Commissioner was again filled in a full time capacity. The role of the Commissioner includes leading the work of the Commission in promoting an understanding and acceptance of, and compliance with, the RDA; developing and conducting research and educational programs and other programs for the purpose of combating racial discrimination; promoting understanding, tolerance and friendship among racial and ethnic groups; and supporting the purposes and principles of the International Convention.[11]

These three elements – ICERD, the RDA and the role of Race Discrimination Commissioner – provide a strong structural foundation for tackling racism in Australia at a national level.

These basic protections are unfortunately still underutilized by people in our community.

In conclusion ........

Today you graduate with your future in your control. You have completed a course, you have the essential relationship with a mentor to help you as you guide your path, and you have your own ingenuity and creativity.

More than that, you have the protections that are afforded by living in Australia. We are a country that enshrines human rights protections into our domestic law. We are a country that embraces Multiculturalism as a policy, which recognizes our diversity.

And more than that, we are a country that needs the creativity that comes from different minds, finding different ways of doing business.

Innovation springs from diversity, not from homogeneity or blandness. What you will each bring is new ideas and new ways of doing business. And I have no doubt that this innovation and this difference will also have profound impacts on your work in your local communities, your involvement with the education system, sporting opportunities, and community organizations.

Congratulations on your involvement in this important program.

Congratulations to your mentors who I suspect have learnt as much from their involvement as you have from being involved with them, and best wishes as you take these newly honed skills into the community to become empowered and to contribute to your own and the community’s wellbeing.

Thank you.

[1] Charlotte Whitton, Canada Month, June 1963
[2] International Women’s Day, About International Women’s Day, (viewed 7 March 2012)
[3] Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs, History of International Women’s Day, (viewed 7 March 2012)
[4] World Economic Forum, Global Gender Gap (2012). At (accessed 7 March 2012)
[5] Department of Immigration and Citizenship, Getting Settled: Women Refugees in Australia (2012). At
[6] Australian Human Rights Commission, In Our Own Words: African Australians: A review of human rights and social inclusion issues (2010). At
[7] Australian Human Rights Commission, Living Spirit: A dialogue on human rights and responsibilities-
Report on the Commission's Muslim Women's Project (2006). At
[8] Australian Human Rights Commission, National Anti-Racism Partnership and Strategy, (viewed 7th March 2012)
[9] The 2010 and 2011 Scanlon Foundation surveys indicated a long‐term change in Australian opinion, with a large measure of acceptance of groups once stigmatised: “The level of negative feeling towards immigrants from Italy and Greece was found to be less than 3%; it was 7% towards immigrants from Vietnam and 13% from China.”: A Markus, Mapping Social Cohesion 2011: the Scanlon Foundation Survey, Monash Institute for the Study of Global Movements, pp1-2. At
[10] Australian Human Rights Commission, Combating racism: A discussion paper for the World Conference against racism (2001). At
[11]Racial Discrimination Act 1975 (Cth), s 20 a.