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No Woman Left Behind Conference - International Women's Day

Discrimination Sex Discrimination

Yaningi warangira ngindaji yuwa muwayi ingirranggu, Larrikia yani U. Balangarri wadjirragali jarra ningi – gamali ngindaji yau muwayi nyirrami ngarri thangani. Yaningi miya ngindaji Muwayi ingga winyira ngarragi thangani.  Yathawarra, wilalawarra jalangurru ngarri guda.

I acknowledge the Larrikia people of the land we gather on today, and pay my respects to your elders past, present and emerging. And on this special day I acknowledge our ancestral mothers – the first women of this land.

Well, hello all you wonderful woman, my Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Sisters, my Indigenous sisters from across the globe and my non-Indigenous sisters. Happy International Women’s Day 2019!

I’ve got to tell you it is so good to be back up north with you all on this important day! It feels very special to be involved in the embracing spirit of this conference so close to home. To know that whatever journey we are on, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, we are all on it together. Walking beside each other, no one in front, and no one behind. Today, we celebrate our sisterhood! We affirm what it is to be women in Australia, including all our young women and girls, in all our incredible diversity.

In opening I spoke to you in my first language Bunuba. I learnt my language from my mother and my grandmother.

As the first woman to be the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, I stand here and speak with their spirits and those of my ancestors and the voices of fiercely intelligent, strong and caring Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women who are leading the charge for change today.

You’ll see the faces of many of these women behind me. They’ve been part of a national engagement project which I’ll come to later. I brought them with me, because none of them should be left behind.

After 20 years of the position of the Social Justice Commissioner existing it was about time a woman got the top job! My male predecessors were wonderful, but we need women to speak to and with women to assert our needs and fully realise our unique rights. That is how we begin to achieve equality. Still, having women in significant positions is only where change begins, it is not the end.

Mistakes are made when we think these short-term gains is where equality is won. To reach equality, we need deep generational shifts to take hold. Structures need to be broken down and rebuilt so our societal institutions and organisations reflect our rights, values and aspirations as women.

To do that we need many women like myself in these roles, in these conference spaces, in every institution and organisation, at every decision-making table.

We need our voices – our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander experiences and expertise – to be present in the democratic life of this nation. I always say that I am not a lawyer, a doctor, or a bureaucrat. What I am is a Bunuba woman with a well of knowledge and expertise.

I have worked in community, I’ve sat on countless boards, and I’ve fought for social justice at the coalface - for our rights to land, for our women to access legal supports, and for our elders to live on our country.

At the same time, I know my language, I maintain and uphold my cultural obligations, and I know my country and the intimate interactions of all things on it, the humans, the animals and plants.

I, like all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women, come from a deep lineage of ancestral strength and power as the oldest continuous living civilization on earth. Our expertise that cannot be taught in a text book brings exceptional intercultural knowledge to work spaces, communities and broader Australian society. Now that is something for us all to celebrate!

This conference: ‘No Woman Left Behind’ is living its name. It has defied conference convention and has made this space of thought, discussion and action accessible to all. Congratulations to the organisers and thank you for making sure all our voices are in the room!

To really celebrate International Women’s Day, we must tell the complete story of what it is to be a woman in this nation. That demands that there are many voices, from many backgrounds, in the same space, speaking together. At its heart this celebration that triumphs inclusivity and full participation of all our sisters is about achieving gender equality.

Today I want us to really consider what leaving no one behind looks like. I want us to reimagine what equality is and how we get there in Australia.

Let me start by stating that equality is not achieved by the few acting for the many, it is not a trickledown effect. A movement that leaves any of our women behind, leaves all our women behind.

For a truly visionary and transformative gender equality movement all our women and girls must be included.

That was why in 2018 the first thing I did as the Social Justice Commissioner was to say to our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and girls: your voice matters, and you have a right to your voice. Let no one ignore or silence you. I want to hear you and I am determined to make what you say count.

I launched the Wiyi Yani U Thangani project, meaning Women’s Voices in my language Bunuba.

My team and I travelled to communities in every state and territory, from the Torres Strait, Tiwi Islands, the Cape and the Kimberley, throughout the Territory and right down to Tasmania.

We went with no set agenda, or imposed framework. Our women and girls set the tone and determined the conversation. It has been 32 years since the Women’s Business engagements, the first and only time our voices have been heard as a collective.

In 2019, it is time to hear us again. Mid this year, we will hand to Parliament all of what our women and girls have said. All of our strengths, issues, solutions and the future we want, a future self-determined by us.

We have listened to well over 2000 women and girls and it is clear to me: Women are the pillars of our society, occupying multiple worlds and roles at any one time. We work round the clock to keep our social infrastructure functioning, while doing the day job and maintaining our cultural obligations.

Because we work far beyond the standard professions and hours our roles are rarely recognised. Consequently, even when we are working tirelessly, many of us are on low incomes or unemployed, and are subject to punitive legal and welfare structures.

Simply, when we do not fit the box or the definition, our society does not reflect who we are. When our voices are absent, policy and legislation that should support us, is undermining us.

The statistics speak this truth, and they are unacceptable. Too many of us are trapped in poverty.  Women have spoken to me about being in cycles of homelessness, domestic and family violence, unsafe environments of alcohol and drug taking. They talk about how this perpetuates trauma, causes psychological distress and erodes self-worth. In the next breath women and girls have spoken about the revolving door of institutionalisation. A lifetime spent moving from child protection, juvenile detention and adult incarceration.

The relationship between these institutions is well evidence and yet the rates of our women’s incarceration is the highest in the country, and our children are now 10 times more likely to be removed than non-indigenous children. Women have said it to me repeatedly, this is another Stolen Generation.

This narrow frame of crisis does not tell our story, it tells a story of a nation that has failed to include us in the decisions that affect our lives. That is why social security frameworks like CDP and ParentsNext are not just incapable of meeting our needs in their current form, they punish us by removing basic rights that should always be guaranteed. It is on days like this when we need to start telling a new story, the true story of our womanhood and girlhood. Because it is our stories and lives that hold the solutions.

I have heard firsthand how in the face of overwhelming adversity, our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women condemn the structures that produce injustice, and in the same breath speak about how we can rebuild a society that is vibrant, healthy and free from discrimination.

Across Australia Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and girls are defying the deficit narrative. In speaking their truth, they are also saying: I am not your stereotype. I am not a sensationalist headline. I am not your negative media story. They are saying This is me, and I am strong and powerful in being all of who I am.

In the era of metoo and Black Lives Matter we have been united in the universal and intersecting experiences of sexism and racism. Now we need to mobilize around our interconnected sisterhood and our vision for the future. Our girls cannot be exposed to the same injustices we face as women today. We have to say “no more”, not just to the discrimination of today, but the generational discrimination that hold our girls back from being the woman they want to be and have the right to become.

When we say This is me we affirm our unique selves, and varied expertise that comes from all backgrounds and lived experiences. When we say This is me we refuse labels and judgements. We push back against prejudice and oppression for ourselves and all others.

Today we celebrate ‘me’ as much as we do ‘us’, our common and powerfully diverse sisterhood.

Let me return to re-thinking equality. There are persistent calls that women just need to ‘break the glass ceiling’ or ‘lean in’ to get equality. This is good, for some, but again not the many. If we really want transformative change, it’s the structures we have to break down.  Everywhere I went with Wiyi Yani U Thangani, women and girls told me that racism, discrimination and marginalisation is entrenched across our institutions, organisations, and public spaces. These are the glass walls that cannot be climbed with a ladder.

That is why, for me, equality is not just about getting to the top, and taking the steps toward a position that has been determined by someone else. Toward a position that makes us into someone else.

Like all of you, I know that change will happen when we put an end to top down decision-making. As if someone else could know our lives better than we do. For a transformative gender equality movement to come alive, we need our women to be making the decisions that determine our futures.

Indigenous women and girls are central to this transformation. We want to bring down the glass walls and challenge western structures which means that we can reconstruct institutions that meet all our women’s, families and communities’ needs, and fully realises our rights – both Indigenous and non-indigenous.

Through Wiyi Yani U Thangani women have spoken about a holistic way of living where education, regional economies, jobs, housing, childcare and mental and physical health are interconnected.

They have said how basic rights to shelter, food and safety must be guaranteed. But for these rights to be secured, to have real meaning in our lives now and for the long-term, they must happen alongside a nation that commits to truth-telling, that recognises our culture and heritage and affirms our Indigenous identities, our complete Indigenous womanhood.

The women I have spoken to know that we thrive in life, that we are healthy, and engaged when a system recognises our interconnectedness, and does not dismantle us into parts.

A truly holistic system is a big agenda! I’m sure many of you are thinking, is it really possible to dramatically alter the current structures that determine our existence?

For the sake of equality, we can. That is why I want us to challenge our ideas of gender equality, because achieving equality takes vision, and it takes sisterhood, the many acting for us all. And the time for that vision is now.

Across the world and in Australia powerful institutions are being challenged as brutal truths are being exposed. Simultaneously people are wanting our policies and legislations to create a safer more ecologically sustainable world, and to allow for greater freedoms and flexibility in the way we live, work and love.

Things are shifting, let’s be part of a change that’s not just going to come, it has arrived.

Together, we can restructure our institutions from the inside and our societal fabric from the ground up, and we can make governments and decision-makers accountable to us. And they are listening. The Federal Government funded stage one of Wiyi Yani U Thangani and I am happy to say that they have backed stage two! As part of the $35 million in the Fourth Action Plan they are supporting the next stage of our work. Our women’s voices have to be at the front and centre of policy planning and design.

Following discussions, reports and roadmaps we need serious investment in implementation. The support for stage two brings us closer to getting there.

Wiyi Yani U Thangani is our starting point. The report will speak the voices of our women. It will state what we need to confront and what we want. It lays the ground work. The next stage is working together and in partnership and knowing we all have a responsibility to listen and respond to our women and girls voices.

Today, on international women’s day we can commit to being on this journey together in a renewed movement of gender equality that aims for transformation. A movement that is true to its name and refuses to leave anyone behind. A movement that knows that equality means we are all in this together. Today we are shaping the future that we’ve all been waiting for.

Thank you.

Ms June Oscar AO, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner

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