'Are we there yet?' An address from Natasha Stott Despoja
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'Are we there yet?' An address from Natasha Stott Despoja

On 6 December, Natasha Stott Despoja AM, Australia’s Ambassador for Women and Girls, looked at destinations reached and travels still to be undertaken in the global journey towards gender equality. 

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Good afternoon, thank you Alex for that introduction. I begin of course by acknowledging the traditional owners. I pay my respects to their elders past and present, and of course to any elders from other communities that may be present or listening tody. I also acknowledge Dr Michael Fullilove, the Executive Director of this wonderful Institute, and his team, the Diplomatic Corps, and any other distinguished guests that are here today. I certainly see that there are many representatives of partners from civil society, from business and from NGOs with whom I’ve had the pleasure to work. Anne Summers, Eva Cox — I simply genuflect — and I thank everyone for being here today. I laugh when I get introduced as the youngest woman to have ever entered Federal Parliament because that’s often said about me in the Pacific region now when I go and speak with women in schools or in parliaments, and they look at me with this sense of ‘Crikey, what’s the average of the Australian parliament if she’s the youngest ever?’.

I speak to you today, and thank you for the opportunity to do so, a little wistful given that my time as Ambassador for Women and Girls is about conclude, but I do so very proud of the work that we’ve done in advancing gender equality internationally and in the region specifically, and particularly in empowering young women, women and girls. However, no one country in the world has got gender equality right. Despite enormous progress, the issues facing women and girls have to be, if not the, one of the greatest human rights challenges for this century.

Forgive me, I didn’t acknowledge you Madam President, President of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, Gillian Triggs.

You’ve heard some of the statistics: women around the world are not free from the injustices of inequality. We don’t experience the full realisation of fundamental rights. Women are more likely to experience violence and abuse. They are more likely to be economically dependent and work in vulnerable, low-paid and undervalued jobs. Women and children are far more likely to bear the costs of water, food and fuel insecurity, and more likely to die from natural disasters.

In the past three years, I have seen tremendous work, tremendous steps forward on the issue of gender equality, but we know we are not there yet — there is a lot of work yet to do. You’ve heard I’ve done 45 country trips in the last almost three years, 31 different countries. I’ve worked with partners from civil society, from government, from the private sector to achieve the aspirations of women and girls, whether that’s the provision of sexual and reproductive health services and resources to girls in Fiji, whether it’s training ophthalmic paediatrics in India, whether it’s working with the World Food Programme in schools in Kenya — so it’s impossible today to sum up the experiences I’ve had over the past three years. So I’m going to try and give a bit of a snapshot of some of the work that we do and some thoughts on advancing gender equality into the future.

Only two weeks ago, I returned from my last trip as Ambassador for Women and Girls internationally. It was to Vanuatu and I was there for the 25th November: the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women and the launch of ‘16 days of Activism’. In Port Vila, my last announcement was one million [dollars] from the Gender Equality Fund to work with Care International on increasing women’s voice and agency and eliminating violence against women and girls. I played cricket in the searing heat with cricket mummas aged 20 to 70. I did my best not to emulate the smooth moves of a former Prime Minister! I talked with MPs, indeed, the Prime Minister, and women about representation, or lack of, in the parliament in Vanuatu because there are no women in the national legislature there. I visited the Vanuatu Women’s Centre which we’ve funded since 1994 — not many people know that — run by the renowned Merilyn Tahi. We talked about violence against women. Why? In Vanuatu, 72 per cent of Vanuatu women have experienced some form of physical or sexual abuse. Essentially what I’m saying is that this visit epitomised the work that I’ve done over the last three years, or the work of the role, encompassing the three core areas: economic empowerment, eliminating violence against women and girls, and supporting women’s participation and leadership. Those three pillars reflect the gender equality strategy that was launched by the Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop, in February this year. It does place, as Alex said, it does place gender at the core of our foreign policy work and indeed our international development work.

The geographic focus of my work has been the Indo-Pacific region, a region where Australia has both the greatest capacity to influence change, and the region where intervention is most urgently required. In the Pacific, for example, rates of domestic, family and sexual violence against women are as high as 60­–70 per cent and up to 90 per cent in some parts of Papua New Guinea. [In the South Pacific] we know that representation of women in parliament is fewer than 6 per cent. In the past three years, I’ve seen great goodwill towards Australia in terms of the work that we do in this space internationally. Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, the Director of UN Women, paid us the greatest compliment recently when she compared me to a pig. She said the difference between commitment and involvement is like ham and eggs: the chicken’s involved and the pig is committed. Admittedly, this was after (on at least one occasion) Felicity Volk, the former Director of the Ambassador for Women and Girls Office, and I sat for seven hours straight as we watched the UN Leaders’ Summit where male and female leaders got to stand up at the UN and declare their commitment on gender equality. Phumzile, who is due to come to Australia next year, was very positive about the work that we were doing. I believe that it does sum up our work on gender — we are committed and I hope we are in it for the long-haul.

The relatively early appointment of an Ambassador for Women and Girls, initially held by career diplomat Penny Williams, whose shoes I was very honoured to fill, I thought was a sign by the Gillard Government of the significance of gender equality work in the international arena. This commitment has been enhanced by the current government with a gender target. Eighty per cent of all of our international development and aid work has to effectively address gender equality in its implementation. We are actually the second country in the world to create the position. Hillary Clinton appointed the first Ambassador, Melanne Verveer, and since then we have collected a few more. I don’t know what the collective noun is, but we are a posse! We’ve added Sweden and Finland to our ranks, and the Seychelles. I’ve got a bit of title envy with Sweden — she gets to be an Ambassador for Global Women’s Issues and a Feminist Foreign Policy, but I’m working on it! We have pretty much the same mandate and I reiterate again because it is the best way for me to address the priority areas today. First, increasing women’s economic empowerment, second, eliminating violence (including in conflict and humanitarian settings and through the Women, Peace and Security agenda), and the third, in increasing women’s participation in leadership and decision-making.

A report by the McKinsey Global Institute noted that gender equality is not only a pressing social and moral issue, but also a critical economic challenge. According to McKinsey economists, if each country matched the progress towards gender parity of its fastest-moving regional neighbour, global GDP would increase by US$12 trillion or by 11 per cent in 2025. Again, you’ve heard some of the statistics, but 70 per cent of the world’s poor are women, 64 per cent of adult illiterate people in the world are women. We know that women reinvest 90 per cent of their incomes back into the household, whereas men, around 30–40 per cent. And when women have more influence over economic decisions, their families allocate more money to food, to health, to children’s clothing, to education and to children’s nutrition. So in a full potential scenario where women played an identical role to that of men in the workforce, as much as US$28 trillion, or 26 per cent, could be added to global GDP by 2025. I use that because I sometimes think that if you’re not pressed by the social and moral argument, surely leaders will be swayed by the economic argument.

Of course, realising this potential begins with the full and equal access to education for girls, and that means addressing the many resources hurdles (cultural and other) to girls’ education. It’s little wonder that in 2014, the UN Human Development Report described educating women as the ‘silver bullet in human development’ — the closest thing. More than 65 million girls around the world are out of school, and yet an extra year of education beyond the average boosts girls’ eventual wages by 10–20 per cent. Even an increase of 1 per cent of girls’ secondary education attendance adds 0.3 per cent to a country’s GDP. And we are working in schools. There are a range of places I’ve been, whether it’s in Kenya, in the Kibera School in the Stara Rescue Centre, it’s one of the largest slums in Africa. We got to sit down and talk to young girls about what stops them from going to school — menstruation, so providing resources and toilets, we do that. At the same time, we work with the World Food Programme to ensure that these children, boys and girls, many of whom were in the sex industry, can actually eat so they can go to school. I’ve been to places in Argentina, like the Campo De Mayo province just out of Buenos Aires where we refurbished libraries and worked with girls who are getting some sort of training and skills education. I say this to illustrate the breadth because it is so hard to explain.

We work with many partners, including Care International, to ensure that women have access to decent work. And I’ve seen this work first-hand, and I’ve announced many commitments ranging from microfinance or funding schemes in Indonesia, to market stalls across the Pacific. We developed the billum trade, those wonderful billums made particularly in PNG. We’ve taken this from women working in the informal economy using their craft and their skills, to actually providing training but also export opportunities and all of the things that come with it. We support cocoa farmers, we support coffee growers, we support coconut oil production, all primarily involving women and making sure that women can increase their economic empowerment. Financial literacy, access to bank accounts, supporting business coalitions — the Women’s Business Coalition in PNG. Last time I was in PNG with that group, we launched a toolkit so that businesses could actually understand the impact of domestic and family violence on their bottom line so they could actually work it out for themselves. I’ve sat with women in places like Phnom Penh working in garment industries. During their lunch hours, Australia has funded programs with Care International, with Save the Children, with the Cambodian Government and with Marie Stopes International so that they can learn about their sexual and reproductive health rights — sexual and reproductive health are absolutely critical.

Apart from the economic argument, I am always conscious of the link between gender inequality and violence against women. Economic empowerment is one part of addressing those issues. Violence, well of course one of the most heinous manifestations of gender inequality across the world is violence against women and girls. Globally, more than one in three women have been beaten, coerced into sex or abused in some way. Every ten minutes in the world, an adolescent girl will die as a result of violence. Up to 80 per cent of men in the Pacific actually admit to perpetrating physical and or sexual violence against women and girls in their lifetime. Child marriage affects around 14 million girls each year, robbing them both of their childhood and their future potential. Pregnancy, as you’ve heard from Alex in the introduction, is the leading cause of death for women aged 15–19 years. A girl in South Sudan today is more likely to die in childbirth than she is to finish primary school. The use of rape as a tactic of war in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere; the trafficking of women into sexual slavery and domestic servitude; sexual violence against internally displaced women and girls; the kidnapping of girls in parts of Africa or, of course, attacks on girls for even getting on a bus so that they can go to school; and the daily horror of domestic and family violence across the world, but particularly in the Pacific and including Australia — these are just a few examples of myriad appalling patterns of gender-based violence around the globe. We know that in some parts of the Pacific, rates of violence are as high as 2 in 3 surveyed women.

But ladies and gentlemen, I say this to illustrate the fact that everywhere I go, I’ve seen the effects of violence. I see the shame and the stigma, I see the aftermath – physical, emotional. I’ve met with women who come into clinics to visit me who have just had their limbs severed. It is haunting, the violence. I know a lot of you work in this space, and I pay tribute to those of you who work day in and day out to keep women and children safe. But we do work in this space, a lot of people don’t know this. Australia provides support for survivors, for victims, and we do it in a range of ways. We support legislative and policy work to change laws and rules that save and change lives for the better. We assist with the implementation of laws, just as we help with enforcement. I’ve been in a lot of police stations in the last few years, whether it’s in cells in Samoa or opening family and sexual violence units in places like Boroko in PNG. And the women, I mean the fact that we’ve funded Vanuatu Women’s Shelter for many many years, but we do it in Tonga as well and all across the Pacific. Amazing women, Shamima Ali, some of you may know of, who runs the [women’s crisis] centre in Fiji; Ofa Guttenbeil-Likiliki, who works in Tonga, these amazing women who do extraordinary work — we support them, and I’m proud of that and I don’t think that enough people realise that.

We invest in prevention and the work that we do in Australia in primary prevention is not lost in the Pacific. Whether it’s sitting under trees talking to men about respectful relationships in the Eastern Highlands Province, or whether it’s going to the Sisters of Nazareth shelter in Bougainville, a lot of the primary prevention work is taking hold. And sport, apart from my pathetic bowling in cricket, the power of sport which many of you know. League Bilong Laif, Equal Playing Field, a lot of these programs we run in schools to address issues of gender equality. We work with Hagar in Cambodia — what an extraordinary organisation, one that helps to enable women and children to live empowered productive lives despite extraordinary trauma, extraordinary trauma. We support Oxfam human rights defenders – some of the bravest people I’ve ever met in the world. And we work in conflict, and post-conflict environments like the Solomons, like Sri Lanka, like Bougainville, for example.

We have been key actors in the Women, Peace and Security space. I’ve been proud of the work that we’ve done in supporting or developing United Nations Security Council resolutions, specifically 1325 and subsequent resolutions. Indeed, in 2015, the Council unanimously adopted resolution 2242, which recognises the central role of women’s participation in global efforts to achieve peace and security.  And I believe strongly that we’ve got to step up, globally, our efforts to include women and girls as key actors in countering violent extremism and I’m happy to expand on that but I think recognising that not only the intersection between gender and CVE, obviously including that women suffer terrible and degrading traumatic acts as a consequence of that, but also recognising that there are some perverted notions of masculinity that often drive young men to join extremist groups.  I think it’s a challenge to also recognise the role of women in that space who might actually make conscious decisions to get involved. I’m trying to say that women are not only victims but they are actors and they can be used as better agents of change in this space. But I do think we have some rather simplistic notions of the engagement of women in CVE, but I might move on from that.

I think another area where we’ve been really good and there’ve been efforts led by the United Kingdom in particular, has been preventing sexual violence in conflict. Having said that, I think that’s something that could be stepped up too. I think Australia could play a bigger role in that space. Some of you may remember the eliminating sexual violence in conflict summit in 2014. After the stewardship of Secretary Hague, after the foreign secretary of the UK left, that’s sort of waned, hasn’t it? There’s a lot to be said about a bit of star power people, whatever you think of Angelina Jolie, she got the front page. She also got me to meet Brad Pitt, but that’s another story people.

My last conversation when I left Vanuatu was with this extraordinary young woman. She was an actor, she’d survived teen pregnancy, abused by her family, thrown out of her family. We were talking about sexual and reproductive health – a great activist advocate. She said to me, because I asked her about violence, and she said, ‘Ambassador, of course if I stay out too late with my girlfriends, I should expect a slap when I get home. It’s only discipline.’ It made me realise how much work we have to do in that space. She’s one of the 60 per cent of Ni-Vanuatu women who believe that violence against them is justified.

Which brings me to leadership and women’s voices. Across the world, you’ve heard, we’re under-represented in decision-making institutions, especially in parliaments. The global average is around 22 per cent but [in 2015] 4 out of the 5 countries in the world that have no representation of women are in the Pacific. We know that women’s leadership, economic empowerment and eliminating violence are all interlinked but we are not, and I’m convinced of this after three years more than ever, we are not going to make progress on those related issues until women are reflected in decision-making institutions. Yes, I would say that, wouldn’t I? But my views on this are not only formed as a former member of parliament, and one that knows full well that women don’t always have an ameliorating effect on the chamber. But we deserve to be reflected and represented in all our diversity, and we do make a difference. The conclusion of one study says: increasing women’s representation in elected office not only ensures decisions are more representative of the voting population, but can lead to increased provision of public goods, better natural resource management and an increase in the reporting of crimes against women. Research even shows that a decrease of women in parliament by 5 per cent means a country is five times more likely to utilise military means as a form of resolving conflict or resolving an argument. And there is a proven connection between women in leadership positions and greater attempts to redress the issue of violence. And I see that, I see Governor Soso, Julie Soso of the Eastern Highland Province in Papua New Guinea, or even the heightened attempts by the United Nations to address issues of violence against women. It coincides with more women being in those senior ranks and making it clear that this is a pivotal issue.

One of my favourite pieces of research is one that shows that more women in leadership positions changes the perceptions regarding the roles and aspirations of young girls, including reducing the amount of time on household chores, girls are more likely to attend school, and themselves feel more equipped to take on leadership positions, including when it comes to conflict prevention. And conflict prevention, there’s probably not a lot of time now but, we know, the facts are, in peace agreements that involve women, mediators, negotiators, signatories and witnesses, they are more likely to succeed. There’s a 20 per cent chance of succeeding for two years if you have women at the table, and a 35 per cent chance of enduring if you have women in those processes.

Back to parliament. Each year I’ve hosted the Pacific Women’s Parliamentary Partnership program for the Foreign Minister, and it’s got women from all around the Pacific, including Australia and New Zealand. It’s been one of the best things we’ve done and I don’t want to see it stopped — just a message for those in the room — not that it will be I’m sure. Women networking together is as good as having a conference on a specific topic. These women getting together and sharing stories, particularly on the issue of quotas. Some of the stories have been quite contrasting. I love it when former speaker Anna Burke talks about the first time she was mentored or twinning with one of these women, and Anna said, ‘It’s so difficult door knocking and there’s so much to do!’ and this woman said, ‘Yeah, I’ve found it difficult too because I have to canoe across crocodile-infested waters in order to get to my constituency.’ We were like, you win!

But the issue of quotas, it may be a thorny one for people in Australia, but it’s a no-brainer as far as I’m concerned. We know they work and if there’s one impression I can leave on governments and other people: this has to be a core component of the work that we do in our advocacy and our development. We know in Samoa this year they reached 10 per cent for the first time as a consequence of the introduction of quotas. We know it’s worked in Vanuatu at a municipal level. We know elsewhere, Bougainville, where four women were elected in the last set of elections, one without the quota. But just changing the idea that women get in there. But you know what, I just want women in there. If I hear the word ‘merit’ again, I tell you, run away from this feminist Ambassador because I’ll just lose it! They’re there, they’re capable. Women are running most of these countries already. I mean, Vanuatu, if they weren’t the Solicitor General, they were the Acting Solicitor General, Attorney General. These women are there — they’re talented and they’re ready. We have to think about when we put money into these leadership programs, a lot of the time we’re looking to train women, but they’re already trained. We have to make it very clear to men who run these countries that women need to be in their parliaments.

We’ve got a great program, Pacific Women Shaping Pacific Development, I’m really proud of it. It’s a flagship, it was started by the Gillard government and has continued under this government. $320 million over 10 years, 14 countries, tailored and targeted. We work in partnership with government, civil society and women on the ground to deliver these programs and look after the three pillars to which I referred. Achievements in its first four years include: more than 22 000 women have been provided support services including legal, counselling and health services; more than 3000 have had access to financial information and services including financial literacy training and more than 9000 women have been supported to take on leadership roles in community, national and municipal levels. And it’s not the only area in which we work. I could give you a whole list of the places I’ve been to alone this year representing various ministers. Whether it is the World Humanitarian Summit, or the Women Deliver Conference, CHOGM, APEC, etc. This is in addition of course to the regular UN meetings such as the Commission on the Status of Women. During these and other events, I’ve launched around 30 policies or made funding announcements for Australian-supported projects. It’s been really important for me to see our region reflected in these international fora.

 Sometimes I feel that the Pacific is invisible. We have a role as a country, as a government as well as private sector, to ensure that that’s not the case, that our views are heard, that the women particularly of this region are reflected and represented. Or men and women, our brothers and sisters in the Pacific who are working for gender equality. And I know the Lowy does good work in this respect. I was talking to someone the other day who said, ‘Where’s the Q&A on Australia’s role in the Pacific region?’, because we do it vis-à-vis other countries, other ideas. And I know one member of parliament suggested you change the domestic travel arrangements for MPs so that Papua New Guinea is on the list. So before you go anywhere, you start thinking in terms of ‘what’s happening in our region?’ before you, you know, head overseas elsewhere shall we say.

Other countries are constantly impressed by the work that we do. I’ve just recently travelled to Papua New Guinea with my US counterpart, Cathy Russell. A bad week to travel with her as it was the week of the US election result. But she was impressed by the work that we were doing — mind you the two of us were wondering, what did the election of President-elect Trump mean for women’s issues, not only specifically in terms of the outreach and the work that the US is doing, but what is the message that it’s sent the rest of the world? I suspect there’s a heightened role now for Australia in our international work in this space, for my successor, Dr Sharman Stone, particularly with her qualifications and passion for sexual and reproductive health work. But I wonder what demonstrative effect it may have on foreign policy. And I’m proud of my compatriots, everywhere I go there are men and women doing great work. Whether it’s Julia Gillard through the Global Partnership [for Education], whether it’s a woman called Louise Allen who is the Executive Coordinator of the NGO Working Group on Women, Peace and Security, whether it is Kate Gilmore, who is the Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva – your countrymen and women do you proud. And I know many of you know that because you work in this space, but I often want to reiterate it because I also think if more MPs and more leaders were aware of the fact that we do good work with our international development budgets and in our foreign policy space, I don’t know, maybe it would make a difference. Am I being naïve? No. We’ve got to talk more about international development in terms of not only safety and security of the region, but why it’s important from a human rights perspective, and particularly in relation to women.

Australia’s approach mirrors the global approach that we’re seeing everywhere. Sustainable Development Goals — I mean what a gift that is. Kate Gilmore describes it as a gift, which has given us a 15-year blueprint for advancing human rights. There are many other developments over the last couple of years that have given us a bit of a pathway. But in today’s development context, our work to end gender inequality is actually going to be carried out amidst an array of challenges, ones that have unique and specific impacts on women. Economic and social shifts, yes, they do create new opportunities but also new risks. Fast technological progress and deepening globalisation does offer opportunities for some, but acute challenges for others, particularly women who are under-represented in the formal labour market, concentrated in those lower wage jobs and have less access to resources to support their economic participation. Women and girls are disproportionately affected of course by the fact that we have the most profound displacement crisis since the Second World War. Many many countries affected by natural disasters, climate change, the list goes on, and these challenges mirror the challenges to women’s representation in political spheres, as well as at sub-national level. When it comes to decision-making in economic life, in financial institutions, digital inclusion and social and family affairs – all of these areas present particular challenges for women. I know the UN has a blueprint, Planet 50-50 by 2030. But I don’t know about you, I’m actually quite impatient about it, that’s why I keep saying, ‘Are we there yet, are we there yet?’ Robert Louis Stevenson said, ‘To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive’. Well yes, may we travel hopefully yes, but may we arrive soon! Gender equality — surely there is no better example of a destination being more desirable than the journey. Thank you.