United Nations tells Australia it must do more to protect women’s rights

Last week, Australia’s performance on women’s rights was found wanting by the United Nations.

The expert Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) reviewed Australia’s compliance with the international women’s rights treaty.

After consideration of government reports and strong representations from Australian civil society organisations, the UN committee grilled the Australian government on its human rights failures for women and girls.

The committee took Australia to task on the gap between its commitments and the reality for women in Australia.

Women in Australia experience unacceptably high levels of violence; 1 in 3 women have experienced physical violence and 1 in 5 women have experienced sexual violence.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women, LGBTI women, women with disability and women from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds are disproportionately impacted.

Seeking access to justice is harder for these women and the specialist services that support them are chronically underfunded.

Data indicates there has been no reduction in the prevalence of violence against women, reflecting the urgent need for the government to do more.

Women continue to face serious economic disadvantage in Australia.

The gender pay gap is currently 15.3 per cent and has stubbornly persisted over the past 20 years.

On average, women retire with about 47 per cent less superannuation than men.

Single mothers’ access to social security has been cut, with 40 per cent of children of single parents (the vast majority women) living below the poverty line.

A wealthy country such as Australia can do more for women and girls.

If the government can afford $140 billion in tax cuts, it can afford to invest to support women by reversing cuts to social security and funding specialist women’s services including legal assistance services to assist women and their children to escape violence.

In some areas, Australia is regressing in human rights protections.

For example, the fastest growing group of incarcerated people in Australia is Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women, making up 34 per cent of all women incarcerated despite representing 2.6 per cent of the female population.

The challenge of Australia making any real progress on human rights at home remains.

At the CEDAW review, Australia said it places great importance on women’s rights and takes its international obligations “incredibly seriously”.

However, when pressed by the committee, Australia said on most fronts it had no plans to change laws or policies to improve protection of women’s rights.

This resistance to change means Australia can no longer claim to be a leader on gender equality issues internationally.

The committee will release its recommendations on July 23.

These recommendations will provide the Australian government with a clear roadmap to improve its record on women’s rights.

Australia committed to working towards advancing the rights of women and girls during its bid for a seat on the UN Human Rights Council.

Given the US withdrawal from the Human Rights Council last month, it is imperative that Australia steps up and display leadership by taking a principled approach to human rights.

Australia needs to stop paying lip service to women’s rights at home and take concrete action, including policy and legislative changes, to protect the rights of all women and girls in our community.

Kingsford Legal Centre lawyers Tess Deegan and Maria Nawaz were part of the civil society delegation that contributed to the CEDAW review.