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Opinion

UN CEDAW Committee review of gender equality in Australia

Australia is a party to a large number of United Nations (UN) and other international instruments that are designed to assist all countries to raise their standards of conduct in a very wide range of fields. One such instrument is the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), signed by Australia in 1980.

As a party to CEDAW, Australia is obliged to promote and protect women’s rights, including equality before the law, freedom from discrimination, political participation, health, education and employment.

The UN CEDAW Committee keeps watch on the implementation of such instruments by conducting periodic reviews of the performance of countries against the standards they prescribe. Countries are obliged to report every four years.

Recently, on the 2nd and 3rd of July 2018, Australia’s record on women’s rights was reviewed by the CEDAW Committee. Domestic and international performances were examined, with the former including action on domestic violence.

The Committee drew attention to the following matters:

– The absence of a bill of rights at the federal level or other mechanism to integrate the protections provided by CEDAW and other instruments.

– The level of resources provided to the Office for Women (which has only 30 staff – fewer than White Ribbon).

– The need for targeted and gendered services to be provided for female victims of domestic violence, much more than they are.

– The need for federal legislation addressing domestic violence. The Committee remarked that this may be the only way to overcome problems with gathering consistent data and implementing policy in the federal context. It was suggested that the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) might address this.

– Serious concern about the influence of false claims by so-called men’s rights activists on government policies and practice.

– The family law regime not presently meeting the contemporary needs of families and effectively addressing family violence and child abuse.

The Committee also raised concerns over women’s health, economic security and homelessness in Australia.

Under health it noted that while abortion is covered under Medicare and the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme, it is still criminalized in NSW and QLD. White Ribbon Australia supports the autonomy of women to make their own choices about their basic right to health care. Our position on abortion may be accessed here.

Under economic security it noted that high rates of poverty are experienced by single parent households, the vast majority of which are women. Financial abuse, leading many women into poverty, is a well-recognised form of violence against women. Women need to be economically empowered and to have equal access to resources for their security.

Under homelessness it is well established that domestic and family violence is the principal cause of homelessness for women and children. The Committee questioned the lack of affordable housing in Australia, particularly its access to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women, older women, single mothers and women leaving violence. White Ribbon works to reduce violence and thereby address the problem of homelessness.

The CEDAW Committee review provides a timely reminder to Australia that all is not as well as it should be in relation to women’s rights in a country like ours. NGOs, such as White Ribbon, have a role to play in pressing government for improved compliance and in shouldering some of the burden themselves – in White Ribbon’s case, by working to end men’s violence against women. Success in this endeavour reduces the consequences and the harms resulting from the matters particularly noted by the UN Committee.

Author Nicholas Cowdery AM QC is Chair of the White Ribbon Australia Board.

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