House debates

Thursday, 3 December 2015


Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade; Report

4:31 pm

Photo of Philip RuddockPhilip Ruddock (Berowra, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

On behalf of the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade, I present the committee's report entitled Empowering women and girls: the human rights issues confronting women and girls in the Indian Ocean-Asia Pacific region.

Report made a parliamentary paper in accordance with standing order 39(e).

by leave—I thank the honourable member for Moreton for agreeing to the tabling of this report. It is a very welcome report and a unanimous report. I speak as the Chair of the Human Rights Sub-Committee of the Joint Standing Committee of Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade on the report Empowering women and girls: the human rights issues confronting women and girls in the Indian Ocean-Asia Pacific region.

The Minister for Foreign Affairs has declared the promotion of the human rights and empowerment of women and girls in Australia's region to be 'a personal passion'. This is a passion that was shared by the human rights subcommittee and all our members, and we hope that the report presented today will be a practical contribution to Australia's effort to support the advancement of human rights of women and girls across the Indo-Pacific region.

The terms of reference were extremely broad. They involved nothing less than a comprehensive examination of the human rights circumstances of women and girls across a vast region. It is a region that includes six of the world's top 10 most populous nations, including countries as different in size and character as China, Afghanistan and Nauru. We often speak of all of them.

The report reflects the weight of evidence received from those who contributed: the Australian government, especially the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and a wide range of non-government organisations and academic experts. The committee also sought the views of all governments in the region and we were pleased to receive submissions from Afghanistan, Mauritius, Vietnam, Timor-Leste and Sri Lanka. The report addresses in considerable detail all the human rights issues in the countries in Australia's immediate region, especially the South Pacific, and in countries that are significant recipients of our development assistance.

Over the course of the inquiry, the availability of reliable data and particularly evidence on what programs and initiatives are working and what are not working emerged as significant issues. This was particularly relevant because of our terms of reference. We were asked to inquire into achievements to date in advancing women and girls' human rights in these key areas that have obviously been identified: women's leadership, economic opportunities and related matters. We were also asked to examine the effectiveness of Australia's programs to support efforts to improve human rights of women and girls in the Indian Ocean and Asia-Pacific region. For me, that meant we were expected to look at these issues with a view to coming to conclusions based upon achievements and effectiveness.

The importance of data in understanding the extent of these problems was succinctly expressed in the International Women's Development Agency submission, which stated:

What we measure matters. It reflects what we value. It drives the visibility of issues. It influences where resources are invested.

The committee's task was confronted with the difficulty of addressing these questions with effective key performance indicators. We therefore made a number of recommendations, particularly to address the paucity of data, so that future policy and development assistance programs are better underpinned by evidence.

Despite this, a very clear picture emerged that the circumstances of hundreds of millions of women and girls across the Indo-Pacific region are dire, blighted by violence, poverty and exclusion from economic, social and political participation.

While many countries have made great progress in advancing the human rights of women and girls, especially in recent decades, it is all too clear that, more than 6½ decades after the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a great deal more progress must be made for women and girls to be truly considered equals.

The committee did not wish to single out any particular country or countries for criticism or judgement. Instead, the report details the extent and depth of problems across the region and examines ways in which governments, communities and non-government organisations can work together to make further progress in protecting and improving the lives of women and girls, empowering them to the benefit of all.

In particular, evidence received by the committee documented nothing less than an epidemic of violence directed against women and girls in many nations. This is a most serious problem across the Indo-Pacific region. Oxfam told the committee:

In the Pacific, these rates are the highest in the world, with up to 68 per cent of Pacific women reporting physical or sexual abuse and 40 to 70 per cent of women experiencing violence from family members in their lifetime. Across to West Asia, in Afghanistan, as many as 87 per cent of women suffer at least one form of physical, sexual or psychological violence, with more than half experiencing multiple kinds of abuse.

It should not be forgotten too that the economic consequences of such problems are enormous, and constitute a significant drain on national economies, and indeed on the region as a whole.

By virtue of its nature, its embeddedness in cultures and social attitudes, as well as its different triggers, violence perpetrated against women and girls represents a very deep-seated challenge.

The diversity of the Indo-Pacific region also presents a major challenge for the implementation of development assistance programs to address this problem. What may work in one country or social group may be of limited effectiveness elsewhere. Again, I stress, programs that seek to empower women and girls must be backed up by good local consultation and research that takes into account a program's possible benefits, economic value and its cultural impact.

However, as Oxfam observed:

… the scale and complexity of the challenge should not overwhelm or dissuade us. Violence is not inevitable, and it is preventable.

Our report acknowledges the good work of the Australian government in seeking to combat violence against women and girls.

This includes the advocacy of the Minister for Foreign Affairs and the Ambassador for Women and Girls, former Senator Natasha Stott Despoja, and a wide variety of development assistance programs, including support for law reform and more effective law enforcement.

However, the committee has recommended an intensification of efforts and further work that takes into account both the cultural and social diversity of the region, and the insights of further research to identify the most effective responses.

Similar challenges are evident in relation to health, education, economic participation and the involvement of women in community decision-making and political life more broadly. In all these areas there has been significant progress in many places, but much remains to be done, and in some areas urgent action is required to ensure that hard won gains are not reversed or lost.

The committee's recommendations consequently span a wide range of issues and government programs, and underline the need for a broad and sustained commitment of resources.

There are no easy solutions for any of the problems discussed in this report. All of them require a preparedness by policy makers to commit to programs that are likely to only deliver substantial progress over decades rather than years, and in some cases perhaps only through intergenerational change.

The committee has therefore been mindful of the many demands on Australia's overseas development assistance budget.

Nonetheless, given the magnitude of the problems, there is a strong case for giving women and girls greater priority.

Consequently, the report recommends that Australia lift the percentage of total official development assistance that is 'primarily' focused on women and girls from the current five per cent level to between eight and 10 per cent over the next five years, particularly as a proportion of aid to the Pacific region.

We also recommend that we focus our investments and expertise in programs that deliver best return on investment, on large-scale, long-term programs—for 10 years or more—designed directly for women's empowerment in key countries.

Indeed, the long-term benefits, including the economic benefits, of greatly reducing domestic violence and improving educational and economic opportunities for women and girls are potentially very large.

As the Minister for Foreign Affairs has observed:

When women are able to actively participate in the economy, and in community decision-making, everybody benefits.

On behalf of the committee 1 would like to thank all of the non-government organisations, academics and individuals for generously donating their time, effort and resources to make submissions and appear at public hearings or private briefings.

I would also like to thank the Australian government agencies that provided submissions and gave evidence, as well as the foreign governments that contributed to the inquiry.

I would especially like to thank the staff and students of Auburn Girls High School in Sydney, which hosted two days of public hearings on 21 and 22 August 2014.

The committee was very pleased to have this opportunity to bring parliament to the people.

The question and answer session with students that accompanied the public hearings was particularly enjoyable as members of the sub-committee heard the views of articulate young women who may be future community leaders and, to judge by some of their challenging questions, may well one day think about entering political life themselves.

I would also like to thank my predecessor as Chair of the Human Rights Sub-Committee, the member for Cowan, Mr Luke Simpkins MP, and my other colleagues on the joint standing committee who closely engaged with this inquiry.

It would not do if I did not also commend the committee secretariat, led ably by Jerome Brown, but I might say particularly well served by Sonya Fladun. I can also say that we were generously supported with senior research officers Emma Banyer, Loes Slattery, Nathan Fewkes, Dorota Cooley and Karen Underwood. Without their outstanding work and commitment to preparing this report in time for tabling, I would not be standing here today. I am particularly grateful for their professionalism and for the way in which they undertook assisting the committee in preparing this report. I can say genuinely that, without their support, we would not have been able to undertake this very important task.

I commend the report to the House

I seek leave to move a motion in relation to the report.

Leave granted.

I move:

That the House take note of the report.

Photo of Tony SmithTony Smith (Speaker) Share this | | Hansard source

In accordance with standing order 39(c), the debate is adjourned. The resumption of the debate will be made an order of the day for the next sitting.