Senate debates

Thursday, 25 November 2021


International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women

9:41 am

Photo of Penny WongPenny Wong (SA, Australian Labor Party, Leader of the Opposition in the Senate) Share this | Hansard source

I rise to speak today on the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. This day comes in the context of a profound shift in this country but also distressing setbacks abroad. We watched, the world watched, in disbelief and in distress the fall of Kabul and the return to Taliban rule of Afghanistan. It was distressing for us all. But for women everywhere there was an additional poignancy, and for women from and of Afghanistan there was great anguish.

For 20 years, since the fall of the Taliban, gains were made, and the women of Afghanistan who had been brutally repressed fought for their agency and autonomy. They could access education. They became politicians, judges, policewomen, teachers. They could work outside the home, and many could provide for themselves and their families rather than simply being controlled by male guardians. They were starting to have a chance to shape their own lives and shape the future of their country.

With the return of the Taliban, it's likely that little if any of this progress can endure, and already we've seen restrictions on media and education for women and girls and a return to limits on the free movement of women. I've spoken with many Afghan women in Australia—trailblazers, community leaders and patriots—all deeply proud of their heritage and often lost for words as they witness the return of a regime whose brutal repression of women the world knows too well.

This is a story that through our history has been repeated too often, and it is why Australia must always not only take the world as it is but work to shape it for the better, including to work in every way we are able for the equality of women and for the elimination of violence against women and girls.

Here in Australia violence against women remains pervasive. We've said these statistics so many times—one in five have been sexually assaulted or threatened, one in four experience emotional abuse by a current or previous partner, on average a woman is killed by a current or former partner every week. These facts haven't changed for years. What is hard is we keep saying them. Of course, behind every one of those numbers is a tragic story, a tragic loss. One of the most moving events I have ever been to was outside of the state Parliament House, where we read through the list of women who had been killed in these circumstances. We said their names and we held up a corflute for each of them. It is a reminder of what there is behind the statistics.

Of course, the numbers also don't capture the trauma that many survivors endure. How is it that today in this country we still have women and children fleeing violence turned away from shelters? How is it that today in this country we still have women resorting to sleeping in their cars, on their friends' sofas or, worst of all, returning to danger? It used to take an average of three weeks to find someone in crisis a secure home. It takes two years now. For these and so many other reasons, it would be easy to be despondent, but let's choose to be determined. Let's choose to be determined not because of those who, frankly, have offered too many platitudes and too much cynical political management in response to a profound moment of reckoning in this country; let's choose hope because of the many extraordinary women who are driving this reckoning, and their allies. I choose hope because of young women like Grace Tame, Brittany Higgins, Chanel Contos and so many others who chart a path and offer hope to other victims-survivors—women who understand change doesn't mean telling people you absolutely are committed to something; it means doing it. I wish that more leaders showed just a fraction of the courage, determination and principle these young women have shown.

A Labor government led by Anthony Albanese will ensure women's safety is a national priority. We will appoint a Family, Domestic and Sexual Violence Commissioner. We will fund—and Senator McAllister, I'm sure, will speak to this more—500 new community sector workers to support women in crisis. Surely it is beyond any partisanship that women and children fleeing violence should always have access to safe refuge, advice and guidance. When the ground disappears from under them, it is our responsibility to actually give them something to hold onto. Surely that's not beyond a country of our means. And we will build 4,000 homes for women and children fleeing violence and older women on low incomes who are at risk of homelessness, as part of our Housing Australia Future Fund.

I just want to pause here and say that we get the privilege, in the jobs that we have, of meeting extraordinary people, and some of the most extraordinary people I've met are women who have gone through Catherine House, which is a service in Adelaide that I started engaging with many years ago because my partner explained to me that it was the only service at that time for women without children fleeing violence. They are extraordinary women. I regret deeply that the Liberal government in South Australia has cut their funding. They are extraordinary women, women with stories of courage, perseverance and what they have overcome—more courage than I see ever in this place. We need to back them with more than words—with funding and people to support them, because so many of them find their own path.

Labor have already said we'll legislate for 10 days domestic violence leave, we'll work with the states and territories for a national definition of domestic violence that includes coercive control and we'll support early intervention to reduce family violence in First Nations communities.

Colleagues and Mr President, I've been in politics for 20 years nearly, and I've given this speech or a version of it for a couple of decades now. It would just be a wonderful thing for this nation if we could actually make a difference on this. We need to remember always that it is resources, it is political commitment to deliver resources, but it is also the recognition that gender inequality is an essential prerequisite for this violence. That means all of us, and how we behave here towards each other, how we speak here about women—that matters too, and that's a responsibility too. Australian women have said, 'Enough is enough,' and they deserve a government, a parliament, political leaders, who say that too and who summon the courage and the will to turn their call into action.


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