Despite Australia being a signatory to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), Australian women still face a large amount of discrimination in their lives. This is largely due to Australia’s noncompliance with the convention as it is yet to comprehensively enact CEDAW into domestic law.
In a joint submission to the United Nations, Community Legal Centres NSW highlighted and explored the range of ways that women still experience discrimination. We believe that the Australian Government fails to provide adequate protection for women against many forms of discrimination. We provided a wide range of recommendations to the Australian Government on how they can comply with the convention’s key principles.
Summary of recommendations
- Ratify the convention, as well as entrenching and enforcing human rights in Australian domestic law
Human rights and equality are not comprehensively protected in Australia, leaving Australians without access to effective remedies. This can be resolved by introducing a detailed and enforceable federal Human Rights Act and along with enacting CEDAW into our laws, as well as enacting an Equality Act.
Alongside this, the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights, which reviews and scrutinises legislation, along with the Australian Human Rights Council, needs to be more appropriately funded and empowered so that it can function more efficiently to enforce the protection of human rights and to limit the discrimination that women face.
- Implement strategies to increase women participation in public life
Across all levels of government in Australia and in other facets of public life, women continue to be underrepresented in leadership and decision-making roles. Implementation of gender quotas will lead to an increase in women participation in parliament, as well as government boards and committees for all publicly-funded bodies, and for the appointment of Justices on State and Commonwealth courts.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women in particular continue to be underrepresented in public life, which can be remedied by undertaking concrete steps to implement the Final Report of the Referendum Council. This will result in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities having a direct voice in Parliament on matters than concern them.
- Increase funding for NGOs to engage in advocacy
The federal funding agreement for community legal centres continues to restrict the use of Commonwealth funding for law reform, policy or advocacy work. Australia should be providing adequate funding for NGOs to undertake systemic law reform and advocacy work, as well as removing the restrictions placed upon NGOs to limit engagement in law reform, policy and advocacy work.
- Address and rectify the gender wage gap and participation rates
Discrimination against women is still a major issue in regard to employment, with the gender wage gap still posing significant barriers to gender equality as well as just over 40% of all women not participating in the workforce. Australia must address the gender wage gap and participation rates through a range of mechanisms detailed in the report.
- Protect pregnant women and mothers from discrimination
Women who are pregnant, returning from parental leave or currently parents still face high levels of discrimination by employers. This can be addressed by amending federal legislation to introduce positive duties on employers to reasonably accommodate the needs for women who are pregnant or have family responsibilities and to implement flexible working conditions for them.
- Provide more support for women who experience sexual harassment and domestic and family violence
Domestic/family violence and sexual harassment is a barrier to women effectively participating in paid work and can affect their ability to remain in the workforce. Paid leave for women experiencing abuse would enable them to maintain their income while they address their situation at home. In addition, imposing a positive obligation on employers to take all reasonable steps to avoid sexual harassment in their workplace would protect women while at work.
- Repeal amendments to social security legislation
The Government has made numerous amendments to social security programs which will overwhelmingly affect women. These include reducing unemployment payments, imposing ‘mutual obligation activities’ and intrusive screening practices. It is in the best interests of women that these amendments be repealed, as well as an increase in support services (such as child care) to enable women to find suitable work.
- Ensure that women have access to safe and affordable healthcare
Women are often harassed and obstructed when trying to access reproductive healthcare from anti-abortion protesters. Additionally, women with mental health issues experience difficulty accessing the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS), which is now allocated funding that used to go to mental health support services. Women who belong to certain groups such as the LGBTI community, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women, asylum seekers, and women in rural, regional and remote areas also face their own barriers to accessing healthcare.
More funding should be provided to ensure that these women can access the healthcare that they require in Australia without facing discrimination, delay or stress due to barriers placed before them.
- Expand the protections provided for women being forced into marriage
We welcome the Government’s recent announcement of a 12-month pilot program in regard to forced marriages. However, this approach still requires those who are affected to access a government support program. Anecdotal evidence indicates that many women don’t engage with law enforcement for fear that family members will face a criminal prosecution and, as a result, cannot access support. Australia should de-link support from engagement with law enforcement and the criminal justice system, as well as introduce new mechanisms to further protect individuals at risk.
- Amend and repeal laws that disproportionality criminalise and imprison women
Female incarceration has increased rapidly over the past decade, with most women in prison being mothers (and many of these being heads of single-parent households). We recommend that women should only be imprisoned as a last resort, especially pregnant women and women with dependent children. Also, bail and sentencing considerations should be amended to include the impact of imprisonment on dependent children and considerations of the best interest for the child and for the family as a fundamental unit.
Laws that disproportionately criminalise and imprison Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, as well as women with disabilities, should also be repealed or reformed, with a continued investment in community-led strategies to support these women.
- Increase access to justice for women
Women are more likely to experience unmet legal need than men, and often struggle to have access to justice. There needs to be increased funding for community legal centres, including Women’s Legal Services, as well as disability advocacy organisations and legal services for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Additionally, we need to ensure asylum seekers have access to free legal service, which the Government removed in 2014.
- Implement measures that rectify the current epidemic of violence against women
One in three women in Australia have experienced physical violence and almost one in five women have experienced sexual violence. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women are 45 times more likely to experience family violence than non-Aboriginal women, while greater risks of violence are also experienced by women with disability, women from a culturally and linguistically diverse background, older women and women in rural, regional and remote areas.
Funding for legal assistance and support services for these disadvantaged women needs to be increased, as well as ensuring data, policy and programs addressing violence against women include a specific focus for these mentioned groups.