Australia’s record on women’s rights to be scrutinised on the world stage

Australia’s record on women’s rights to be scrutinised on the world stage

The Australian Government will face intense scrutiny of its treatment of women and girls today at the United Nations.

The UN Committee on the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women will meet and assess Australia’s progress on ending discrimination against women.

Australia’s record was last reviewed by the UN eight years ago, and while the Australian Government has made positive steps, the voices of some of the most marginalised women and girls continue to go unheard.

It’s expected the Committee will question the Government about its cruelty towards women and girls seeking asylum and the dire situation on Nauru. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights previously criticised Australia’s policy of offshore refugee detention, condemning the Government’s regime as “unsustainable, inhumane and contrary to its human rights obligations”.

The alarmingly high rates of women being siphoned into criminal justice systems and routinely strip searched will also go under the spotlight, as will criminalisation of abortion in a number of jurisdictions in Australia, and the treatment of LGBTI women and girls.

The question of why Australia still lacks a federal charter of human rights to ensure equality for all Australians, will also likely be asked.

Download report: Hear our voice: Equal rights for women and girls in Australia.

Stronger human rights protections

Lee Carnie, Lawyer at the Human Rights Law Centre, said:

“Australia is the only Western liberal democracy without a Charter of Rights, or equivalent protection of rights. Every single woman and girl in our community should have their fundamental human rights to equality and dignity protected under law.”

Women’s reproductive health rights

Since Australia was last reviewed by CEDAW, reproductive health laws have improved, with the removal of abortion from criminal laws and the establishment of safe access zones around abortion clinics in some states and territories. However, a number of jurisdictions are lagging behind to the detriment of women’s health.

Adrianne Walters, Senior Lawyer at the Human Rights Law Centre, said:

“For far too long, women have had to travel interstate to terminate their pregnancy or run a gauntlet of abuse just to see their doctor. All governments must end this insidious discrimination against women by decriminalising abortion and implementing safe access zones across the country.”

While there has been progress, abortion still remains on the criminal statute books in Queensland, New South Wales, South Australia and Western Australia.

"It’s unacceptable that in 2018, women and their doctors still run the risk of prosecution for undertaking a safe medical procedure in Australia. The law is hopelessly out of step with modern community expectations, medical practice and women’s basic rights.”

LGBTI rights

The Human Rights Law Centre’s Hear Our Voice report highlights a number of human rights concerns the UN should address, including the rights of lesbian, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer women and girls.

Lee Carnie, Lawyer at the Human Rights Law Centre, said:

“Australia now has marriage equality. This was a momentous step forward, but it doesn’t address the high levels of discrimination lesbian, bisexual, and queer women and girls face that contributes to staggering rates of mental illness, self-harm and suicide.”

“We’re making welcome progress in tackling discrimination based on someone’s gender identity, but state and territory governments still have a long way to go to improve access to legal recognition for trans and gender diverse Australians.”

The report also raises concerns about human rights issues experienced by intersex women and girls.

“Five years ago, a Senate Committee handed down its report on the involuntary and coerced sterilisation of intersex people. It’s time to implement these important recommendations to put an end to unnecessary surgeries performed on intersex children without their full and informed consent.”

Refugee women and women seeking asylum

Women and girls who sought asylum face mandatory and indefinite detention on Nauru. The report highlights the serious and continued reports of violence against women – including sexual violence – in offshore detention.

Freya Dinshaw, Senior Lawyer with the Human Rights Law Centre, said:

“The Australian Government must immediately bring every women and girl, who has been stranded on Nauru for up to five years, safely to Australia. The transfer of women and girls to dangerous conditions in offshore refugee camps needs to stop.”

The Australian Government continues to arbitrarily separate families as part of its offshore detention regime. Mothers and children in Nauru and Australia have been separated from their husbands, fathers and other family members.

“These families who have been separated by Australia’s cynical offshore detention regime want what any other family wants – to be together. The only thing stopping these families from being reunited in safety in our communities is the Australian Government.”

Fairer criminal justice systems

Women across Australia are being criminalised and forced into prisons at record rates. The report shows how Australia’s criminal justice laws discriminate against women, particularly Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women, and damaging and degrading practices within prisons.

Ruth Barson, Director of Legal Advocacy with the Human Rights Law Centre, said:

“Australian governments must ensure women are treated fairly, equally and humanely by the justice system. But right now, mothers are being separated from their children, communities are being torn apart, and girls are being denied the opportunity to thrive, all because Australian governments are pushing through punitive laws that unfairly target and trap women in the quicksand of the criminal justice system.”

Most women in prison are mothers who have experienced family and sexual violence. Despite this, women behind bars are forced to endure tens of thousands of degrading strip searches each year.

“There is absolutely no justification for repeatedly forcing a woman to remove every single item of her clothing in front of two strangers. Every single Australian government must introduce laws prohibiting routine strip searches.”

Background to the CEDAW review

The UN Committee on the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women is an international treaty adopted in 1979 by the UN General Assembly. In signing the treaty, Australia committed to taking all steps required under the treaty to eliminate discrimination against women and to being regularly reviewed by the Committee – a panel of experts on discrimination. Australia was last reviewed in 2010.

On 3 July, Australia will be examined by the Committee about whether it is complying with its obligations. Before Australia is examined, an NGO delegation including the Human Rights Law Centre, will have an opportunity to present to the Committee with an overview of the gaps in protections for women and girls.

Lee Carnie will be available for comment from Geneva.

Download report: Hear our voice: Equal rights for women and girls in Australia.

For further information please call:

Michelle Bennett, Director of Communications, Human Rights Law Centre, 0419 100 519