CEDAW Opening Statement

Speech by Elizabeth Broderick
Sex Discrimination Commissioner
and Commissioner responsible for Age Discrimination

Australian Human Rights Commission

Delivered to the CEDAW Committee on 19 July 2010

Monday, 19 July 2010

UN Headquarters, New York

Madame Chair, thank you for the opportunity to address the Committee as part of its review of Australia’s implementation of the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women. As the only National Human Rights Institution appearing today I am honoured to have this opportunity to present to the Committee.

I am Australia’s Federal Sex Discrimination Commissioner representing the Australian Human Rights Commission. The Commission is an independent statutory authority, established in compliance with the Paris Principles. The Commission administers the Commonwealth Sex Discrimination Act 1984, which gives effect to many of Australia’s obligations as a signatory to CEDAW.

By virtue of our complaint handling function and our role in promoting understanding of human rights, the Commission plays a vital role promoting women’s rights and gender equality and independently monitoring Australia’s progress on implementing its obligations under CEDAW.

Today marks the first time an Australian Sex Discrimination Commissioner has addressed the Committee as an independent representative and I am pleased to present you with the Commission’s first independent report.

The Commission’s first report is not an exhaustive assessment of Australia’s implementation of CEDAW. The particular issues of minority groups have been addressed in detail in the NGO Shadow report, the Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander report and the Women with Disabilities report. I commend these reports to you. Instead the Commission’s report focuses on the structural and legislative in place and the areas that require strengthening.

I also advise the Committee that the Australian Prime Minister announced two days ago, a general election to be held on 21 August. The Australian Government is now in caretaker mode and as a statutory officer I will confine my comments to the recommendations already raised with the Government.

Positive developments

The report does highlight a number of positive developments in the protection of women’s human rights. The four major positive developments that I would particularly like to highlight in this oral address are:

  • The Australian Government’s accession to the Optional Protocol to CEDAW.
  • The Australian Government’s announcement of a new Human Rights Framework which includes specific funding for the Commission to further develop its educational function. The Government also provided funding to NGOs to produce the two shadow reports.
  • The Australian Government’s introduction of amending legislation into Parliament to strengthen the Sex Discrimination Act.
  • The Australian Governmen’st introduction of Australia’s first Paid Parental Leave Scheme which will commence on 1 January 2011.

Areas to be strengthened

The report also identifies a number of areas in Australia’s implementation of CEDAW that could be strengthened.

When I came into this role, I undertook extensive consultations with women and men across Australia. Through these consultations I identified five broad areas of reform:

  1. Strengthening national gender equality laws, agencies and monitoring
  2. Promoting women in leadership
  3. Preventing violence against women and sexual harassment
  4. Balancing paid work and caring responsibilities
  5. Ensuring women’s lifetime economic security

This report sets out the key reforms currently required in each area.

Some of these recommendations represent deep, structural change necessary to drive ongoing improvement in women’s rights and gender equality. Others represent changes which must be made to current policies or programs for an immediate, positive impact.

Follow up procedure

In accordance with the Committee’s new follow-up procedure, I draw your attention to two key priorities for inclusion under this mechanism.

The first of these priorities is temporary special measures for women in leadership. The second priority is the national response to address violence against women.

Women and leadership

Firstly, to women and leadership.

Australia’s achievements when it comes to equality between women and men in education should be noted. However, equality in education has failed to translate into equality in the workforce.

This is clearly illustrated by the low level of women’s representation in leadership and decision-making positions in all sectors.

Both CEDAW and the Sex Discrimination Act provide an avenue for the Government to institute temporary special measures designed to accelerate substantive equality outcomes. As also noted in the last review in 2006, the Commonwealth Government has not adopted quotas or targets to address this issue.[1]

However, in response to the alarming level of women’s representation in the corporate sphere, the ASX Corporate Governance Council has amended its reporting requirements. From next year, each listed company will have to set “measurable objectives” for increasing the number of women at senior executive level and on their boards. These targets will be disclosed to the market in full and companies will have to report against them annually.

The majority of State and Territory Governments have also introduced effective targets to increase the representation of women on government appointed boards and senior positions in the public service.

It is imperative that the Australian Government now take measures to increase the representation of women on federal Government appointed boards and in the federal public service.

The Australian Human Rights Commission recommends:

  • That the Australian Government set a minimum target of 40% representation of each gender on all Australian Government Boards to be achieved within three years.
  • That the Australian Government require all publicly listed companies providing goods or services to the Australian Government to be certified by the Equal Opportunity in the Workplace Agency as having met their reporting requirements.

The Commission also recommends that the Australian Government support those initiatives taken by the ASX Corporate Governance Council. If progress is not made within five years:

  • The Australian Government should legislate to require publicly listed companies and other large employers to achieve a mandatory gender quota within a specified timeframe.

Violence against women

Violence against women is the second issue which would benefit from inclusion in the Committee’s follow-up procedure.

The Australian Government should be congratulated for initiating a new federal approach, the National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children and its first three-year Action Plan.

For the Plan to be effective, it will be necessary both to create national structures to drive implementation and ensure cooperation and consistency across all jurisdictions, and to ensure these structures are adequately funded and resourced.[2]

The Commission therefore recommends:

  • That the Australian Government ensure both national structures and adequate Commonwealth funding are put in place to support co-ordinated and strategic implementation of the National Plan across jurisdictions and sectors.

The Plan must include clear benchmarks and targets against which the Plan can be independently monitored. The monitoring should also inform the development of a national research and education agenda and promote best practices. The Commission recommends:

  • That the Australian Government nominate and fund a suitable independent statutory office to monitor and inform the development of the National Plan.
  • That the Australian Government adequately resource independent advocacy organisations and representatives to contribute to the development and evaluation of the Plan.
  • That the Australian Government invite the UN Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women to visit Australia to contribute to independent monitoring of the nation’s responses to gender-based violence.

Finally, as a matter of urgency, the Commission recommends that the Australian Government ensure services responding to the needs of women and girls who have experienced violence are adequately funded.

Gender equality machinery & legislative protection from discrimination

I would like to finish with a brief overview of recommendations in regards to Australia’s gender equality legislation. I hope the Committee will consider these as structural changes which must be made over Australia’s next full reporting period.

There are limitations in the form and content of the primary pieces of gender equality legislation in Australia.

The Commission believes the Sex Discrimination Act should be amended to address problems with existing provisions; enhance its ability to promote systemic reform and achieve substantive gender equality; and fulfil our international legal obligations.

The Commonwealth Government has introduced legislation which would make a number of positive amendments to the Act in line with the recommendations of a recent Parliamentary review. While this legislation has still to pass through the Australian Parliament, the Commission recommends that the Government be encouraged to implement its response to the review in full.

The Commission would like to draw the Committee’s attention to two further recommendations which would greatly increase the Act’s ability to promote substantive equality.

  • That the Australian Government amend the Act to insert a function for the Sex Discrimination Commissioner to commence self-initiated investigations for alleged breaches of the SDA, without requiring an individual complaint
  • That the Australian Government amend the Act to require the Sex Discrimination Commissioner to monitor progress towards eliminating sex discrimination and achieving gender equality and report to the Australian Parliament every two years.

The Australian Government has recently announced federal discrimination laws will be reviewed and consolidated. While the Commission has welcomed this initiative, it is important to ensure any more broad-based anti discrimination or equality legislation adequately incorporates Australia’s specific human rights obligations under CEDAW.

The Commission has also recommended changes to the Equal Opportunity in the Workplace Act to ensure action taken under this legislation promotes substantive equality between women and men, rather than equal opportunities.

In closing, let me commend to you the Commission’s independent report which includes detailed recommendations in regards to five key areas of reform. As I have suggested – the measures taken to advance women in leadership positions and address violence would benefit from inclusion in the Committee’s follow up procedure.

I want to thank the Committee again for recognising our common goals and promoting the role of national human rights institutions in the CEDAW monitoring process.

[1]Concluding comments of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women: Australia, CEDAW/C/AUL/CO/5 (2006):
“16. While noting that the Sex Discrimination Act allows for the adoption of special measures to ensure equality of opportunity or in order to meet the special needs of women, the Committee is concerned that the State party does not support the adoption of targets or quotas to promote greater participation of women, particularly indigenous women and women belonging to ethnic minorities, in decision-making bodies.
17. The Committee recommends that the State party fully utilize the Sex Discrimination Act and consider the adoption of quotas and targets, in accordance with article 4, paragraph 1, of the Convention and the Committee’s general recommendation 25, to further increase the number of women in political and public life and to ensure that the representation of women in political and public bodies reflect the full diversity of the population, particularly indigenous women and women belonging to ethnic minorities.”
[2] L Fergus, Setting the Standard: international good practice to inform an Australian National Plan of Action to eliminate violence against women (2008), Amnesty International Australia, p 6.