Canberra's International Women's Day luncheon urges parliamentary equality

Aleta Miller, Tracy Spicer and Muniba Mazari at the International Women’s Day luncheon in Canberra on March 9, hosted by the UN Women National Committee Australia. Photo by: Lisa Cornish / Devex

Empower a woman, empower a nation. It was the call of speakers at Canberra’s International Women’s Day luncheon on March 9, hosted by the UN Women National Committee Australia. Speakers urged for greater support to increase women’s involvement in politics and business, from Pakistan to the Pacific.

Janelle Weissman, executive director of UN Women National Committee Australia, explained the importance of the theme to the audience.

“We have enormous hurdles at our doorstep,” she said. “Still today, just one in four women are represented in parliaments around the world. What might shock some of you is that this is a doubling of women’s representation in parliament over the last 20 years. So that’s progress — it’s not terribly impressive.”

Statistics for the Pacific region, she explained, were even more alarming. “Pacific Island countries and territories have the lowest numbers of women represented in parliament anywhere at 6.3 percent.” But the statistic hides that some Pacific Island countries have a total of zero females in parliament.

The work of UN Women involves engaging with female-led organizations at the grassroots level to provide women in developing countries with new opportunities and to promote their rights. In Vanuatu, UN Women have arranged leadership training for women to encourage them to run for office. “As a result of that leadership training, five women councillors were elected to the Vanuatu Municipal Council.” In the Solomon Islands, leadership training resulted in the election of the third woman ever to parliament, who also became a minister.

Having women in parliament meant that new issues were brought to the forefront of political decision making, including health, education and violence against women; it has also encouraged other women across communities to speak up about issues affecting them.

Stories from Pakistan and the Pacific

UN Women representatives for Pakistan and Fiji discussed with the audience key issues they believe are creating barriers to equality and change in their regions.

“Women in the Pacific are strong,” Aleta Miller, UN Women representative Fiji Multi-Country Office, said. “Despite the fact that they are strong, they often can’t play that role in society.” And this was the root cause for inequality that led to “troubling statistics” on violence against women, where two out of three women experienced violence, often at home.

The key to the issue, according to Miller, was in getting women elected. Getting women nominated has been doable, but getting them elected requires a large shift in cultural norms that requires long, slow work.

“The skills you need to be a leader as a woman and the skills you need to be elected as a woman are not necessarily the same skills,” Miller said. “Plus it takes money to be elected and women don’t have access to money to run a campaign for an election.”

It was important to get to the heart of the matter to create change — and this involved getting men involved in discussions to break down the barriers and create real change.

Muniba Mazari, Pakistan’s National UN Women ambassador, said the fight to empower women was a continued battle against cultural perceptions of the roles of women, including that of homemakers without their own career or economic independence.

And belief of men, even at the top levels of government, that they have the right to beat women is still keeping women down. This led to their #BeatMe campaign, highlighting the strength and power of women.

Mazari urged the audience to think outside of the box when it comes to shifting perceptions of women. “Changing the mindset is the first thing to do,” she said. “Heroes have no gender.”

Is Australia leading by example?

Frances Adamson, secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the first woman to hold the top job, explained that the theme for the day was “highly relevant to DFAT’s work” and strongly supported by the top level of Parliament — including Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Peter Cosgrove, the governor general of Australia.

“DFAT’s first strategy on gender equality and women’s empowerment, launched in February last year, brought work on these issues at the center of Australia’s foreign affairs and trade portfolio. And having seen firsthand in recent weeks — in Papua New Guinea, in the Solomon Islands and earlier this week in Afghanistan — that advancing women’s economic empowerment is one of the most effective ways to achieve higher economic growth and better living standards.”

DFAT, she said, was creating an environment for the empowerment of women in developing countries through aid for trade investment focused on access opportunities for women. Dr. Sharman Stone, Australia’s new ambassador for Women and Girls, is helping to promote the impact women could have on individuals, communities and the larger country.

Adamson also said DFAT is leading by example with targets for the representation of women at senior levels and actions in place to overcome the barriers to career progression for women within DFAT.

“On behalf of all of the women in my department, how proud I am to lead a department which has as one of its key priorities absolutely embedded in everything we do the empowerment of women and girls,” she said to the audience.

Yet the message of the day was overshadowed by the announcement that an Australian member of Parliament, Kate Ellis, would not be seeking re-election due to the difficulty of balancing parliamentary commitments with home life. It was news that made a statement on how much work was still to be done in Australia to encourage equal representation; less than one-third of federal parliamentarians are women.

Despite 1,000 people turning up in support of the work of UN Women National Committee Australia in Canberra, they left with the awareness that more work needs to be done to address the economic and power equality between men and women. And better female representation at home could be an important influencing factor in encouraging change within developing countries in the Pacific region.

The author was a guest at the luncheon of the Australian Center for International Agricultural Research.

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About the author

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    Lisa Cornish

    Lisa Cornish is a Devex Reporter based in Canberra, where she focuses on the Australian aid community. Lisa formerly worked with News Corp Australia as a data journalist for the national network and was published throughout Australia in major metropolitan and regional newspapers, including the Daily Telegraph in Melbourne, Herald Sun in Melbourne, Courier-Mail in Brisbane, and online through Lisa additionally consults with Australian government providing data analytics, reporting and visualization services. Lisa was awarded the 2014 Journalist of the Year by the New South Wales Institute of Surveyors.