This week, despite overall cuts to the country’s foreign assistance budget, Australia boosted funding for programs promoting women’s and girls’ equality, a signature focus area under Foreign Minister Julie Bishop.
“Gender equality and women’s empowerment is the cornerstone of our foreign policy work,” Australia's Ambassador for Women and Girls Natasha Stott Despoja told Devex during a recent visit to Washington, D.C. Bishop has set a target for 80 percent of Australia’s international development work to address gender equality, Stott Despoja added.
“We’re serious about this. We’ve made women and gender equality a core part of the work that we do,” Stott Despoja said.
Here are the highlights of our conversation with the ambassador:
What is the state of violence against women globally? Is it a set of issues that is improving, getting worse? What is the broad trajectory?
Generally speaking, the global average is one in three women have experienced some form of abuse. Australia reflects that global average, I might add. People are often surprised to hear the statistics in Australia: 1 in 3 women [over the age of 15] experiencing some form of physical abuse; 1 in 4 children; 1 in 5 women over the age of 15 experiencing some form of sexual assault.
I say those statistics because people say, “surely Australia’s got it under control.” In Australia, on average, one woman dies a week at the hands of intimate partner violence. Last year that increased to almost two women every week being murdered. That was a wakeup call for our country, and there’s been a huge domestic response. In the Indo-Pacific region around two-thirds of women on average have experienced some form of violence.
At the same time now we’re doing something we haven’t really done before, and that is providing prevention strategies. The emphasis on primary prevention is, I think, the single biggest difference in this space worldwide — and in my own country and region — that we have seen for decades. It’s recognizing that until we address the attitudes and behaviors that give rise to violence, we’re not going to solve this problem.
What does the international development community still get wrong about violence against women and girls?
I like to think we’re getting a lot right at the moment. The common mistake that we all make is that we do one-offs, or we make the mistake of thinking that one-size fits all. You can’t just have a poster campaign, or something on the back of a bus, or a television commercial. You’ve got to have a multilayered approach. You’ve got to have your respectful relationships education in schools that promotes gender equality and explains people’s rights. You’ve got to have role models throughout the community. You’ve got to have workforces that have a range of reforms that deal with everything from paid domestic violence leave — which is becoming quite an interesting notion in Australia now — right through to legislation that backs up the fact that violence against women and children, violence against anyone, is unacceptable.
Up until now, we’ve been a bit wary of making the connection between gender inequality and violence against women. That’s a pretty big deal to talk about. A lot of leaders get very nervous about making that connection, and sometimes explaining that disrespect for women can lead to violence, making that association, has been a controversial one. I know that violence is compounded by alcohol, drugs, unemployment in some cases. You might be more likely to be a victim of violence based on a whole lot of other interconnecting factors. With all of those things though, we still have to recognize that it’s the gender inequality issues we still have to tackle.
It sounds like there’s something to be learned here about connecting a country’s domestic policy emphasis with a country’s global engagement in development issues. Are there lessons you see in Australia’s experience working on violence against women and girls at home and abroad?
The consistency between the themes in our domestic policy in relation to gender equality, seeing those themes completely replicated in the international arena, that’s not because we’re lazy. That’s because we’ve worked out that those three areas: economic empowerment, leadership, and eliminating violence are global. They’re certainly regional. We know one size doesn’t fit all, and you’ve got to tailor and target your programs and projects and approaches and that’s what we do.
In the Indo-Pacific region we actually have a 10-year program, the Pacific Women Shaping Pacific Development program — $240 million over 10 years, operating in 14 different countries in the region. We don’t roll out the same strategy for each. We work with groups on the ground. But the overarching themes are the same. We shouldn’t be differentiating. These are global issues, but we should be clever about how we tailor those approaches. The domestic story in Australia has huge resonance around the world, and I learnt that particularly this year at [the Commission on the Status of Women]. People are amazed at the work that Australia is doing. I’m actually very proud of my country on a lot of this work.
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