September 24, 2015
Sydney Morning Herald

Gender equality gains mask losses in women’s rights

Sometimes the thing that is stifling our progress sits right under our nose, in full view. We can sense it but don’t see it for what it really is. We don’t connect the dots.

Anne Summers made me think about this during her speech this week marking 40 years since the publication of her landmark feminist text, Damned Whores and God’s Police. She noted that when women’s activists set up Australia’s first women’s refuge, Elsie, they didn’t talk about violence against women, or domestic violence, or sexual harassment. They didn’t use that terminology because it hadn’t been coined. Instead, their efforts to support women fleeing violent marriages were intuitive, grassroots responses, to a systemic form of abuse against women – that hadn’t yet been named.

That got me thinking about the obstacles to gender equality that we still struggle to identify, and therefore fail to join the dots.

On September 27 at the UN Global Leaders Meeting on Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment, presidents and prime ministers will be given three minutes each to outline how they’re fighting discrimination against women. Our new PM is a no-show. Instead, Australia’s Ambassador for Women and Girls, Natasha Stott Despoja, will fill the seat, but without a speaking role.

Which is a pity, as Australia has some solid progress to share. Sure, we too have unmet targets, but overall Australia is always a strong and practical contributor to these international gender dialogues.

The weekend event, hosted by UN Women and China, is to mark the 20th anniversary since that watershed moment in Beijing 1995, at the Fourth World Conference on Women, when 189 nations signed a declaration and platform for action that set out a framework to end inequality between men and women.

It remains the “most progressive blueprint for advancing women’s rights” we have. But – and here’s where connecting the dots becomes important – the document is now considered so progressive in the human rights it demanded for women, particularly around a woman’s right to own and control her body, and the right to sexual and reproductive freedoms, that it’s become too hot to handle.

Now, instead of using the 20th anniversary to review and update the historic declaration, the UN is simply “celebrating” it.

So, about those dots.

The bigger billing on the Global Leaders agenda is on Friday, in which all nations will adopt 17 Sustainable Development Goals to “end poverty, promote prosperity, and protect the environment”. The 2015-2030 agenda picks up where the UN’s Millennium Development Goals project left off.

SDG 5 focuses on gender equality, although gender targets have also been incorporated in other goal lists, such as SDG 4 on education and SDG 3 on health. Nevertheless, the backlash against a woman’s right to reproductive health, access to family planning, contraception, and abortion, along with sexual freedoms, has become so great in the 21st century that the new goals avoid mention of “women’s rights”.

Instead the targets speak of “access” to sexual and reproductive health, and “family planning information and education”. There is no mention of a woman’s right to take control of her own body, and the timing of pregnancy. A woman’s right to autonomy, agency and the freedom to choose – the sort of human rights males enjoy from birth – are not included in any of the aspirational targets set out in the new Sustainable Development Goals.

There is creeping agreement among multilaterals to avoid speaking about women’s rights as human rights, for fear of upsetting those increasingly powerful conservative and fundamentalist forces that are anti-progressive, and anti-women. Patriarchal control over women is strengthening in many parts of the world. And this is happening right under our noses.

There are 32 nations with laws that prevent women getting a passport without their husband’s permission. Another 30 have national laws that make men the head of the household, and 19 have laws against wives disobeying their husbands.

But these are the dots we need to start to connect, if we are serious about gender equality around the globe – and here at home – because we are all part of a global village now. Inhumane “cultural practices” such as , female genital mutilation don’t just happen “over there” any more. They happen here, in Australia.

Yes we have made progress towards gender equality. And yes we have legislation and policies to protect women. But the hardest obstacles we are yet to tackle are perhaps those elusive powers we have trouble identifying. And even greater trouble naming.

Anti-woman biases, beliefs, and “cultural practices” are deeply entrenched and protected by patriarchal power. Nevertheless, these are the dots we need to join together, to understand the formidable backlash women are up against.

Yes we’ve come a long way in the past couple of decades. And yet the pathway to women’s rights, gender equality and women’s empowerment seems to be more perilous than ever.

Fairfax Media is a global partner of the UN Foundation.

Virginia Haussegger is a Canberra journalist, and Adjunct Professor at the Institute for Governance and Policy Analysis, University of Canberra.

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