31 January 2006
Women's Anti-Discrimination Committee Takes up Australia's Report, Experts Praise Wide-Ranging Gender Equality Programmes
Express Concern about Indigenous Women, Domestic Violence, Asylum-Seekers; Head of Women's Office Says Country Committee to Building Women's Leadership Participation
NEW YORK, 30 January (UN Headquarters) -- While praising Australia's wide-ranging gender equality programmes, members of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women today urged the Government to make sure its initiatives better addressed the unique situation of disabled, indigenous and aboriginal women, boosted its efforts to curb domestic violence and identify and prosecute perpetrators, and provided better protections for refugees and asylum-seekers.
Taking up the combined fourth and fifth reports dealing with Australia's implementation of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, the Committee expressed concern about protection for trafficked women, rural women and women in same-sex relationships. It was also troubled by Australia's reservations to the Convention and refusal to sign the Optional Protocol under which the Committee could receive complaints from individuals or groups regarding violations of rights protected under the Convention, and initiate inquiries into situations of grave or systematic violations of women's rights.
Introducing the combined reports, Kerry Flanagan, Head of Australia's Office for Women, Department of Family and Community Services, told the Committee that her Office, the Government's focal point for advice on the impact of policies and programmes on women, now had a four-year budget of over $A 98 million -- more than it had ever had before -- and had some 50 staff members.
All Australian governments -- including at the federal level, across six States and two self-governing territories -- were strongly committed to building women's leadership and participation in all walks of life, she said. The number of women in parliaments was the highest it had ever been, ranging between 27 and 43 per cent, including six indigenous women. Four of its state and territory governments had been led by women and three had had women opposition leaders.
Regarding the Committee's specific concerns about indigenous women, Ms. Flanagan said that there was a huge level of commitment on behalf of the national and local governments to tackle the situation of the country's indigenous people and assist marginalized groups of the population. Indeed, many relevant programmes included an indigenous component, including programmes dealing with domestic violence. She admitted that, while there were no indigenous people at her Office, she, nonetheless, worked closely with the Office of Indigenous Policy Coordination.
Indigenous women wanted to have their own voice, but recognized the power of using the mainstream vehicles, such as the Women's Office, to represent them, she added. A high proportion of the indigenous population lived in highly remote, tough-to-reach areas, so the Government sought to implement its programmes in conjunction and consultation with the communities themselves. On the Committee's concern about overrepresentation of indigenous women in prisons, she agreed that the numbers were high. But, they correspond with a high recidivism rate among those women, she added, agreeing the issue needed to be tackled on several levels.
When the discussion turned to the anti-Muslim violence that swept Sydney last month, Matt Minogue, Assistant Secretary, Human Rights Branch Attorney-General's Department, said that while those events were distressing, the general citizenry had responded in a commendable manner. Vincent Biuca, of Australia's Embassy to the United States, said the leaders of the two communities involved had discussed how the situation had arisen and how to prevent similar occurrences in the future. He added that overall policies aimed at boosting community harmony and emphasized that minorities had the same rights as the rest of the population.
On sexual assault and domestic violence, Ms. Flanagan said follow up to a 1996 countrywide survey was now under way to evaluate the results of a decade's worth of programmes aimed at curbing such violence. She also recognized the problem of the low prosecution rate and said that evidence and research testified to the need to educate and train people working in the justice system. Also needed were programmes to raise awareness and work with family members. As for the experts' concerns that some women might lose their homes when they moved into shelters after being abused, she said the Government was actively looking at models under which women stayed at home and men were removed.
Ms. Flanagan said Australia retained its reservations to the Convention regarding paid maternity leave and women in direct combat roles. Still, it had a unique and comparatively generous system in place, under which employees with at least 12 months continuous service with an employer were entitled to a minimum of 52 weeks of shared unpaid leave following their birth of a child. On the Optional Protocol, Mr. Minogue said the Government was concerned over provisions it felt could constitute "a standing invitation" for treaty bodies to visit the country without the consent of national authorities. At the moment, there was no intention to ratify that instrument, he added.
On non-governmental organizations, Gabrielle Burrell, Section Manager, Office for Women, Department of Family and Community Services, informed the experts that when preparing its compliance documents, the Government had sought to assist civic actors in compiling their own "shadow" reports. Although the Government had taken note of the organizations' comments, it did not include any of that information in its own report.
On refugees and asylum-seekers, Mr. Biuca said that temporary protection visa arrangements had been authorized in 1999 to discourage people who had effective protection elsewhere from making a dangerous voyage to Australia and applying for asylum in Australia. That did not diminish the country's obligations under the refugee Convention, which did not require States parties to provide permanent asylum to refugees -- it only required them to provide interim protection.
Under the temporary protection visa arrangements, unauthorized arrivals to Australia were given a temporary visa of up to three years. Afterwards, permanent or temporary visas could be sought. The country's Prime Minister had recently made a commitment to finalize all existing applications for such visas. Virtually all of some 3,500 applicants had been approved for permanent visas. Australia was not considering removing temporary protection visas at this time.
The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women will reconvene at 10 a.m. Tuesday, 31 January, to take of the combined second, third, fourth and fifth report of Mali.
The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women had before it a combined fourth and fifth periodic reports of Australia (document CEDAW/C/AUL/4-5), which signed the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women in July 1980 and ratified it in July 1983. The country has provided three periodic reports to the Committee, most recently in June 1997. The current combined report covers the period from June 1997 to June 2003 and presents plans for future activities.
Regarding reservations to the Convention, the report states that, at the time the instrument entered into force for Australia, the Commonwealth Government was not in a position to take the measures required by article 11(2)(b) to introduce maternity leave with pay or with comparable social benefits throughout the country. It also did not accept the application of the Convention in so far as it would require the rescission of the Australian Defence Force policy that excludes women from being employed in combat units. According to the report, the Government aims to limit the extent of any reservations to the Convention; formulate any such reservations as narrowly and precisely as possible; and if appropriate, regularly review reservations with a view to withdrawing them.
Australia's mechanisms for the advancement of women include the Sex Discrimination Act of 1984 and Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Act of 1997. The criminal justice system, the legal system and cultural attitudes are also utilized for the implementation and enforcement of the rights enshrined in the Convention. Executive responsibility for the status of women in the Commonwealth Government lies with the Prime Minister.
Policy advice to the Government on issues relevant to women is provided by the Office of the Status of Women, which is a division of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. The Office's three broad priority areas are: women's employment and economic security; women and public life, with particular emphasis on the involvement of women in leadership and decision-making; and women and the law, with particular emphasis on the elimination of violence against women. The Office also funds national women's organizations to provide national secretariat services on behalf of women in Australia.
The Government reports major advancements in the status of women in Australia since the third progress report was completed. Women and girls have made steady progress in their participation in education, training and employment, and in decision-making and leadership. Among the examples of major gains, the document cites a 380 per cent increase in new apprenticeships for women between 1995 and 2001; a general upward trend in the labour force participation of women, which reached 67.5 per cent in March 2003; and an increase of women's life expectancy, with girls born between 1999 and 2001 having a life expectancy of 82.4 years. Women made up 56.6 per cent of higher education students commencing an undergraduate qualification in 2002 and 48.6 per cent of post-graduate students. In 2003, they also comprised 34 per cent of Commonwealth Board positions, 30.9 per cent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Regional Councillors, and 26.5 per cent of Federal parliamentarians.
The country also had a significant decrease in the number of deaths resulting from breast cancer: from 25 deaths per 100,000 females in 1996 to 21.3 deaths per 100,000 in 2001. For cervical cancer deaths, there had been a 50 per cent reduction in the last 10 years.
Australia is widely regarded as a world leader in its efforts to tackle domestic violence, the report states. The Prime Minister's Partnerships against Domestic Violence initiative has implemented a wide range of measures aimed at early intervention and prevention, as well as the improvement and expansion of services for victims, including children. This initiative has achieved an effective collaboration of State and Territory Governments, with consequent significant developments in policy approaches to violence against women. Addressing domestic and family violence in indigenous communities is a major element of the initiative.
Among the areas where progress has been slower and new challenges have emerged for some women, the Government lists the concentration of women in such fields as education, training, hospitality, nursing and retail; and underrepresentation of women in high-level decision-making, particularly in political and judicial systems. As with many countries, women in Australia are not well represented in a number of occupations and sectors of the labour market, such as building, engineering and some areas of computer science. There have been, however, gradual improvements for women in several "non-traditional" fields: for example, in 1999 female graduates in medicine outnumbered men for the first time. In addition, Australia recognizes that the situation varies for some groups of women. For example, there are important challenges ahead for tackling the disadvantages faced by indigenous women.
In that connection, the Government reports launching a $A 20 million initiative under the Stronger Families and Communities Strategy, which specifically targets young indigenous people through building their leadership skills and increasing awareness of indigenous culture and family. In addition, eight indigenous Australian women -- one from each State and Territory -- received Office of the Status of Women scholarships to attend the Australian Indigenous Leadership Centre's development courses in 2001. The Indigenous Women's Advisory Group to the Office, established under the National Women's Leadership initiative, provides leadership and advice on indigenous women's issues.
Introduction of Reports
Australia's delegation consisted of the country's Head of the Office for Women, Department of Family and Community Services, Kerry Flanagan; Assistant Secretary, Human Rights Branch, Attorney-General's Department, Matt Minogue; Section Manager, Office for Women, Department of Family and Community Services, Gabrielle Burrell; and Vincent Biuca of Australia's Embassy to the United States.
Presenting the reports, Ms. FLANAGAN said that Australia has a federal constitutional system, in which legislative, executive and judicial powers are distributed between the national Government, six state governments and two internal self-governing territories. That meant that nine governments in Australia shared the responsibility for the issues of interest to the Committee. Her Office now had a budget of over $A 98 million over four years -- more than it had ever had before -- and had some fifty staff members. It was the central point of advice on the impact of policies and programmes on women for the national Government. All national ministries were encouraged to think about women when they were designing policies and implementing programmes. There were also women's offices in every state and territory government, with whom the Office worked closely.
She described a number of significant developments, including the success of the national screening programme for cervical cancer, established in 1991, which had reduced the incidence of cervical cancer by over 30 per cent and mortality by over 50 per cent. The Government acknowledged, however, that while there were very good health outcomes for Australian women in general, the health of indigenous women still presented a source of concern. Among the efforts to address that issue, were steps to reduce maternal mortality and morbidity among indigenous women, which included the establishment of culturally appropriate prenatal and birthing centres, antenatal care programmes, the training of indigenous health workers and a network of community-controlled primary health-care services at the local level. Preventive health checks were being emphasized, particularly in rural areas.
Regarding education, she said that, since 1970, girls were more likely than boys to continue through secondary school to the uppermost level of schooling in Australia. By 2003, 81 per cent of girls completed the final year of secondary school, compared with 70 per cent of boys. The number of women undertaking such traditionally male areas of study as law and medicine had increased in recent years, but women still continued to be underrepresented in such areas as engineering, information technology and architecture.
The Government provided legislative protection to enable women full participation in the workforce and to assist employees in balancing their work and family responsibilities, she continued. The proportion of women 15 years and over in paid work had increased from 49.6 per cent in 1996 to 54 per cent in March 2005. Women's earnings as a proportion of men's had risen from 83.2 per cent in 1996 to 85.1 per cent today. The Government was also making an investment of $A 3.6 billion over four years to reform its social assistance system.
All Australian governments were strongly committed to building women's leadership and participation in all parts of Australia life, she continued. The number of women in Australia's parliaments was the highest it had ever been, ranging between 27 and 43 per cent, including six indigenous women. Although the country was yet to have a female Prime Minister, in recent years, four of its state and territory governments had been led by women and three had had women opposition leaders. Some 29 per cent of the appointments to the Federal Judiciary since 1996 had been women. Last September, women ministers had agreed to a national strategy to increase the participation of women on boards. Women held 32 per cent of Commonwealth-controlled positions on Australian government boards and around 30 per cent of senior executive service positions in the public service across most Australian governments.
On violence against women, she added that, during 2004 and 2005, over 60,700 calls had been made to a national 24-hour helpline from victims, observers and perpetrators of domestic violence. Australia was committed to providing support and assistance to victims who chose to leave violent relationships and took the problem of their resulting homelessness seriously. The new accommodation assistance agreement between Commonwealth, state and territory governments would increase the options for homeless people, including those escaping family violence situations.
Turning to the "particular problem of domestic violence" in the country's indigenous communities, she said that both the Family Violence Partnership and the Legal Services Units aimed to work with state and territory governments and indigenous communities to address that matter. Under the Family Violence Partnership Programme, 10 projects, valued at over $A 12 million had been initiated across the country. The number of family violence prevention and legal service units had doubled from 13 in 2003 to 26 in 2005. Assistance was being provided to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, predominantly women, who were the victims of family violence and sexual assault.
The issue of prostitution was regulated by state and territory governments, she said. The government of New South Wales reported that its decision to decriminalize prostitution had reduced the exploitation of women previously working for illegal and organized crime syndicates, and women working in the sex industry there now had access to health services and occupational health and safety legislative provisions. Efforts were also being made to link sex workers interested in moving out of the industry with education courses to assist them in gaining skills and opportunities required for a change of occupation. The National Action Plan to Eradicate Trafficking in Persons was a $A 20 million package of measures to address prevention, detection and investigation, criminal prosecution, victim support and rehabilitation. Between 1999 and January 2006, the country's police had undertaken over 100 investigations into sexual servitude and slavery-related offences, and 14 alleged offenders had been charged.
The Government administered a humanitarian migration programme, which in 2005-2006 would provide 13,000 places for people subject to persecution or substantial discrimination amounting to a gross violation of human rights. Women were well represented in the humanitarian migration programme, reflecting the fact that more than half of the world's refugees were women and children. As at March 2005, 48 per cent of visas granted in 2004-2005 under the humanitarian migration programme were to women and girls.
On the efforts to improve the situation of some 410,000 indigenous Australians, she added that, since July 2004, Australia had put in place new structures to improve the way services were provided for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and communities. A Ministerial Taskforce on Indigenous Affairs provided leadership and strategic direction at the national level, advised by heads of ministries and a National Indigenous Council. There were five women on the Council, including the Chair. Australia's national indigenous programmes were now administered by the relevant mainstream agencies across Government, and that was coordinated and monitored by an Office on Indigenous Policy Coordination.
Experts' Comments and Questions
Opening the dialogue with the delegation, HANNA BEATE SCHÖPP-SCHILLING, expert from Germany, commended the delegation for the strides that had been made in Australia. She cautioned, at the same time, that old challenges remained and new ones were emerging, particularly regarding the situation of women in the private sector. She asked if more information would be included in the country's core report.
On the Convention-specific report, while she applauded the dissaggregation of information on state and territorial governments, she noted that the commentary was more descriptive rather than instructive or results oriented. And while she was pleased to see that non-governmental organization's had provided information to the Government for the report's compilation, she wondered what was being done with that information. Further, she wondered if gender mainstreaming was obligatory throughout the country and who monitored its implementation.
Next, DUBRAVKA ŠIMONOVIC, expert from Croatia, wondered if, within and throughout the country's laws, the definition of "discrimination" was consistent with that laid out in the Convention. She also wanted to have further information about why Australia did not intend to sign the Convention's Optional Protocol. She also wished to have more information on what the Government planned to do with the Committee's concluding comments.
VICTORIA POPESCU, expert from Romania, said that she had noted the large number of programmes that had been initiated, but asked if, in the next report, more sex-disaggregated data could be provided. She also wondered about the harmonization of the many women's anti-discrimination initiatives at federal, state and territorial levels. Further on Australia's national machinery, she expressed some concern about the fact that the bulk of women's anti-discrimination work had been recently transferred from a focal point in the Government's ministry to "a department".
She also expressed concern and requested more information about what the experts perceived as a limitation of the inquiry powers of the national Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission. She also asked for more information on the role of the Women's Parliamentary Advisory Group.
MARY SHANTHI DAIRIAM, expert from Malaysia, commended the Government on its efforts to protect the rights of refugees and asylum-seekers, but requested more information on the country's visa regime, noting that such persons holding visas had limits placed on periods of family reunion and, in some cases, would not have access to social security. Did the Government have plans to reconsider its position on people holding temporary visas? What protection initiatives were planned for women refugees or asylum-seekers?
On the national machinery, Ms. FLANAGAN said that the national Government had quarterly meetings with its territorial and state colleagues. There was also an annual meeting of female ministers, which elaborated a work programme on relevant issues. A safety task force had been set up to deal with the issues of violence against women. At the national level, such issues as domestic violence were coordinated by the Women's Office. At the national Government level, the Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Women's Issues -- a Cabinet Minister -- ensured that potential impacts on women were taken into account when the Government considered key policy issues.
There were over 60 women's groups in the country, and to better bring their voice to the Government, special Government-funded National Secretariats had been set up, she added. Participation in the Secretariats was open to all non-governmental organizations.
Mr. MINOGUE said that the primary mechanism for the implementation of the Convention in Australia was through the Sex Discrimination Act, which prevented unlawful discrimination on the basis of sex and worked as an integral part of the country's human rights machinery. It provided a broad definition of gender discrimination, including both direct and indirect discrimination. By and large, state and territory laws were consistent with that Act.
The Government of Australia placed high priority on education as a primary means of overcoming discrimination, he said. The Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission continued to play a key role in promoting an understanding and acceptance of human rights in Australia. In dealing with complaints under the Act, the focus within the Commission, which was not set up as a court of law, was primarily placed on education and conciliation, particularly in cases when discrimination was caused by ignorance. Human rights issues were also always before the Standing Committee of Attorneys-General. The Government was now considering the reform of the Commission.
On the Optional Protocol to the Convention, he said that the Government was concerned over the provisions of that instrument, which could constitute "a standing invitation" to treaty bodies to visit the country without the Government's consent. There was no intention to ratify that instrument at the moment.
On refugees and asylum-seekers, Mr. BIUCA said that temporary protection visa arrangements had been authorized in 1999 to discourage people who had effective protection elsewhere from making a dangerous voyage to the country and applying for asylum in Australia. That did not diminish the country's obligations under the refugee Convention, which did not require States parties to provide permanent asylum to refugees -- it only required them to provide interim protection. Under the temporary protection visa arrangements, unauthorized arrivals to Australia were given a temporary visa of up to three years. Afterwards, permanent or temporary visas could be sought. The country's Prime Minister had recently made a commitment to finalize all existing applications for such visas. Virtually all of some 3,500 applicants had been approved for permanent visas. Australia was not considering removing temporary protection visas at this time.
Responding to another question, he said that, if a head of a family applied for protection in Australia and was unsuccessful, a woman could subsequently apply on her own behalf on such grounds as domestic violence.
Ms. BURRELL said that the Government would take into consideration the experts' suggestion to include more useful sex-disaggregated data in its future reports. On non-governmental organizations, she said that when preparing its compliance documents, the Government had sought to assist civic actors in compiling their own "shadow" reports. Although the Government had taken note of the non-governmental organizations' comments, it did not include any of that information in its own report.
Ms. FLANAGAN said that her Government had made it clear that it still wanted to maintain a special office for the advancement of women. She stressed that Australia's position was that the protection and promotion of women's rights was not about quotas or putting everything in legislation. It was about ensuring that all citizens were aware of the importance and the necessity of gender mainstreaming and about the Government recognizing needs and acting quickly with legislation to correct problems as they were identified. She agreed with the experts that Australia had not been very successful at connecting the Beijing Platform for Action with the tenets and obligations of the Convention. She assured the experts that the Government was taking action to harmonize its initiatives with those two important international agreements.
GLENDA P. SIMMS, expert from Jamaica, opened the next round of comments by focusing on the situation of indigenous women in Australia. She asked the delegation how much of the money earmarked for women's empowerment was being directed at rural and indigenous women. Did the staffs of the various women's agencies within the Government reflect the wider society's diversity? How did the Government plan to deal with the historic and anthropological marginalization of aboriginal and indigenous women?
Noting the "shocking" incidents that had taken place late last year, when young white Australian men had taken to the streets against Muslims living in the country, she asked if efforts were under way to ensure such incidents were not repeated. Were special protections being considered for Muslim women? She was also concerned about the overrepresentation of women in prisons, particularly disabled and indigenous women. What was the Government going to do to ensure that factors that drove women into criminal activities were dealt with in a real way?
Next, HEISOO SHIN, expert from the Republic of Korea, asked what the Government was doing to encourage women to report incidents of domestic violence and other violent acts committed against them. What measures were under way to train police and court officials to ensure that victims were not being intimidated in their search for help? She was also concerned that it appeared that, in some instances, women fleeing domestic violence or sexual predation often ended up homeless before they were taken into shelters.
Had the Government considered evicting the perpetrators from these homes, so that women were not separated from their children or so that children's home lives were not disrupted more than necessary? She asked if the delegation was aware of reports that suggested that disabled women were being forced to undergo unauthorized sterilization. Was the Government giving any assistance to women's non-governmental organizations providing assistance to victims of trafficking?
KRISZTINA MORVAI, expert from Hungary, congratulated the Government on its measures to combat trafficking in people, but noted a low success rate of prosecution of that crime in Australia. She wanted to know about the reason for that situation and asked about the number of traffickers' convictions in the country. A holistic approach was needed to combat trafficking in people. She encouraged the Government to seek information and experience from such countries as Italy or the United States, which had been highly successful in fighting trafficking in people. It was also important to target the demand side of trafficking and prostitution. There was a clear link between legalized prostitution and trafficking, because States where prostitution was legalized became an attractive destination for traffickers. She also wanted to know if any research had been made on the profile of prostitution clients in Australia.
Regarding indigenous women, Ms. FLANAGAN said that there was a huge level of commitment on behalf of the national and local governments to tackle the disadvantaged situation of the country's indigenous people and assist marginalized groups of the population. Focus was placed on the indigenous component of many programmes, including those on domestic violence.
Responding to another question, she said that there were no indigenous people at her Office, but it was working very closely with the Office of Indigenous Policy Coordination. Indigenous women wanted to have their own voice, but recognized the power of using the mainstream vehicles, such as the Women's Office, to represent them. A high proportion of the indigenous population lived in highly remote areas, which were hard to reach. Thus, the Government sought to implement its programmes in conjunction and consultation with indigenous communities themselves. For instance, training was provided to members of the communities to deal with problems on the ground.
On racism, Mr. MINOGUE said that, while some events at the end of last year were quite ugly and distressing, the responses from society had been highly condemnatory. A lot of the problem dated back from 11 September and concerns that some communities felt in that respect. The formal machinery under the Racial Discrimination Act provided a useful mechanism of handling racial discrimination in Australia. That piece of legislation had recently celebrated its thirtieth anniversary.
Australia's response to terrorists needed to be effective. Along with measures to increase surveillance and security, it was necessary to address grievances and build capacity within communities to interact. It was also important to raise awareness on appropriate ways to resolve differences. A national plan of action was being prepared to deal with those issues.
Mr. BIUCA said that policy in Australia was directed at community harmony and emphasized that minorities had the same rights as the rest of the population. Leaders of the two communities involved had discussed how the situation had arisen and how to prevent similar occurrences in the future.
On women in prisons, Ms. FLANAGAN said that the information on their high number was particularly true of indigenous women. There was also a high recidivism rate among indigenous women. The issue needed to be tackled on several levels. Discrimination of women in the prison system was one of the emerging issues that were of interest to her Office.
On sexual assault and domestic violence, she said that a country-wide survey on those matters had been conducted in 1996. A follow-up survey was being conducted again now to evaluate the results of the programmes in place. She also recognized the problem of the low prosecution rate and said that evidence and research testified to the need to educate and train people working in the justice system. Also needed were programmes to raise awareness and work with family members. As for women losing their homes, the Government was increasingly looking at models under which women stayed at home and men were removed.
Regarding women with disabilities, she said that Australia was sponsoring an article about women with disabilities in the Convention on the rights of people with disabilities that was currently being discussed. As for the issue of legal sterilization of women with disabilities, it was an extremely serious matter. The Standing Committee of Attorneys General was now trying to elaborate a nationally consistent approach to legal sterilization of minors with decision-making disabilities. Important aspects of the proposal were currently being finalized.
Mr. MINOGUE added that the reason that sterilization was on the Standing Committee of Attorneys-General agenda was that one of the Attorneys-General had noted it as a problem. Australia also had a disability discriminations act, he said. On women and the criminal justice system, he assured the experts that sensitivity training courses were indeed under way.
Turning to the Government's interaction with non-governmental organizations, Ms. FLANAGAN said that generally, there was a bidding structure in place for organizations that wanted to do work for a particular client group. The Government did not necessarily give outright assistance to non-governmental organizations working is specific areas. On trafficking, she said that figures showed that about 95 per cent of Australia's trafficked women came from Thailand.
The Government worked with non-governmental organizations on the ground in Thailand helping to ensure a smoother transition for women who returned home. She added that Australia took note of the suggestion that it look at successful anti-trafficking legislation in Italy and the United States. As for sex workers, she said that the Government believed that legalizing prostitution allowed for better monitoring of the practice.
CORNELIUS FLINTERMAN, expert from the Netherlands, asked if it was true that the Government was disposed to adopting the Convention's Optional Protocol, but was withholding such ratification in light of ongoing negotiations on the reform of United Nations treaty-monitoring bodies. If that was the case, what were some of Australia's ideas on that reform process? On the pending amendments to the Sex Discrimination Act, he asked what mechanisms were under way to ensure that such changes were in line with the Convention.
SILVIA PIMENTEL, expert from Brazil, asked if efforts were under way to ensure that women in same-sex relationships were not being discriminated against in law or in access to services. She also wanted to have more information on domestic violence and migrant women. She also noted that incidents of genital mutilation were on the increase and asked what the Government was doing to deal with that trend.
Mr. MINOGUE said that international treaties did not automatically become domestic law in Australia, but they were incorporated into the national legislation to the extent the Parliament "picked up and implemented" their provisions. However, the country's courts did have a wide discretion to inform themselves of pieces of legislation and certainly could not pretend to be ignorant of international treaties. In cases of ambiguity, courts were empowered to seek interpretation and include references to the instrument in their proceedings. Human rights issues were monitored by the Human Rights Commission, which examined the pieces of legislation and amendments to the Sex Discrimination Act. There was also a standing committee that undertook scrutiny of bills, identifying areas of concern and bringing them to the attention of the Government.
Australia did not have a bill of rights at the national level, but had a number of constitutional protections, he added. In addition to those, sophisticated remedies existed at the Commonwealth and state level, in particular in relation to Government actions.
Ms. FLANAGAN said that the issue of female genital mutilation was administered by state governments and in some states it was considered to be a criminal offence, punishable by imprisonment.
Ms. POPESCU, expert from Romania, reiterated the Committee's concern that temporary special measures could have been used to enhance the standing of women in decision-making fields. Indeed, she said that the report suggested that not only had such measures not been used, but that apparently none were set to be used in the future. Was there resistance in general society to such measures as quotas? She also asked for more information on institutional mechanisms for increasing the participation of indigenous women.
Ms. SHIN, expert from the Republic of Korea, asked for clarification on Australia's policies on granting temporary protection visas, particularly so that victims of gender-based crimes could have access to social services and protection. She was also concerned about victims' ability to reunite with their families in such circumstances. She urged the Government to reconsider its position on the matter.
Ms. FLANAGAN said that there were a number programmes designed to increase indigenous participation in society at all levels. She noted that her Government saw "temporary special measures" as initiatives designed to target specific issues for a limited period of time. Australia had an indigenous leadership course designed for women. In it, indigenous women were put through training sessions and then became mentors for those that followed. She added that it was difficult to attract indigenous people into the civil service, so the Government specifically targeted people from indigenous communities to help identify those wanting to work in that sector.
Mr. BIUCA clarified that, in Australia, temporary protection visas were a very small component of the total protection visa regime and were specifically for people who arrived in the country in an illegal manner. On refugees and domestic violence, he said that the country's regime did not recognize gender per se, but would evaluate situations on a case-by-case basis. On the "difficult" issue of trafficking, he assured the experts that Australia believed it was implementing a balanced approach, which addressed victims and those that profited from the illegal trade.
Ms. SIMMS, expert from Jamaica, said that, under the Convention, all kinds of discrimination had to be removed in the field of education and today's presentation testified to Australia's efforts in that regard. If Australian women were doing so well, they should be ruling Australia in 20 years. Despite women's great strides in the field of education, however, there were new kinds of oppression "to keep women in their places". In other words, with all their education, women were still getting the worst jobs. Was there a backlash against women's achievements in Australia? What could be done to replace patriarchies with meritocracies?
Ms. SCHÖPP-SCHILLING, expert from Germany, disagreed with today's remark by the head of the delegation that, while encouraging application of temporary special measures, the Government felt it was not its business to apply them as far as the private sector was concerned. The Convention clearly said that countries ratifying the Convention were responsible for its implementation in all spheres.
Commending the Government for various steps taken since the last report as far as maternity leave was concerned, she still had questions regarding the overall coverage and the amount of paid maternity leave. Were all public sector female workers covered? What was being done to ensure consistent implementation of the Convention in that regard? Were coverage schemes negotiated individually or collectively? What categories of working women were not covered?
While congratulating the Government on its achievements, SALMA KHAN, expert from Bangladesh, noted that while women's participation rate in employment had grown, they also encountered such negative phenomena as unreasonable working hours and difficulty in maintaining a balance between work and home responsibilities. She was also concerned that, having moved from centralized to individual bargaining, the Government had shifted the responsibility for the protection of women's rights to individual enterprises. Had an evaluation of the impact of the reform been undertaken, particularly in relation to rural women and women who did not speak English? Her other questions related to retirement requirements for women and employment opportunities for Asian and rural women in the private sector. Did the country have the same minimum wage in all its legislation? Was the principle of equal pay for equal work being implemented?
In the area of health, she had questions regarding indigenous women's access to health services, the rate of abortion in the country, women's access to contraceptives and a high rate of suicide due to the lack of employment among young women in rural areas. Did single parents living in rural areas and waiting for asylum qualify for child assistance?
Ms. FLANAGAN agreed with Ms. Simms that, in many countries, girls did very well in school, but did not do as well in employment. Her Office focused on giving people opportunity of choice. As long as women were given choices and opportunities, the Government supported them.
All State and public sector workers were covered by maternity leave, she continued. The problem about describing the situation to the Committee was that each territory and state had its own arrangements. As a result, there were different provisions ranging from 6 to 12 weeks at full pay. In the private sector, the figures were much lower. Workplace relation legislation decreed that, after 12 months' employment, women in all spheres of employment were entitled to up to 52 weeks of unpaid maternity leave.
Ms. FLANAGAN noted that the participation rate of Australian women in the workforce had increased, and the higher representation was not necessarily concentrated in the informal sector. And while many women were, indeed, in low-paying jobs, Australia had very clear protections in place to ensure equal pay for jobs of equal value.
On the country's high rate of abortion and whether it was due to a lack of access to family planning, she said that the Government funded a range of services that gave people choices and provided advice about the options that were available to them. Turning to the suicide rates of young rural women, she said that the Government was constantly trying to stay on top of the matter and while "things were looking up", she realized much remained to be done.
Ms. DAIRIAM, expert from Malaysia, asked about the delivery of services to women in rural areas or those belonging to disadvantaged groups and urged the delegation to keep an eye on women with disabilities, who often suffered not only from poor access, but because the equipment was often not designed for those with physical disabilities. She also requested more information about the general health status of aboriginal women. Had there been any improvements in their lifestyles and since the last report? Had specific plans been put into place to curb maternal deaths in indigenous in aboriginal populations?
Ms. ŠIMONOVIC asked if the country's Sex Discrimination Act covered health. She also wanted to know if the Government saw any need to harmonize the country's "patchy practices".
Ms. FLANAGAN said that a national long-term study of aboriginal women's health over 20 years had been undertaken in Australia to see if the Government's policies were bearing fruit. The latest survey had been concluded last year and its results were expected to come out next month.
Regarding discrimination against women with disabilities, Mr. MINOGUE noted that both the Sex Discrimination Act and Disability Discrimination Act addressed their needs. Medical procedures and doctors and equipment not being accessible were covered under those pieces of legislation, but from different angles. The Government had also legislated standards to make public transportation accessible to people with disabilities.
Ms. BURRELL spoke about immigration detention procedures, saying that access to programmes and services was already addressed in the current guidelines. Where a pregnancy has been confirmed, women at detention centres were entitled to the same level of care as Australian women.
To another question, Ms. FLANAGAN said that Australia was hosting the meeting of members of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) in 2007. As part of that, the Government would host the two APEC gender forums -- the Gender Focal Point Network and the Women's Leaders' Network, which would focus on women's involvement in regional economies, trade and entrepreneurship.
Ms. MORVAI said that a member of the delegation had referred to "access to abortion or other family planning". Abortion, however, was not a means of family planning. She also asked about the use of RU486, which led to delivery of a dead foetus; the rights of girls who got pregnant to continue education; and availability of post-abortion counselling in Australia. As for the "choices and opportunities" to stay home for women, she wondered if the same choices and opportunities were in place for men.
Ms. KHAN noted that, according to the country's report, there was no discrimination between men and women with respect to marriage and family relations in Australia. However, Australia recognized various forms of family, and people had choices of defining their own families. Did that mean that the country recognized polygamous marriages that were discriminatory to women? Under what laws were Muslim marriages governed?
She also noted that, while marriage of under-age children was unlawful in Australia, young people as young as 16 could get married under exceptional circumstances. What were those exceptional circumstances? She also addressed the issue of stereotypical attitudes and prejudices based on religion and asked about the elements of the proposed plan of action to address that issue.
Saying that abortion was a highly emotive issue for all concerned, Ms. FLANAGAN said her Government believed that everyone should be able to make timely and informed decisions about the size and timing of their families. Over-the-counter emergency contraception had been available sine 2000. On shared responsibility in child-rearing, she said that many women at the moment chose to be the mainstreaming caregivers in families, but Australia, nevertheless, actively worked to see that they were not discriminated against if they sought full-time work and that adequate childcare was made available.
Mr. MINOGUE added that the shared parental care legislation was based on efforts to ensure the best interests of the child, in line with the Convention, as well as the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
ANAMAH TAN, expert from Singapore, said that she had seen a "shadow report" that the Government was not engaging actively with indigenous and aboriginal women to address problems concerning children at risk. Was the Government intending to engage indigenous women on the matter?
MERIEM BELMIHOUB-ZERDANI, expert from Algeria, asked if Commonwealth inheritance laws applied to indigenous populations, or if cultural practices were considered. Were Commonwealth laws harmonized with territorial laws in such cases?
Ms. FLANAGAN noted the expert's concern about the situation of indigenous children at risk and particularly the high rate at which they might be removed from their homes. She stressed that the matter was monitored separately within each state. She took note of the suggestion that perhaps the Government needed to address the matter and informed the Committee she would relay its concerns to the relevant state authorities.
Mr. MINOGUE informed the Committee that the Commonwealth was, indeed, in charge of family law, although state and territory laws might impact on family matters, such as wills and property. At any rate, the applicable legislation must be non-discriminatory. He added that cultural practices and customary law could intersect with, but not trump State law.
Chairperson of the Committee, ROSARIO G. MANALO, expert from the Philippines, said that the highlights of today's dialogue were the status of the Convention in the Australian legal system, the situation of indigenous women and the country's immigration code. Among other subjects discussed were violence, trafficking in people and the concept of legalized abortion, as well as women's participation in decision-making.
Ms. FLANAGAN said that it had been 10 years since Australia had last appeared before the Committee, and none of the current members of the delegation had taken part in that event. In fact, the delegation had enjoyed their interaction with the experts today. The experts' comments had been constructive and informative.
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