Are men still determining women's human rights? (part 2)

7th Feb 2019

Having finally received Australia’s belated report in July 2018, the UN’s Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) rebuked the Australian government over its failure to protect women from violence. The Committee’s Concluding Observations[1] refer to the financial cuts to women’s refuges, welfare payments and legal services and express concern about the impact of men’s rights activism on the functioning of the Family Court.[2] The Committee’s main commendation seemed to be that Australian governments had at least admitted that they were failing to prevent domestic violence. [3]

However, beyond this, there are no further consequences flowing from Australia’s failures to meet its international obligations under CEDAW. The main value of the Committee is its ability to shame state parties into compliance, since its determinations are ultimately unenforceable. Therefore, coverage and public awareness of the process is essential for it to be an effective tool. Unfortunately, even within women’s services there is very little awareness of CEDAW or the reporting process.

The CEDAW Committee encourages the community sector (or NGOs) to follow its work and to provide reports so that it can gather alternative views to those provided by governments. In Australia, this shadow reporting process is co-ordinated to some extent by the Equality Rights Alliance (ERA) which describes itself as ‘Australia’s largest network advocating for women’s equality, women’s leadership and recognition of women’s diversity’.[4] However, although ERA membership consists of ‘61 organisations with an interest in advancing women’s equality’, its name is not immediately recognisable and does not even include the word ‘women’. As a project of the YWCA, with limited funding from Commonwealth Government’s Office for Women,[5] the ERA has a variety of constraints on its ability to advocate loudly for the rights of women. The government did not even provide the ERA (or any other women’s advocacy body) with sufficient funding to send a delegate to represent Australia at the CEDAW session.

Most of the NGO delegates who managed the trip to Geneva were either self-funded or drew upon the resources of community-based organisations already strapped for cash. Most of them missed the training that preceded the actual session and, with more than a dozen delegates in attendance having to share a ten-minute speaking spot, only a handful of delegates had an opportunity to address the Committee in the main session. As a result, certain positions were given priority, while others were effectively sidelined. For example, concerns about the participation by Australians in exploitative international adoption and surrogacy arrangements did not receive a mention.

At least one delegate from Australia, and from each of the other countries reporting to CEDAW at this time, was funded by the International Lesbian and Gay Association (ILGA), to advance the priorities of this organisation. For some countries this ILGA-funded delegate was the only individual representing the NGO sector and consequently had a full ten minutes to address the Committee, therefore arguably having a disproportionate influence on the Committee’s considerations.

On divisive issues such as surrogacy, adoption, prostitution and the legal recognition of sex upon self-identification, the agenda being advanced by some gay rights organisations is arguably at odds with the fundamental human rights of women.[6] Typically, calls to make each of these easier to access and free from stigma disregard the scope this provides for the exploitation and endangerment of women and their children. This has resulted in the formation of a campaign in the UK by disenchanted lesbians under the banner #GetTheLOut which has seen activists taking steps to disrupt traditional LGBTI celebrations to draw attention to their concerns, which have been marginalised within this community.[7]

Unfortunately, women who voice opposition along these lines expose themselves to ostracism, de-platforming and worse. In remaining true to the vision of second wave feminism, these women are now being lumped together with the far right and Christian evangelists despite their pedigree of breaking down gender stereotypes, fighting for sexual and reproductive freedoms, and advocating for services and spaces that preserve the safety and autonomy of women.

The achievement in 2017 of same sex marriage in Australia constitutes an example of a well-organised and well-funded campaign for social change. In contrast, in the same year the campaign to finally decriminalise abortion in NSW was a non-event of which very few women were aware. The churches used their considerable resources to spread misinformation and lobby politicians to vote against this attempt to update archaic laws, and ultimately the Bill was defeated. As a result, the most disadvantaged and vulnerable women in NSW are still impeded in their capacity to access termination services that continue to be available only privately rather than accessible through the public health system. This is an example of how women’s causes are underfunded and sidelined, and consequently fail to enter the public consciousness and achieve the momentum and critical mass of support needed for success.

With women controlling only an estimated 1% of global wealth,[8] there is also a very real risk that our human rights agenda will continue to be dictated by men. The churches, the male gay rights lobby and men’s rights activism are all better organised and better-funded movements than feminism and each are effectively working to dismantle the gains of the women’s liberation movement. It is essential that women find a way of influencing the women’s international human rights agenda rather than allowing it to be controlled by those with funding, a voice and different priorities: namely, men.

Read part 1 of this article here.

Anna Kerr is the Founder and Principal of the Feminist Legal Clinic, Sydney, which works to advance the cause of feminism and champion the human rights of women and girls by providing legal support to feminist organisations, groups and services and the women who access them. 



The views and opinions expressed in these articles are the authors' and do not necessarily represent the views and opinions of the Australian Lawyers Alliance (ALA).

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[1] Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, Concluding Observations on the Eighth Periodic Report of Australia , CEDAW /C/AUS/CO/8 (20 July 2018).

[2] M Nawaz and T Deegan, ‘UN delivers strong rebuke to Australian Government on women’s rights’, The Conversation (online), 24 July 2018, <https://theconversation.com/un-delivers-strong-rebuke-to-australian-government-on-womens-rights-100089>.

[3] SBS, ‘UN grills Australia on multiple failures to protect women against violence’, The Feed (online), 6 July 2018, <https://www.sbs.com.au/news/the-feed/un-grills-australia-on-multiple-failures-to-protect-women-against-violence>.

[5] Department of the Prime Minister Cabinet, ‘Current initiatives,’ Office for Women (2018) <https://www.pmc.gov.au/office-women>.

[6] Fair Play for Women, ‘Survivors letter’ (2017) <https://fairplayforwomen.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/07/Survivors-letter.pdf>.

[7] M Murphy, ‘Interview: Angela C. Wild of #GetTheLOut on Pride in London and lesbian erasure’, Feminist Current (online), 17 July 2018, <https://www.feministcurrent.com/2018/07/17/interview-angela-c-wild-getthelout-pride-london-lesbian-erasure/>.

[8] S Reddy, ‘Women hold just one percent of the world’s wealth: World Bank’, Huffington Post (online), 19 September 2011, <https://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/09/19/women-make-only-1-percent-wealth_n_969439.html>.


Tags: Human rights Anna Kerr women's rights Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women