18 July 1997

Press Release


19970718 Committee Begins Consideration of Australia's Third Periodic Report on Compliance with Anti-Discrimination Convention

A national domestic violence summit would be convened by the Australian Prime Minister later this year to develop a more comprehensive approach to that problem, the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women was told this morning. The Committee was considering the third periodic report of Australia on its compliance with the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. Clare Nairn, Assistant Secretary in Australia's Office of the Status of Women, said over the past 20 years major advances had been made in providing support for women subjected to domestic violence and in ensuring a strong criminal justice response. In fact, Australia was proud of its record in advancing the status of women, which it considered "highly significant by world standards". Much had been achieved, particularly in the areas of employment, education, health and the increased visibility of women in public life, she said. The Government was also aware that there were some areas which needed to be addressed before Australian women could achieve full equality. Therefore, it had put in place a framework of anti-discrimination legislation, as well as positive legislative measures, strategies and programmes, to assist women. Addressing the situation of Australia's indigenous women, Ms. Nairn said the Government was aware of the need to develop better options for them. A Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation had been established to promote a process of reconciliation between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and the wider Australian community.

The 23-member expert Committee, which is the monitoring body for the Convention, reviews reports of States parties submitted in accordance with article 18 of the Convention. That article requires States to submit reports within one year after accession, and thereafter at least every four years. Such reports are to focus on legislative, judicial and administrative measures adopted by States to give effect to the Convention's provisions.

The Committee will meet again at 3 p.m. today to continue its consideration of Australia's report.

Committee Work Programme

The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, the monitoring body for the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, met this morning to consider Australia's compliance with that Convention. It had before it Australia's third periodic report on that question (document CEDAW/C/AUL/3). The report before the Committee highlights significant activities and major initiatives undertaken by the Australian Government between June 1992 and November 1993 to further improve the status of women. It says the Convention has been widely disseminated throughout the country as part of a programme aimed at demonstrating relevance to Australian women and women's organizations.

According to the periodic report, the Government, in February 1993, released "New Agenda for Women", which provides a framework for achieving women's goals through the end of the century. It focuses on issues such as violence, families, income security and international relations, as well as on groups of women with particular needs, such as young women, women of non- English-speaking background, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women, older women, women in rural and remote areas, and women with disabilities. The Agenda examines progress made in each area, discusses women's vision and goals for the future, and puts forward strategies for achieving them.

Policy advice to the Government is provided by the Office of the Status of Women, which initiates and administers government policies, as well as programmes designed to raise the status of women, the report states. The Office is now giving priority to three broad areas: women's employment and economic security, with particular emphasis on superannuation; women and public life, with emphasis on their involvement in decision-making; and women and the law, with particular emphasis on the elimination of violence against women. The Office also undertakes measures to achieve more rapid progress towards equal representation of women and men on government boards and authorities.

A number of legislative changes have been made which allow complaints of victimization, provide a new definition of sexual harassment, and prohibit dismissals of women on grounds of family responsibilities, the report states. The Government is working closely with executives in commercial television to improve the status of women and to develop non-sexist strategies in respect of programme-making, selection and advertising. A national campaign was launched in November 1993 to stop violence against women, accompanied by a number of special projects. They included a national resource kit containing information on violence against women, programme ideas, information on support services and legal options.

A first major review of the country's 1986 Affirmative Action (Equal Employment Opportunity for Women) Act was completed in 1992/1993, the report

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states. That review resulted in legislative amendments expanding the coverage and scope of the Act. Educational material was being developed for use in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. In addition, Aborignal women from a remote community west of Alice Springs had organized a night patrol to make their community safe from violence, and encouraged Aboriginal groups in small urban towns to do the same.

The report states that the Government has been considering options for dealing with the problem of sexual exploitation of children by Australians overseas. Those options include the establishment of engaging in sexual relations with minors as a criminal offence with extraterritorial application. Consideration has also been given to what action might be taken nationwide against persons who profit from child sexual exploitation. On the question of refugees, priority resettlement opportunities are provided for refugee women and their dependants who are in danger of victimization, harassment or serious abuse.

Prior to the Federal election in March 1993, there were 10 women members in Australia's House of Representatives, and 16 in the Senate, the report states. In 1995, there were 13 woman representatives (8.84 per cent of members) and 16 senators (21.05 per cent). Maternity leave with pay is provided for most women employed by the Australian Government, and unpaid maternity leave has become widely available to Australian women employees since 1979. Such leave was now provided for in all major Federal awards and a majority of State awards as well.

When the Convention entered into force in Australia in 1983, the Government had expressed reservations on article 11(2) (b), which requires States parties to introduce maternity leave with pay or comparable social benefits, the report states. The Government had also advised at the time that it did not accept the application of the Convention in so far as it would require the application of a defence force policy which excluded women from combat and combat-related duties.

Since then, there had been further developments in Australia's position and policies on the reservations, the report goes on to say. Maternity leave with pay is provided for most women employed by the Australian Government, while most maternity leave in the private sector is unpaid. The Government has committed itself to considering implementing International Labour Organization Convention 103 on Maternity Protection, which calls for at least 12 weeks of paid maternity leave to be made available to women in paid employment.

The report states that exclusion of women from combat-related duties, in force since 1984, had not been applied since May 1990. It is likely that the Government will remove the exclusion and restrict the exemption to a limited range of duties, essentially involving hand-to-hand combat. Those changes

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will open up almost 90 per cent of all positions in the Australian Defence Force to women.

A rural access programme begun in 1991 allows people in rural and remote regions to plan, organize and deliver activities and projects to meet community needs, the report states. That programme recognizes the particular disadvantage of women in rural Australia. A rural health support, education and training programme assists projects which enhance opportunities for training, education and support for rural health workers.

Introduction of Australia's Report

CLARE NAIRN, Assistant Secretary in the Office of the Status of Women in the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet in Australia, introduced her country's report, She said the Government took its obligations as a signatory to the Convention seriously. It had put in place a robust framework of anti- discrimination legislation, as well as positive legislative measures, strategies and programmes to assist women. Australia had also been at the forefront of English-speaking countries in the range of government-funded services developed to meet the specific needs of women. They were run by women, for women.

At the federal, state and territory levels, specialized governmental machinery had been set up to advise on issues relating to the status of women and to monitor and evaluate the outcomes for women of government policies and programmes, she said. That had been further strengthened by the establishment of a ministerial forum on the status of women. The Government had committed all areas of the Commonwealth bureaucracy to consolidating and increasing the gains made towards establishing full equality for women, as well as to designing, assessing, monitoring and evaluating policies and programmes in terms of their relative impact upon men and women.

She said Australian women had formal legal equality with men, and their health had been a priority area for government action. Violence against women had been recognized for many years as a major area for attention, and important reforms had been undertaken. In response to the 1996 massacres of 35 people at Port Arthur, there was agreement among commonwealth, state and territory governments on uniform, stringent and effective gun control laws in Australia. Through the National Campaign against Violence and Crime, the Government would be attempting to address some of the concerns women had expressed about crime and violence in Australia.

Over the last 20 years, major advances had taken place in providing support for women subjected to domestic violence and in ensuring a strong criminal justice response, she said. As evidence of the Government's commitment to making Australia a safer place, the Prime Minister would convene a national domestic violence summit later this year to develop a more

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comprehensive approach to preventing and responding to domestic violence across Australia.

A national women's health programme launched in April 1989 focused on projects aimed at improving services to women at a disadvantage, or for whom culturally appropriate services needed to be delivered, she said. It was a requirement of funding that women must be actively involved in the planning, development and management of the funded services. The Office of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Services, located in the Department of Health and Family Services, was developing and implementing its component of the national breast-feeding strategy.

She said the most recent federal election had brought a significant increase in the number of women in the Federal Parliament. There were currently 47 women parliamentarians, including 23 in a 148-member House of Representatives, and 24 in a 74-member Senate. In addition, there were now four women ministers, two of whom were in the Cabinet. In 1996, the first woman President of the Senate was elected and in 1997, for the first time, both the President and the Vice-President of the Senate were women.

In the private sector, the Office of the Status of Women -- in cooperation with the Australian Council of Businesswomen, a women's non- governmental organization, industry groups and key businesses -- was undertaking a study of ways to identify suitable women candidates for company boards, and in increasing the demand for such candidates, she said. In the senior executive branch of the Australian public service, women's participation had risen from around 4 per cent in 1984, to 20 per cent in 1997. The Government recognized the special needs of women with respect to relations in the work-place; working women's centres provided information and assistance to women on a range of work-place issues.

Addressing Australia's two reservations to the Convention -- relating to introduction of paid maternity leave and employment of women in combat-related duties -- she said that while significant progress had been made, the Government was not in a position to remove its reservation. Provision of paid maternity leave varied considerably between and within the public and private sectors. Under Commonwealth legislation, workers were entitled to up to 52 weeks unpaid maternity leave. A maternity allowance introduced in February 1996 by the Commonwealth Government provided for a non-taxable, lump-sum payment to families who met the residency, income and assets tests. It was paid for each new child, including each baby in a multiple birth.

She said the current reservation relating to the Australian Defence Force fell under Commonwealth jurisdiction. However, the 1995 Sex Discrimination Amendment Bill had been amended to remove a previous exemption concerning the participation of women of the Australian Defence Force in

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combat-related employment. Almost 90 per cent of all employment areas in the Australian Defence Force were open to women.

Efforts were under way to address the situation of indigenous women and obstacles that impeded their progress to full equality, she said. A Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation had been established in 1991 to promote a process of reconciliation between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and the wider Australian community. That Council was committed to addressing indigenous disadvantages, and five indigenous women were among its 23 members. Since the beginning of this year, the Council had arranged more than 100 formal meetings, culminating in a three-day Australian Reconciliation Convention attended by 1,800 participants last May.

She said that indigenous women, along with women from the wider Australian community, had adopted a very active role in working towards reconciliation. The Government was aware of the need to develop better options for them. A much publicized report tabled in the Federal Parliament on 26 May made 54 recommendations. They addressed such areas as reparation or compensation for indigenous people and their descendants; reunion, health and other services for those affected by past policies and practices; and legislative changes to standardize current policies and practices on a national basis.

The Government had given priority to finding practical, effective and long-term solutions to indigenous health problems, she said. Some initiatives included the provision of culturally appropriate services to women, as well as the mainstreaming of programmes to assist them. The Government had committed $482 million over four years, from 1995 to 1996, for specific indigenous health-care services. It had also given high priority to the prevention of family violence and the promotion of family well-being among the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.

She said Australia had implemented a comprehensive system of financial assistance for low- to middle-income families. "Much has been achieved, particularly in the areas of employment, education, health and the increased visibility of women in public life." Australia was proud of its record on advancing the status of women, a record which was highly significant by world standards. The Government was also aware that there were some areas to be addressed before women could achieve full equality.

Response to Questions Submitted by Committee

Replying to questions submitted in advance by the Committee, Ms. NAIRN said significant disparities continued to exist between the health of the general Australian population and that of particular population groups. Women's right to economic security and independence continued to be central to government policies. Key issues still to be addressed included the high

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degree of concentration of women in low-paid, low-status, limited career-path employment sectors, as well as women's access to adequate retirement income. Further, paid maternity leave was still not widely available outside some areas of the public sector.

Women constituted 43 per cent of the total Australian labour force, she said. While a majority of those women worked full time, the demand for part- time work continued to increase, particularly among women with family responsibilities. Caring remained a gender issue, and women carried the primary responsibility for the care of the children, sick, disabled and elderly. Further, inequality between men and women in the sharing of power and decision-making at all levels continued to be a matter or great concern.

She said the amended Sex Discrimination Act was not applicable throughout the territory of Australia, owing to constitutional limitations on the Commonwealth's power to legislate in that area. From 1993 until June 1996, 49 complaints of dismissal on the grounds of family responsibilities were made under the Sex Discrimination Act. There were currently no proposals to amend Australia's Constitution to enshrine the principle of equality between men and women in it. However, amendments to other acts had recognized the need to prohibit discrimination and had affirmed that every individual was equal before the law and had the right to equal protection.

In 1989, the Affirmative Action Agency had established awards to recognize worthwhile initiatives taken by employers to comply with the Equal Employment Opportunity for Women Act of 1986, she said. The Act applied to private-sector employers with more than 100 employees.

To a question about "register of women", she said the Office of the Status of Women had previously managed such a register but had ceased operation in 1996. During its operation, all Australian women were eligible to apply for inclusion in it. The register had been based on self-nomination and so had not ensured that women included in it had the necessary skills for specific positions. The Government believed that an approach which identified women who had suitable qualifications for a particular position would be more effective.

On the subject of stereotypes, she said the Federation of Australian Commercial Television Stations had a code and related advisory notes which recommended the avoidance of language which unnecessarily excluded one sex. The code also asked that stereotyped portrayals of gender be avoided. On the portrayal of Filipino women, she said an increase on available information had raised the awareness of migrant women, including Filipino women, as equal marriage partners, while reiterating anti-domestic violence messages.

Regarding police protection for Aboriginal women affected by domestic violence, she said Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women were entitled

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to the same protection under the law as other Australian women. In some cases, however, those women preferred to adopt a community approach to resolving issues rather than using the criminal justice system. Speaking on legislation regarding Australians who committed sex abuses abroad, she said the Parliament in 1994 had made it an offence for citizens to engage in sexual conduct, while overseas, with persons under the age of 16 years.

Answering a question on the legalization of prostitution in some areas of Australia, she said prostitution had never been illegal in New South Wales, while in Queensland it was not legalized. Laws on prostitution differed from state to state. On the question of mail order brides, she said most Filipinos were introduced to their Australian partners through friends or family, with only a few meeting through introduction agencies.

Addressing the question of misuse of the Internet to promote sex tourism, she said it was illegal knowingly to use telecommunications in an offensive way. To a question as to whether there was a legislative proposal for mandatory inclusion of women as candidates by political parties, she said there was no bill of law or amendment on that subject.

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For information media. Not an official record.