UN grills Australia on multiple failures to protect women against violence

The UN Committee’s Rapporteur for Australia, Patricia Schulz. Source: Supplied

Cuts to women's shelters and legal aid, the merging of the Family Court with the Federal Circuit Court, and the influence of Men's Rights Activists on policy making were roundly criticised.

This week, the key UN Committee on gender equality asked a multi-agency Australian government delegation how Australia is implementing the primary convention on women’s rights and gender equality.

As a signatory to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), the Australian government is expected to present to the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination every four years but the last time they presented was in 2010.

The Committee commended the apparent admission of various Australian governments at failings in the prevention of domestic violence, and reiterated that clearly, “something is not working properly.” But the commendations stopped there. 

Indigenous women and girls are 35 times more likely than the general population to be hospitalised due to family violence.

They asked a range of questions about violence against women, including the unique experiences of Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islanders, women with disabilities, LGBTQI people, refugees and women seeking asylum, and migrant women. Two in five assaults reported to police in 2016 were domestic violence – and yet experts believe that most domestic violence goes unreported.

The committee supported calls for a Royal Commission into violence experienced by people with disabilities, and implementation of recommendations on the violence experienced by indigenous women and children. Indigenous women and girls are 35 times more likely than the general population to be hospitalised due to family violence.

Given Australia’s global economic standing, the Committee was extremely concerned by cuts to women’s shelter services and the housing, financial and legal services upon which the most vulnerable women rely. The Committee criticised Australia for cutting specialised services designed to help women escape violence in the home and replacing them with mainstreamed services. The Committee considered it unreasonable to expect a woman who has been the victim of male violence to seek refuge at a shelter that now also serves men.

Committee expert Nahla Haidar noted that “continuing to cut is obviously going to create more vulnerability.” On a yearly average, across Australia, one woman is murdered by her current or former intimate partner every week.

Committee expert Ruth Halperin-Kaddari asked about reduction in women’s access to justice due to “major cuts to legal aid across the board.” Quoting the 2014 Productivity Commission Inquiry she reminded us “women are more likely to experience unmet legal need than men, and that indigenous women are more at risk, and more legal need is unmet in rural, regional and remote areas.”

The committee was unconvinced by excuses about why Australia did not have a national legal framework in place to protect the rights of women.

Committee’s Rapporteur for Australia Patricia Schulz was deeply critical of why the government had decided to merge the Family Court with the Federal Circuit Court before the results of the review they commissioned to ensure the family law system meets the contemporary needs of families and effectively addresses family violence and child abuse. She also expressed concern about the influence of false claims by the so called 'Men’s Rights Activists' on family law officers, policies and practice at the expense of the safety and protection of women and children in situations of domestic violence.

Lastly, the committee was unconvinced by excuses that states and territories were the reason Australia did not have a national legal framework in place to protect the rights of women. They were pleased by efforts being made by the Victorian government but noted the problems with inconsistent approaches by the other states and territories. The Committee has made a range of recommendations pertinent to federal and common law systems in that show this is the best way forward.

Halperin-Kaddari noted that the federal government had achieved this for criminal and procedural matters, so she recommended that Australia adopt a national framework. The government delegation responded that such a step had not been considered, but would be a matter for the Council of Australian Governments.

Unconvinced, Halperin-Kaddari asked, “How can a strong and clear message be sent across law enforcement agents, to the judiciary and society in general that violence is violence is violence and that gender-based violence against women and domestic violence are grave violations of women’s human rights?”

Susan Hutchinson is a freelance contributor to The Feed. She is a PhD scholar at the ANU; a member of the Australian Civil Society Coalition on Women, Peace and Security; and an architect of the Prosecute Don’t Perpetuate campaign.