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Wednesday, 25 November 2015
Page: 9041


Senator REYNOLDS (Western Australia) (19:20): Last week I had the honour of participating as a guest of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation in their Asian women parliamentarians dialogue in Brussels. The subject was on empowering women in Asia and Europe. The purpose of the dialogue was to examine the policies and practices of the EU and NATO in relation to gender advancement and the role of women in peace and security. Arriving in the middle of a terrorism shutdown in Brussels certainly sharpened our focus on the topic at hand.

The Konrad Adenauer Foundation is a civic research and education foundation named for the first Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany. Chancellor Adenauer led Germany from a broke, defeated nation in the years following World War II to a vibrant, stable and prosperous democracy. The foundation is dedicated to promoting right around the world Adenauer's ideas of the basic democratic values: the rule of law, freedom, peace, and justice—values most Australians share. But, sadly, as we saw in Brussels, today not everyone around the world or even here in Australia share these values with us.

For many years I have worked with, trained and mentored young political leaders, party officials and candidates all over the world on behalf of a number of Australian and overseas democracy support organisations. Officially my role has been to provide advice and practical assistance to those who are fighting for democracy in their own nations, under their own system of government and in their own society. While that was officially my role, I often reflect that instead I have been the major beneficiary of these experiences and the ensuing life-long friendships. I am undoubtedly a better person and, I hope, now a better politician for these rich experiences.

It is the work with women that I love the most and am most proud of: witnessing such passion and commitment in the face of what for us would be unimaginable conditions—for ourselves as women and for ourselves as politicians, and also for our own families. They suffer from egregious gender discrimination, physical violence, suicide attacks and extended imprisonment—to name just a few of the barriers and conditions.

In Brussels last week I was reunited with female colleagues from across Asia and met some amazing new female MPs. Quite simply, they are the most extraordinary group of women, whose passion, commitment and sheer bravery is inspirational and terribly humbling. For many of them, our worst ever day in politics here in Australia would be their best ever day in politics. To me, all these women are heroes and leaders in the truest sense of those words.

By way of example, last week marked the 12-month anniversary since my friend Shukria Barakzai, a 10-year member of the Afghanistan parliament and a very prominent women's rights campaigner, was the target of a suicide bombing in Kabul in which nine people were tragically killed and she and 35 others were wounded, both physically and mentally.

Shukria is an extraordinary woman who, at only 42, has had a most remarkable life—in fact, I think she has had several lives—fighting for the rights of girls and women in Afghanistan. During that struggle, she has lost two of her own children to the Taliban, she has been beaten, but still she ran an underground school for girls to ensure that, during Taliban rule, they got the education that they needed. Despite the attack she and her family—her five children—remain in Afghanistan fighting for women and for the next generation of her country, all the while under the protection of a large team of bodyguards due to the ever-present threat of another suicide attack on her and those around her. Witnessing Shukria and other brave women fight so hard for what we largely take for granted here in Australia is sobering. But it also reminds me that women all over the world, including here in Australia, share universal socioeconomic challenges that will never just fix themselves.

Today is White Ribbon Day. As we have heard from so many colleagues so poignantly in and out of both chambers, including from Sarah Henderson, women and children suffer terribly from domestic violence right across our country, and two women a week die from the injuries inflicted—mostly by the men in their lives—and thousands of others silently bear the scars and misplaced shame of these attacks.

I arrived in Brussels last Monday when the city was in an eerie state of lockdown. The streets where we were staying in the heart of the European Commission and the European Union parliament were almost empty as Belgian police carried out raids in the hunt for the perpetrators of the Paris terrorist attacks and potential new terrorist attacks in Brussels. None of us who attended would have thought before the Paris attacks almost two weeks ago that we would be warned, by our embassy and by concerned loved ones, not to walk around the streets of central Brussels—in the middle of western Europe—and that they would be in lockdown, as we know they continue to be today.

Most of my colleagues are all too familiar with terrorism in all its forms, particularly with religious based extremism. My colleagues from Afghanistan and Pakistan in particular told us of their experiences dealing with the threat of religious-based terrorism and they were crystal clear in their advice to us: if you allow the terrorists to change us, they win. So together we must stick to our principles defeat them. We have no choice. They are Islamic jihadists, they pervert Islam, but they still must be tackled head on. They will never respect our kindness and our generosity. Instead they will exploit it to harm us. There is no-one more qualified to make this observation to me and to all of us than these brave Muslim women who face this threat every day.

The consensus from the workshop was that women have a critical contribution to make in all facets of public life and society. This is especially so in achieving peace and security in areas of conflict. It was also clear to me and others that gender equality and, more generally, diversity first need peace, stable government and civil society. Women and children always suffer the most in conflict and during periods of austerity; but, despite this, if and when empowered women can be key agents of change.

One focus of our dialogue in the EU parliament with our European colleagues was how the new Sustainable Development Goals have the potential to drive gender and diversity change not just in developing countries but also in Australia, in Europe and in the United States. The key issue for us all now is how we translate the goals into meaningful action in our own countries. That is the work that I think we all need to face together and work together on.

In conclusion, my sincerest thanks to the Konrad Adenauer Foundation and to their dedicated staff for making this wonderful program possible. It brings together women in parliaments from across Asia to provide professional development, networking and the opportunity for mutual support. My thanks also to the Australian Embassy staff for their professional guidance and assistance during my visit. Most of all, to my Asian colleagues, all I can say is thank you.