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Thursday, 3 December 2015
Page: 9859

Senator McEWEN (South AustraliaOpposition Whip in the Senate) (16:03): On behalf of the Chair of the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade I present the report Empowering women and girls: the human rights issues confronting women and girls in the Indian Ocean-Asia Pacific region.

Ordered that the report be printed.

Senator McEWEN: I move:

That the Senate take note of the report.

It is a pleasure as deputy chair of the Human Rights Subcommittee of the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade to present the report entitled Empowering women and girls: the human rights issues confronting women and girls in the Indian Ocean-Asia Pacific region.All of the members of the human rights committee share a passion for promotion of the human rights and empowerment of women and girls in Australia's region, and we hope that the report presented today will be a practical contribution to Australia's efforts to support the advancement of the human rights of women and girls across the Indo-Pacific region.

The terms of reference for this inquiry were extremely broad. They involved nothing less than a competitive examination of the human rights circumstances of women and girls across a vast region. It is a region that includes six of the world's 10 most populous nations, and countries as different in size and character as China, Afghanistan and Nauru. The report reflects the weight of evidence received from those who contributed: the Australian government, especially the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and a wide range of non-government organisations and academic experts. The committee also sought the views of all governments in the region and were pleased to receive submissions from Afghanistan, Mauritius, Vietnam, Timor-Leste and Sri Lanka. The report addresses in considerable detail the human rights issues in countries in Australia's immediate region, especially the South Pacific, and in countries that are significant recipients of Australian development assistance.

Over the course of the inquiry, the availability of reliable data and particularly evidence on what programs and initiatives are working and what are not working emerged as significant issues. The importance of data in understanding the extent of the problems and the effectiveness of aid programs was succinctly expressed by the International Women's Development Agency, who stated:

What we measure matters. It reflects what we value. It drives the visibility of issues. It influences where resources are invested.

The committee has therefore made a number of recommendations to address the paucity of data so that future policy and development assistance programs are underpinned by comprehensive evidence.

Despite this, a very clear picture emerged that the circumstances of hundreds of millions of women and girls across the Indo-Pacific region are dire, blighted by violence, poverty and exclusion from economic, social and political participation. While many countries have made great progress in advancing the human rights of women and girls—especially in recent decades—it is all too clear that more than 6½ decades after the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights a great deal more progress must be made for women and girls to be considered truly equal.

The committee did not single out any particular countries or group of countries for criticism or judgement. Instead the report details the extent and depth of problems across the region and examined ways in which governments, communities and non-government organisations can work together to make further progress in protecting and improving the lives of women and girls. In particular, evidence received by the committee documented nothing less than an epidemic of violence directed against women and girls in many nations. This is a most serious problem across the Indo-Pacific region, and it should not be forgotten either that economic consequences of violence against women are enormous and constitute a significant drain on national economies and, indeed, our region as a whole.

By virtue of its nature and its embeddedness in cultures and social attitudes as well as its different triggers, violence perpetrated against women and girls represents a very deep seated challenge. The diversity of the Indo-Pacific region also presents a major challenge for the implementation of development assistance programs to address the problem. What may work in one country or social group may be of limited effectiveness elsewhere. Again I stress: programs that seek to empower women and girls must be backed up by good local consultation and research that into account a program's possible benefits, economic value and cultural impact.

The committee has recommended an intensification of efforts and further work that takes into account both the cultural and social diversity of the region and the insights of further research to identify most effective responses. Similar challenges are evident in relation to health, education, economic participation and the involvement of women in community decision-making and political life more broadly. In all these areas there has been significant progress in many places, but much remains to be done, and in some areas urgent action is required to ensure that hard-won gains are not reversed or lost.

The committee's recommendations span a wide range of issues and government programs and underline the need for broad and sustained commitment of resources. There are no easy solutions to any of the problems discussed in the report. All of them require a preparedness by policymakers to commit to programs that are likely to only deliver substantial progress over decades rather than years and in some cases perhaps only through intergenerational change. The committee was also mindful of the many demands on Australia's overseas development assistance budget, and, nonetheless, given the magnitude of the problems, there is still a strong case for giving women and girls greater priority in Australia's overseas development assistance.

We recommend that the focus of our investments be in expertise in programs that deliver best return for investment on large-scale, long-term programs for 10 years or more designed directly for women's empowerment in key countries. Indeed, the long-term benefit, including the economic benefits, of greatly reducing domestic violence and improving educational and economic opportunities for women and girls are potentially very large.

On behalf of the committee, I would like to thank all of the non-government organisations, academics and individuals for generously donating their time, effort and resources to make submissions and appear at public hearings or private briefings. I also thank all the Australian government agencies that appeared before the committee and provided assistance. I would especially like to thank the staff and students of Auburn Girls High School in Sydney, which hosted two days of public hearings on 21 and 22 August 2014. The committee was very pleased to have the opportunity to bring parliament to the people.

I would also like to thank the Chair of the Human Rights Subcommittee, Mr Philip Ruddock; the previous chair, Mr Luke Simpkins; and my other colleagues on the joint standing committee who engaged closely with this inquiry. I commend the report to the Senate.

I seek leave to continue my remarks later.

Leave granted; debate adjourned.