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Address poverty, violence and inequities – health leaders tell the Women’s Cabinet Taskforce

Leaders in women’s health have some pointed advice for the Federal Government’s new Women’s Cabinet Taskforce, as Croakey editor Jennifer Doggett reports below.

The focus is timely on World Health Day, which is putting a global focus on addressing health inequities.


Jennifer Doggett writes:

An “ambitious” women’s agenda is being developed for the upcoming Federal Budget, according to the Minister for Women, Marise Payne, speaking after the first meeting of the Women’s Cabinet Taskforce this week.

Minister Payne did not elaborate on the details of this agenda but suggested its focus will be on identifying and filling gaps in existing government programs.

The Government established the Taskforce in response to a groundswell of concern in the community about its response to sexual assault allegations in parliament, culminating in a series of protests around the country.

This concern comes on the back of multiple policy failures by the government to address gender inequality affecting some of the most marginalised and disadvantaged women in the community.

Croakey has previously reported on a number of these issues, including a call by senior Aboriginal academics for the rights and concerns of Indigenous women to be central to national discussions about violence against women and the ongoing failure to address the over-incarceration of Indigenous women and the national emergency of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander deaths in custody.

In announcing the Taskforce, Prime Minister Scott Morrison stated that it would “drive my Government’s agenda in response to these key issues involving women’s equality, women’s safety, women’s economic security, women’s health and wellbeing”.

Poor record

However, the Prime Minister will have to work hard to convince the community he is genuine about improving gender equality if he is to reverse the electoral damage being attributed to his poor record on gender issues.

So far, his efforts have not received the positive response he would have been hoping for, with several high profile women, including  Australian of the year Grace Tame, expressing concerns about the Government’s approach.

Women health leaders and advocates contacted by Croakey have also expressed concerns about the Taskforce, including the lack of any explicit consultation processes or strategies to engage with disadvantaged and marginalised groups of women.

In particular, these leaders have highlighted the importance of involving Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women, women with disabilities, trans women, women from rural and remote areas and women who are homebound.

While all of the women leaders contacted by Croakey supported increased action on gender inequality, they also raised concerns about the current Government’s commitment to this issue, given its poor track record of responding to issues previously raised with them by women’s groups.

Antoinette Braybrook is the chairperson of the National Family Violence Prevention and Legal Services (NFVPLS) Forum, which consists of 14 member organisations nationally working for Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander victims/ survivors of family violence and sexual assault. Over 95 percent of the clients served by these organisations are women and children.

Braybrook describes the formation of the Taskforce as “nothing more than window dressing”. She reports that the NFVPLS Forum met with the Minister for Women, Marise Payne, at a roundtable over a year ago and was disappointed at the lack of a response from Minister Payne to the suggestions made at that meeting, including a call for a dedicated National Action Plan to address violence against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and children.

Alison Verhoeven, CEO of the Australian Healthcare and Hospitals Association, welcomed the Prime Minister’s and Government’s recognition of the serious issues relating to equality, women’s safety, economic security, health and wellbeing – which she said they have failed to pay attention to over the past eight years.

However, she is not optimistic the Taskforce will make a difference, given the Government’s track record.

She warns that “recycling people into new roles, the failure to address some of the shocking revelations of recent weeks, and policies and reforms such as the disestablishment of the Family Court and the underfunding of domestic and family violence services, do not inspire confidence that there will be significant change led through this Taskforce”.

Carolyn Frohmader, Executive Director, Women With Disabilities Australia, also welcomed the formation of the Taskforce. However, she believes that gender equality is equally a responsibility of the Prime Minister and all Ministers and should not be left up to the female Cabinet Ministers to take sole responsibility for implementing a “gender lens” across the whole of government.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women

The lack of diversity among the Taskforce and the need to address the unique challenges faced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women were highlighted in responses from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women leaders.

Dr Janine Mohamed, CEO, Lowitja Institute, made the case for a dedicated approach to addressing the specific disadvantages experienced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women.

She said:

The historical truth telling that needs to be done for and with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women is very different to the journey of non-Indigenous women in Australia.

Both have obviously experienced inequity, but for very different reasons – one is very gender-based, and the other race-based plus gender. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women have experienced violence, at the individual and structural levels, in ways not known by non-Indigenous women, from the start of colonisation to the current time.

It began with the slaughtering, enslavement and rape of our women and of being taken into domestic servitude like my Nana. And it involves structural violence which can be seen now in over-incarceration and in the deaths, at the hands of the justice and health systems, of women like Ms Dhu and Naomi Williams. For too many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women, police and health workers are threats rather than protection from violence and harm.

Going forward, that inequity and the uniqueness of that inequity experienced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women needs to be acknowledged and understood. These are stories that need to be heard by the Federal Cabinet Taskforce and more broadly.

It cannot be assumed that our issues are the same as non-Indigenous women’s issues so we require separate conversations, separate planning and separate policies, organisations and resourcing because equity is about meeting people where they’re at, individually and as a collective group, providing people with what they need, not about treating us all the same.

We also need to examine more closely the intersectionality between sexism and racism, and of what feminism means for us as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women.”

Olga Havnen, CEO of Danila Dilba, described the lack of socio-economic and cultural diversity in the Taskforce as “problematic” and questioned how representative it is of Australian women.

She suggests including cross party members, such as Tanya Plibersek, Penny Wong, Jacqui Lambie and Malandirri McCarthy as well as people from diverse socio-economic backgrounds and representation from Muslim/Arab communities.

“Genuine multicultural and socio-economic representation is absolutely necessary and we need a national campaign to promote diversity and respect, better resourcing for women’s services and supports for DV, safety and eradication of poverty,” Havnen said.

Braybrook highlighted the need for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women to lead and drive the change process.

She noted that this requires a commitment for increased funding to ensure Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women have equal participation and contribution to national conversations.

She said:

Government must commit to an increased and long-term investment into Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community-controlled organisations.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women must be visible, included and heard, not excluded through this process. There must be a formal mechanism for ensuring our voices are central to the process.”

Braybrook specifically noted that the NFVPLS Forum lost its direct federal funding last year with no other funding provided.

“Our women must be at the table and equally able to participate in the national conversations. Our women nationally are still 32 times more likely to be hospitalised as a result of family violence and 11 times more likely to die from an assault than other women,” she said.

Highest priorities

Women leaders contacted by Croakey identified poverty, violence and equity issues as high priorities for the Taskforce.

Verhoeven suggested that a good start for the Taskforce would be to address the economic gaps experienced by women, which have been particularly highlighted during the COVID pandemic.

She said:

Many more women than men lost jobs during the pandemic and were less likely to access JobKeeper support because women make up a large proportion of the short-term casual workforce.

Additionally women experienced an increase in unpaid work, including supervision of children learning remotely. Providing greater job security for casual workers, particularly notable in sectors such as health and aged care which are dominated by female workers, should also be a focus.”

In addition, Verhoeven supports a number of economic policy measures, including raising the JobSeeker rate, investing in social housing for women at risk of homelessness and increasing women’s access to superannuation, strategies also suggested in Croakey today by Charles Maskell-Knight.

The top three priorities suggested by Braybrook are:

  1. A dedicated National Action Plan to address violence against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and their children.
  2. A commitment for our National Family Violence Prevention and Legal Services Forum which represents its 14 Family Violence Prevention and Legal Service members.
  3. Increased funding for the 14 Family Violence Prevention and Legal Services Nationally which work exclusively with survivors of family violence and sexual assault, most particularly women and children.

Havnen identified the highest priorities for the Taskforce as “eradication of poverty and structural and legislative reforms, for example changing the way investigation and prosecution of rape, sexual abuse cases are handled away from traditional adversarial processes to an inquisitorial model that does not allow complainants/victims to be cross examined in such an aggressive, disrespectful manner.” She also wants funding for services rather than “more plans and frameworks”.

Reducing poverty among women was also named by Verhoeven as a high priority for the Tasforce, specifically raising the JobSeeker rate. She also suggests increasing investment in more social housing for women at risk of homelessness and providing greater support for women experiencing domestic violence.

Frohmader identified the gendered nature of violence and the disproportionate, multiple and intersecting forms of violence experienced by women and girls with disability as a high priority issue for the Tasforce. She wants the Government to develop and enact national legislation on the prevention of all forms of gender-based violence, using the definition of ‘gender-based violence’ as articulated in the Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) 2017 General Recommendation 35 ‘Gender-based Violence Against Women’.

Frohmader’s second priority is to develop and adopt a comprehensive national Gender Equality Policy with performance indicators to address the structural factors resulting in gender inequalities. This should include targeted temporary special measures (including quotas) in order to improve the position of women to one of de jure as well as de facto (substantive) equality with men and include women who experience multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination as a priority focus.

The third priority recommended by Frohmader is a review and reform of laws, structures and practices that continue to allow for legal forms of violence against women, particularly against women with disabilities.

These include forced sterilisation, forced abortion, forced contraception; forced medical treatments and interventions; deprivation of liberty; restrictive practices; denial of the right to legal capacity; forced institutionalisation; forced isolation; segregation; indefinite detention; and ‘sex normalising’ practices’ of persons with intersex variations.

Equity and inclusion

In addition to a specific focus on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women, a number of other groups were identified as needing dedicated strategies to ensure their inclusion in the Taskforce’s work.

Frohmader proposed that the Australian Government put in place temporary special measures, including quotas, to prioritise women who face and experience multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination, and who remain largely excluded in the development of Australian Government policies and programs regarding the rights of women and the promotion of gender equality.

She nominated a range of groups as needing specific measures, including women with disabilities, women from culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) communities, LGBTI and asylum-seeking, refugee and migrant women.

National Rural Health Alliance CEO Gabrielle O’Kane highlighted the disparity in data for rural and remote women, in particular in relation to domestic violence:

We need to address the higher rates of family, domestic and sexual violence in rural, regional and remote Australia. For example, hospitalisations for domestic violence are 24 times more likely in remote and very remote areas than in major cities.

Rural women experiencing domestic violence may find it more difficult to leave a violent relationship due to poorer access to local mental health and other support services.”

Ricky Buchanan, an advocate for people who are homebound, highlighted the need to first address the basic care needs of women who are unable to access services because of their medical condition.

She said:

We need a (metaphorical) seat at the table and genuine collaboration and co-creation so the system can be built from the ground up to meet everybody’s needs.

However,  a pre-requisite for this is access to basic services, such as medical care, Centrelink/NDIS, domestic violence and other crisis care, proper supports within the justice system and affordable housing.

Almost all of those are usually difficult or impossible to access for homebound and severely chronically ill women.”

Buchanan said that the most important service for many homebound people is general practice. “If you can’t see a GP you can’t do so many other things – you can’t prove you’re disabled if you can’t get a diagnosis, you can’t see a specialist, get a medical certificate or a disability pension or NDIS or medication.”

She explained how telehealth has been a gamechanger for people unable to leave their homes to access medical care but is concerned that the changes to the telehealth arrangements (requiring a face to face GP visit in the past 12 months) will lock many homebound people out of general practice again.

Without access to general practice and other basic services, she says it will be almost impossible for homebound women to participate in the work of the Taskforce and other consultation processes.

Buchanan also describes the “enormous privileged blinders” of governments which means that “in many cases they don’t even realise that the groups they are excluding exist”. She argues for a system where “equity is built in” so that groups which are not on the radar of governments (or which may not currently exist as a discrete group) can be included in processes such as the Taskforce.

Dr Fiona Bisshop, President of AusPATH (Australian Professional Association for Trans Health), stressed the need to ensure that the Taskforce understands that trans women are women and need to be included in the agenda:

For so long trans women have simply been ignored, which is bad enough, but now we have a situation where they are being actively excluded under a misguided flag of feminism, driven by people who are basically transphobic. Ironically, despite the TERF message that trans women are a threat to cis women’s rights, safety and autonomy, it’s actually trans women who are one of the most vulnerable groups in society, and most likely to suffer violence at the hands of others.

For trans women to be safe, they need to be acknowledged and included in the government task force response. There needs to be policy that ensures their right to emergency housing, admission to women’s refuges, access to healthcare, and protection from discrimination in the workplace. This can only happen if there is acknowledgement that trans women are indeed women, and have a right to safety and dignity.”

Seeking advice

While the Taskforce may face a daunting agenda, there are many existing services and processes from which it can seek advice on how to proceed.

Braybrook suggested that the Taskforce look to specialist Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community-controlled organisations for advice, in particular the 14 Family Violence Prevention and Legal Services nationally which work exclusively with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who experience family violence and sexual assault. “We have the trust in community, we have the solutions,” she said.

She believes that “this Government must act on what we already know and implement the actions and recommendations that our people have consistently put to the government to improve Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and children’s safety,” including the recommendations of the recent Parliamentary Inquiry into domestic, family and sexual violence.

Verhoeven also stressed the need for the Taskforce to engage with a broad spectrum of women from across Australia, “including those who are most marginalised and those who have experienced significant distress as a result of sexual harassment and violence.”

She noted that committees and taskforces of eminent women leaders can drive change – but only if they engage more broadly with women whose life experiences are vastly different from their own.

Havnen urged the Taskforce to look to ACOSS and other groups which have been advocating on these issues for decades and whose recommendations have been “studiously ignored”.

Frohmader pointed out that Australia has been a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) since 1983 and that the CEDAW Committee has provided recommendations to successive Australian Governments regarding the ‘urgent’ need to address all forms of discrimination against women, and ensure women can exercise their human rights on a basis of equality with men.

She suggests that the Taskforce adopt the recommendations of the CEDAW Committee, in particular that Australia develop and adopt “a comprehensive national gender equality policy with performance indicators to address the structural factors resulting in gender inequalities” and “that temporary special measures be put in place in order to “accelerate women’s equal participation in political and public life, education, employment and the health sector, including as regards women facing intersecting forms of discrimination.”

In addition to the CEDW recommendations, Frohmader also called on the Australian Government increase funding for national women’s alliances and national peaks to provide advice to Government on the rights of women and the promotion of gender equality, with a strong focus on the national representation of women who experience multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination.

Another source of advice for the Taskforce is the report of the Wiyi Yani U Thangani (Women’s voices Bunuba language) Project. Its recommendations include establishing a National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Women and Girls Advisory Body and holding a National summit on advancing the wellbeing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and girls.

Key challenges

Women health leaders named a number of key challenges facing the Taskforce, including at the political, economic and service delivery levels.

Havnen identified the major challenge for the Taskforce as driving “changes in the behaviour of men”. She also nominates achieving a reduction in women’s poverty levels and an increase in support and services for women experiencing domestic violence as key challenges.

Braybrook cites the equal participation and visibility of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women in the Taskforce process as a major challenge. She stresses the need for solutions to be “initiated, led and designed by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women”.

Braybrook also highlights the need for governments to increase funding for the NFVPLS forum and its 14 member organisations to ensure that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women are resourced to contribute to the national conversation. In particular, this funding should focus on frontline, legal and non-legal services, counselling, early intervention prevention programs to build on women’s resilience and reduce their vulnerability to violence.

Verhoeven describes ensuring that the committee isn’t yet another token gesture and that legislative change and funding will back up political rhetoric. She says this will be difficult in a Government where the Cabinet, Expenditure Review Committee and overall composition is so heavily skewed towards white middle class males.

While over the longer term quotas may longer term result in more women representation amongst Coalition ranks, right now that provides little comfort.

Gaining support from the Prime Minister and the broader party was also identified as a major challenge by Frohmader, along with “a lack of genuine commitment to change”. Related to this are budgetary constraints and little political will to provide the funding for the changes needed.

She suggests than an early test of the Government’s commitment will be the upcoming Federal Budget, which will reveal the extent to which it is prepared to invest money and resources to address the multiple intersecting factors causing gender inequality across Australian society. 


Looking globally

Global gender inequities were also highlighted today as part of World Health Day, including through the launch of The Sex, Gender and COVID-19 Health Policy Portal.

This portal aims to document the attention paid to sex and gender in national COVID-19 public health policies globally.

“Launched in the context of mounting calls for governments to adopt gender-responsive approaches to the pandemic, the Policy Portal finds little evidence that sex and gender have been considered in policies that directly impact people’s health outcomes,” it says.

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