“Think what more our region would be if half the population wasn't so often held back.”
In her International Women’s Day speech earlier this year, Foreign Minister Penny Wong asked the audience the above, as she announced that Australia would be developing a new international gender equality strategy.
This isn’t entirely new ground. Australia’s current strategy was launched in 2016 by then-Foreign Minister Julie Bishop. But as many have pointed out, this new strategy will need to respond to a “more complex set of circumstances.”
But when the problem of gender inequality is so large, and the pathways to equality are so numerous and cross-cutting, how will the drafters of the new strategy navigate this? With this in mind, we asked three experts what they think is the one thing that should be guaranteed in the new strategy. Here’s what they said.
Too often still equality is equated with women’s vulnerability. The new International Gender Equality Strategy can take the next important step of embedding the understanding that gender is a relation of power.
It used to be enough to have a few programs supporting ‘women’s empowerment’ or to include a small funding line to ensure vulnerable women weren’t further disadvantaged. Australia now needs to recognise that equality requires a restructuring of our institutions, norms and relationships. Not all women are vulnerable, but we all suffer from unequal power relations - men as well as women and gender diverse people.
Done properly, this more sophisticated approach to gender equality in Australia’s international relations should have a cascading effect on how we do development and how we engage internationally. This approach is entirely consistent with the international development strategy priorities of localisation and partnership. Everyone working to advance Australia’s international relations needs to understand a central part of their role is to support equality amongst all people, to avoid using dominance as a way of getting things done.
This won’t happen by itself. It requires serious investment in capacity development of all practitioners in international relations, international development, and trade. It requires a different way of working. The Ministers have been asking for this different way of working. DFAT needs to take it seriously, recognise the central role equality plays in this change, and invest the time and money into understanding what delivering it will require.
Sally has thirty years of experience addressing gender equality and human rights issues both domestically and globally. She is one of Australia’s leading experts in the field. In a previous life she led the Australian Government’s Office for Women, was AusAID’s lead gender adviser and DFAT’s Principal Gender Specialist, and was Director of the Sex Discrimination Unit at Australia’s Human Rights Commission. More recently, Sally was the Chief Executive Officer at CARE Australia. At the Lab, we admire her deep commitment to social justice, her elevation of other voices, and her tireless work ethic.
Gender equality is nearly three centuries away. My great, great, great, great niece might be born into a world that is more equitable; although it is difficult to conceive. For those of us working to end violence against women and girls, it didn’t take the UN Secretary General’s speech earlier this year to know that hard won progress was ‘vanishing before our eyes.’ Violence is a manifestation of inequity, and gender-based violence is one of the most pervasive human rights violations in the world. We work hard, and we find success – however, to increase our impact and reverse the decline, we must recognise that Australian international development organisations are only a small part of the solution.
Who has seen INGOs come and go, and come again? Who will still be there when the international community shifts focus? Who understands the local context? Who is deeply linked to the community’s needs, strengths and opportunities? Civil Society Organisations (CSOs).
CSOs that are women-led are recognised as key to achieving gender equity and the Sustainable Development Goals. They are leaders and catalysts for change in their own communities. A commitment to locally-led, decolonised development has been made clearly and loudly by the Australian international development sector. This isn’t something we can framework, train or tick-box our way out of. There is no moral waiver here; just because we think we are doing the right thing, just because we feel we are part of the solution and not the problem doesn’t mean that we are.
The new Development Policy has earmarked a CSO fund; a great first step. The new Gender Strategy should go one step further, and quarantine 80% of this fund towards women-led, local CSOs. Money is power – hand it over.
Lauren is the CEO of FemiliPNG Australia, working in partnership with local and international organisations to prevent and respond to family and sexual violence in Papua New Guinea. She has a long history working in the Pacific, including with NGO Motivation Australia in various roles - including as the Programme Director for a number of years. The Lab looks to Lauren for her deep knowledge of both gender-based violence prevention and disability issues, and we value her commitment to truly supporting locally led development.
The new gender strategy must guarantee an inclusive feminist approach to peace. We need a much broader vision of peace that goes beyond the current securitised and militarised conceptions. Peace needs to be seen as gendered, relational, connected to social justice, creating inclusive intersectional structural equality, building sustainable ecosystems, community-driven, and built on the freedom of choice. Inclusive and intersectional gender equality cannot be achieved if we don’t recognise the coexistence of simultaneous forms of oppression perpetuated by broader systems of power (neo-colonialism and neoliberalism).
As Agnieszka Fal-Dutra Santos so eloquently articulates, “[for diverse] women and sexual and gender minorities, violence experienced during conflict is intimately connected to violence and oppression experienced in the private sphere and forms a continuum that extends from war to peacetime.” And as the brilliant Cynthia Enloe in ‘Twelve Feminist Lessons of War’ points out, we ignore women’s narratives of war and its aftermath at our own peril.
If the Women, Peace and Security project is to reduce and/or end wars, then the new gender strategy must reimagine peace - unequivocally embracing an inclusive feminist future where there are fewer weapons and therefore fewer wars. This gender strategy must make the achievement of gender equality the central goal of Australia’s foreign policy.
Anu is a powerful advocate for women’s empowerment and gender equality. She is a seasoned professional in all things international development, with deep expertise in gender and race research, capacity development, women’s representation and policymaking in the Indo-Pacific. Anu’s diverse experience across the development and humanitarian sectors including both not-for-profit and government is highly valued at the Lab. We rely on her critical feminist thinking approach to guide gender-conscious development.