Aussie women: You think you’ve got it bad?
Today marks the hundredth anniversary of International Women’s Day. It is an occasion to celebrate the achievements of women, to reflect on how far women have progressed on the journey towards equality in the last century, but also to recognise that significant challenges remain, here and abroad.
The theme of this year’s International Women’s Day is “Female Leadership and Political Participation” and, on this score, Australia has much to celebrate. One hundred years ago, we were one of only three countries in the world that could boast women’s suffrage.
The significance of this achievement is evident when one reflects that Kuwait’s Parliament extended suffrage to women in 2005 and only then by a 35-23 vote, and in Saudi Arabia women are still deprived of voting rights.
In recent times, Australia has grown accustomed to female political leaders. We’ve had a female Governor General, and several female Premiers and State Governors.
We now have a female Prime Minister - a milestone which brought to my mind the following remark by Oona King, a former British Labour MP, who famously said of Margaret Thatcher “I didn’t care if Thatcher was the devil; it meant so much to me that I was growing up when two women – she and the Queen – were running the country.”
Australians should be proud of these achievements, but we must also recognise that there remain challenges to overcome. The incidence of violence against women and girls is all too common, with almost one in three Australian women experiencing some form of violence in their lifetime. I was heartened to see that the National Plan of Action for Violence Against Women was formally adopted at the most recent COAG meeting after nearly two years since its initial announcement and it is my sincere hope that it will have a significant impact.
Nevertheless, I am struck by how fortunate we are in Australia in so many other ways. The debates that have dominated the “women’s” agenda in recent times in Australia have centred on female representation on corporate boards and the appropriateness of quotas, on the gender pay gap, sexual harassment in the workplace or the specific design of a statutory paid parental leave scheme. While none of these issues is trivial, the concerns of women in many quarters of the world are so much graver.
In China, it is estimated that 39,000 baby girls die annually because parents do not accord them the same medical care and attention that boys receive. According to The New York Times a “bride burning” takes place approximately once every two hours in India. In the West African country of Niger a woman has a one in seven chance of dying in childbirth. In the United Arab Emirates, the Gulf News reports that husbands have a state sanctioned right to beat their wives in order to discipline them – “provided that the beating is not so severe as to damage her bones or deform her body.”
In Saudi Arabia, women cannot vote, drive, or show their faces or talk with male non-relatives in public. Some Saudi girls are allowed to go to school and attend university, but when they do they must sit in segregated rooms and watch their teachers on closed-circuit televisions. In the remaining Taliban strongholds of Afghanistan, women are still forced into marriages and denied a basic education. There have been reports of little girls poisoned to death for daring to go to school.
The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan reports that every day in that country two women are slain by male relatives seeking to avenge the family honour. So-called honour killings and forced marriages remain a distressingly common feature in many countries – even for some citizens of Western countries.
In the Asia-Pacific region, UN Women (the re-constituted UNIFEM) reports that there are countries that record some of the most horrendous statistics of violence against women in the world. For example in Papua New Guinea:
- 44 per cent of women have experienced sexual violence in relationships
- 55 per cent of women have been forced into sex against their will
- 58 per cent of women have experienced physical and emotional abuse in relationships.
It has been said that Western society, and Western feminism in particular, has been too reluctant to point out and too slow to condemn the plight of women outside the West for fear that any censure of anti-female practices would be seen as culturally insensitive.
A few years ago, Germaine Greer went so far as to argue that attempts to outlaw female genital mutilation were an attack on cultural identity and that “if an Ohio punk has the right to have her genitalia operated on, why has not the Somali woman the same right?” Clearly, Greer is either ignorant of or impervious to the purposes and consequences of female genital mutilation and the lack of choice for the young girls on whom it is inflicted.
No one has captured the folly of Greer’s position more eloquently than Roger Scruton. In an article in the December 2010 – January 2011 edition of the American Spectator, he states:
Once we distinguish race and culture, the way is open to acknowledge that not all cultures are equally admirable, and that not all cultures can exist comfortably side by side. It is culture, not nature, that tells a family that their daughter who has fallen in love outside the permitted circle must be killed, that girls must undergo genital mutilation if they are to be respectable…….You can read about these things and think that they belong to the pre-history of our world. But when suddenly they are happening in your midst, you are apt to wake up to the truth about the culture that advocates them. You are apt to say that is not our culture and it has no business here.
Countless studies have detailed the horrific consequences of genital mutilation, from severe infection to infertility. The World Health Organisation has found that genital mutilation doubles a woman’s risk of dying in childbirth and can increase by three to four times the chance that their child will be stillborn. And yet this archaic practice continues and is even defended by some Western feminists who shamefully fail to stand up for their sisters.
I raise these issues, as uncomfortable as they may be for some, because events like International Women’s Day must be about more than just acknowledging and celebrating the rights that we in the West enjoy.
They must focus attention and energy on ameliorating the condition of women internationally. We have achieved so much in promoting the status of women in this country; but it is incumbent on us to remember that the journey is not over and that in some countries it has only just begun.
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