In Conversation With Natasha Stott Despoja AM
27 February 2018 at 8:39 am
Natasha Stott Despoja AM is the founding chair of Our Watch, the former Australian UN Ambassador for women and girls and a former leader of the Australian Democrats.
As the ambassador, Stott Despoja visited 45 countries around the world between December 2013 and 2016 to promote women’s economic empowerment, leadership and an end to violence against women and girls internationally.
She was made a Global Leader for Tomorrow by the World Economic Forum in 2001.
And in 2011 she was made a Member of the Order of Australia for her service to the Australian Parliament, education and as a role model for women.
She is set to speak at the upcoming Women of the World (WOW) at Festival 2018, held from 6 to 8 April in Brisbane as part of the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games (GC2018).
The festival will see 100 local and international speakers come together to celebrate the achievements of women and girls across the Commonwealth, and have frank discussions about the barriers preventing women from reaching their full potential, and identify solutions.
Stott Despoja will be leading the conversation around ending gender-based and sexual violence.
Here she talks to Pro Bono News about the true picture of gender based violence across the Commonwealth, the legal and cultural solutions to the issue and the dawn of a new era.
What is the true picture of gender-based violence across the Commonwealth?
The global picture of gender-based violence is an appalling one: a third of women and girls have been abused, assaulted or coerced into sex in some way.
The statistics in our region are even more concerning. Up to 90 per cent of women in some parts of PNG, for example, have experienced some form of violence. Many of these countries in our region are Commonwealth members, which is why the focus on eliminating violence against women and girls must be a priority for the Commonwealth as well as for Australia.
On the positive side, there is life-changing work going on in many of these places and it is good to see the Commonwealth with a renewed focus on these issues.
What are the biggest challenges facing gender equality?
We know that having more women in positions of power, including in decision-making institutions such as the Parliament, leads to policies and laws that, ultimately, better address the issues affecting women and children.
Without increased representation and greater diversity reflected in these institutions, it is hard to progress gender equality. We need broad-ranging change, including in business, the media, defence, and even on the sporting field. The scourge of violence against women and children is one of the greatest issues affecting our world. But other issues, such as the economic empowerment of women, the education of girls, and the participation of women and girls (their agency) in leadership roles and in their communities is also critical and they are all interlinked.
As Australia’s Ambassador for Women and Girls, I saw some of the best and worst aspects of humanity during my tenure. I witnessed abject poverty, horrendous violence and abuse as well as infant and maternal ill health and high mortality rates. However, I also saw how the work of organisations and governments, as well as inspiring individuals such as Malala Yousafzai, can change the world.
I am proud that Australia’s foreign policy puts gender equality as a central feature and that we are one of very few countries that have a target that 80 per cent of all our international development work must address gender equality.
A girl in South Sudan is more likely to die in childbirth than she is to finish primary school, yet even one more year of schooling can change a country’s GDP by 1 per cent and can add an extra 10 per cent to a woman’s eventual annual earnings. This means we need to redouble our efforts when it comes to foreign aid and international development work. Not because Australia is necessarily a world leader when it comes to gender equality in our own country, but because we have a responsibility to be good global citizens.
Do you think society accepts there is an inextricable link between gender inequality and violence against women?
Increasingly, the community is making this link and understanding this nexus. However, it is hard. I don’t think we have always understood that the effect of inequality is so harmful and that gender-based violence is the most heinous manifestation of this inequality.
Society has often explained away male violence against women and children: excuses such as addiction, alcohol, temper, stress, poverty etc have been employed to explain violence. While some of these factors compound the situation, they are not causal factors only. We know that gender inequality is at the core of gender-based violence but we also know that gender equality is at the heart of the solution. This is good news. It shows that gender-based violence is preventable. It is not easy though: it may take generations and it requires a multi-layered approach to education in all the settings where we work, learn, live and play. This is the vital work of Our Watch: our focus is primary prevention, stopping the violence before it occurs.
It has been said that there is a pattern in rape culture that suggests women have a past, while men have a potential. Do you agree with this? What is the impact of this?
There is no doubt this is true. Our culture and community, including the media and individuals, have perpetuated a culture of victim blaming. We know that our legal system — indeed systems all over the world — have allowed this approach. It is only recently in some quarters where a woman’s past is deemed irrelevant for the purposes of sexual assault cases.
But this is rare and in few jurisdictions. Our Watch’s research also shows that we still hold victim blaming attitudes, this includes among young people. So we require broad based cultural changes, as well as specific legal changes that correct this imbalance.
What impact has the tide of the #MeToo movement had on raising the issue?
This movement is symbolic and substantial. There is no doubt the campaign has encouraged many women and survivors to speak out. It has also seen real impact in terms of exposing abusers and harassers. I’m a lifelong advocate of support networks for women: I grew up in the women’s movement, so anything that unites us and sees us supporting each other is positive.
The #MeToo movement is global and it is life changing. Now I hope it will have a flow on effect with laws, decision making institutions, more respectful relationships and a general expansion of women’s agency.
Earlier this year Oprah Winfrey said we are seeing the dawn of a new era. Do you believe this is true?
There’s no doubt that the way we discuss these issues and address them is changing. The movement, built on made decades of the work of the women’s movement, has ushered in a new era. How this translates into legislative and policy change as well as greater empowerment of women and girls is yet to be seen but I am confident that it will have an impact.
Where are the legal and cultural solutions to the issue of gender-based violence?
Legislative and cultural change go hand in hand: we need strong, robust and comprehensive laws to stop gender-based violence. We need a shake up of our powerful and representative institutions in terms of reflecting and representing our diversity and difference. We need more women in positions of power — we can’t be what we can’t see — and we need men who embrace diversity and reject the hyper masculine notions of gender.
What role do men have to play in the solution?
We all have a role to play. We want all men to engage in and promote relationships that are respectful. We need male leaders to share power and ensure their countries/businesses/organisations are respectful and fair. Men – as bystanders – are critical.
As former Australian of the Year and former Chief of Army LG David Morrison says “the standard you walk by, is the standard you accept”.
What are you hoping the audience will gain from the session at WOW at Festival 2018?
I am excited to spend time with people who are committed to a violence free society and world.
At WOW at Festival 2018, I hope we will address ways in which our communities can end this heinous [abuse] of human rights. The Framework for the Prevention of Violence Against Women, pioneered by Our Watch, should be adopted by countries around the world.
I am proud it has been embraced by the Australian community. It is part of our national action plan for the elimination of violence against women and their children. This doesn’t mean that governments have adopted all the processes required to ensure this becomes a reality, but it is an important first step.
The issues of violence and equality are so interlinked. I hope to see change on all levels and I believe the discussions and events at the Women of the World Festival will be an important part of this process.