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Australia must do more to help women in our region

By Teresa Gambaro - posted Friday, 8 March 2013

Today is International Women's Day, but it seems a pity that a special day needs to be designated to focus greater awareness and action on an issue of such importance. Surely it is by now a well-settled truism that society prospers and flourishes best when women are properly valued for their insights, skills and vital contributions in building our communities and enriching our lives.

The 2013 theme for International Women's Day is 'A promise is a promise: Time for action to end domestic violence against women'. And while this is a laudable and non-negotiable clarion call for action, it is a source of regret to me that the domestic circumstances of too many women not just in Australia, but throughout the world, dictates that such action is necessary to highlight such a completely unacceptable dynamic.

Domestic violence against women is wrong. Any discussion in relation to domestic violence must always begin with an acknowledgment of this fact. Wherever and whenever it occurs, it is unacceptable, no matter who is the perpetrator, no matter who is the victim. Yet despite such universally, albeit uncomfortably, held sentiments, the reported level of domestic violence against women is disgraceful.


In Australia, one in four women has experienced or will experience physical and/or sexual violence from their husband or intimate partner. Domestic violence causes more ill health and premature death than any other risk factor for women aged between 15 and 44 years. And perhaps most disturbingly of all, every week two people, mostly women and children, lose their lives because of domestic violence.

These statistics provide cause for further alarm when the extent to which domestic violence is under-reported is also taken into account. For instance, according to ABS data, of females who experienced physical assault or sexual assault by a male, there was greatest reluctance to report incidents to police when the perpetrator was a current partner. Only 17 per cent of those physically assaulted by a current partner told police, compared with 24 per cent of those assaulted by a boyfriend or date and 61 per cent of those assaulted by a previous partner.

The scourge of domestic violence, however, is not a uniquely Australian problem. Violence against women and girls is a problem of pandemic proportions internationally as well. According to United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, up to 70 per cent of women will experience physical or sexual violence from men in their lifetime – the majority by husbands and intimate partners.

In my capacity as Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for International Development Assistance, I also get to see how Australia is helping countries address these issues under our foreign aid program. Again, the recurring theme is that more needs to be done.

For instance, a survey conducted in the Solomon Islands in 2009 found that 64 per cent of women experience physical and/or sexual violence from a partner. 73 per cent of those women believed a man was justified in beating his wife under certain circumstances, with the most common reason for not leaving a violent relationship being that violence was 'normal' or 'not serious.' In 2008, a survey conducted in Papua New Guinea (PNG) found that 67 per cent of women reported having been beaten by their husbands with 50 per cent of married women having experienced marital rape.

These appalling numbers are reflective of other key indicators for many countries in the Pacific, such as infant and maternal mortality rates. When one considers that infant mortality rates in Australia per 1,000 live births in 2011 were 3.8, the comparative figures of 14.1 in Fiji, 32.4 in Nauru, 44.8 in PNG, 16 in Samoa, 18.4 in the Solomon Islands and 13.2 in Tonga are simply horrifying. The statistics for maternal mortality ratio per 100,000 live births are equally disturbing. In comparison to the Australian ratio of 7 per 100,000 live births in 2010, Fiji reported 26, PNG 230, Samoa 100, the Solomon Islands 93 and Tonga 110.


Australia's foreign aid budget for 2012/13 is $5.2 billion. Of that, $1.1 billion is scheduled to be spent in PNG and the Pacific. The Gillard Government's hijacking of $375 million from the foreign aid budget (announced on 17 December 2011) will severely undermine Australia's ability to assist our near neighbours tackle the unholy trinity of domestic violence, and infant and maternal mortality. As yet, despite questioning from the Coalition in Senate Estimates in February this year, as well as repeated requests from the aid sector, there is no clear detail from the Government as to which of these programs will be cut or postponed.

On 29 August last year, Prime Minister Gillard promised our near neighbours that Australia would commit $320 million to the Pacific Women Shaping Pacific Development initiative. This commitment was meant to be funded by new money, however, its continuing status since the $375 million budget raid is unclear.

If we are serious about stopping domestic violence against women then we must maintain an unfaltering commitment that is consistently reflected in our domestic, as well as international foreign policy. It is only through such a commitment that alternate themes and priorities for International Women's Day in future years will be able to focus on something less shameful than domestic violence.

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About the Author

Teresa Gambaro is the Federal Member for Brisbane and Chair of the Joint Standing Committee for Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade.

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Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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