Today is International Women’s Day — a day of reflection, questioning and hopefully, change. 24 hours in a year where a lucky few are afforded time, space and ears to condense messages of awareness concerning political, social, economic, domestic and sexual issues for women. These issues are boundless; their reach untold.
The theme for 2014’s International Women’s Day is “Inspiring Change”, something that we all hope will go beyond its blithe rhetoric and cement itself with some real significance. We need to do more than inspire. It begs the question, what tangible changes are happening around us here and now?
Australian women currently live in a limbo of untruthful messaging and cruel realities — consistently being told we are equal to men when it is blindingly obvious that this is not the case. Tony “Minister for Women” Abbott’s government’s approach to women’s issues is the most obvious of many blockers to progress here.
Speaking at an IWD event this week, the Prime Minister said, “It wasn’t so long ago as a Sydneysider that there was a female lord mayor, a female premier, a female prime minister, a female head of state in our governor general, a female monarch, obviously, and indeed the richest person in our country was female.”
This is all factually true, and befittingly phrased in the past tense. Things have indeed changed since that time not so long ago. And not necessarily in an inspiring way. The widely publicised lack of female representation in Abbott’s cabinet is a given — don’t let the carefully orchestrated seating plan and positioning of the House of Reps’ camera fool you — and a concerning one at that. But what, if anything, can we look to for the future in terms of meaningful (be it good or bad) change for Australian women?
Zoe’s Law, the controversial bill originally formulated by Christian Democratic MP Fred Nile, is sitting with NSW Parliament’s Upper House, albeit delayed due to not being introduced this week as expected. The bill seeks to acknowledge foetal rights in such a way that would essentially criminalise some abortions and throw the practice into legal chaos. It would mean that a foetus of 20 weeks or 400 grams cannot be harmed in any way, even including medical procedures such as caesareans. It’s possible women who smoke and drink during their pregnancy or even fail to comply with medical advice would risk prosecution. This is a horrific reflection of some extremist views of the status of women in our society, and could set a frightening precedent for women looking to conceive. This is the most unwelcome change we could ask for, being a direct attack on women’s reproductive rights and bodily autonomy.
On the other side of the coin, the Member for Goulburn, Pru Goward, last week introduced a domestic violence taskforce that will look to reducing NSW rates of domestic abuse and reforming the penalty system behind it. Sentencing for perpetrators will be re-examined and efforts will be made to reduce recidivism. Traditionally a “too-hard basket” area of reformation, according to Ms Goward, she laid the facts bare in Parliament, saying, “In the 12 weeks to September last year in this State alone there were more than 27,000 incidents of domestic violence. Domestic violence is the greatest cause of death and disability for women under the age of 40.” She went on to say, “Women in New South Wales have a right to be safe in their homes with their families. They have the right to live without fear of abuse, especially from those they love and trust.” This issue too relates directly to the rights of women and how entrenched social status of the sexes plays out behind closed doors. Such alarming statistics — in addition to the innumerable instances of domestic violence that go unreported — paint a picture that requires complete upheaval and deep-rooted change.
Intriguingly timed announcements by Abbott on his generous paid parental leave and Michaelia Cash (Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Women) stating that she is not a feminist aside, International Women’s Day should be a day of open discussion, not baiting and playing politics. The severity of issues facing Australian women, and what needs to be done to mitigate them, are bigger than that. We are bigger than that.
This is not only a day to put all our cards on the table, but, crucially, a day to have them paid attention to. It’s disheartening that this soapbox is only given to us —half the world’s population — once a year but we need to make it count if that’s the case; and then some. It’s up to us to continue these conversations until the next International Women’s Day, and the next, and the next, until the day itself becomes a relic of history. Until the changes to women’s lives outlined here are no longer questioned. Until we have unambiguous autonomy over our bodies and our daily lives. Until we are no longer an ancillary, inferior sex.