International Women’s Day: Global, bipartisan, and absolutely necessary

11 March 2011

Written by: Suzannah Macbeth

International Women’s Day (IWD) often prompts widespread commentary and debate over the equality of women in Australian society.  This year was no exception.

To an extent this commentary has been bipartisan, with opinion on how to achieve the ideal of gender equality divided on both sides of the political spectrum.

On 891 ABC Adelaide, the Federal Minister for the Status of Women, Kate Ellis, referred to Australia’s ‘horrifying’ domestic violence statistics and pay inequity between men and women as just two of a number of issues that need to be addressed.

While the Governor-General, Quentin Bryce, and Shadow Treasurer, Joe Hockey, argued for quotas on the number of women in board positions, Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott, made it clear that Hockey’s position was personal opinion only and was not reflected by the Liberal party leadership. Prime Minister Julia Gillard stated that enforced quotas would be a last resort.

I attended an IWD luncheon at La Trobe University, where Historical and European Studies Professor Marilyn Lake spoke about the implications of the word ‘international’ in the term ‘International Women’s Day’. She pointed out that when asking what we have achieved in terms of women’s rights, we need to look beyond the status of women in Australian workplaces.

Professor Lake indicated that we need to be aware of what is happening outside our own borders, using Papua New Guinean women as an example. She cited a figure of 733 deaths in childbirth per 100,000 live births in Papua New Guinea, as opposed to the rate in Australia’s non-Indigenous population of 8 deaths per 100,000 (these figures were also cited by The Age columnist Jo Chandler).

Professor Lake said that we should also consider the conditions of women whose status as women is sometimes lost in their position in a racial or ethnic group; for example, women among the Muslim population in Melbourne, or the Indigenous population in the Northern Territory. In Australia’s Indigenous population, the rate of deaths in childbirth increases to 21.5 per 100,000 live births.

While we do recognise that progress has been made in women’s rights over the last century in Australia, one doesn’t have far to look to note all the spheres in which women do not yet have the support, opportunity, or access to basic services that they deserve.

IWD, along with similar days of recognition and celebration such as World Environment Day and World Refugee Day, serves an important purpose in bringing particular issues into focus around the world.

The dates of these days are established by the United Nations to ‘promote awareness of and action upon, important political, social, cultural, humanitarian or human rights issues,’ according to its website (although IWD was celebrated long before the UN formally recognised it).

The level of coverage given to IWD in the Australian media suggests that the day is serving its purpose in that respect by re-opening debate and drawing attention to issues that may not attract much interest throughout the rest of the year. Therein, however, lies the paradox of IWD: it is the day of the year that women’s issues come to the fore, often raising the same issues as on the previous IWD and highlighting that these issues are given less attention than they perhaps deserve for the remainder of the year. As Crikey blogger Shakira Hussein put it, ‘feminist struggle is starting to feel like Groundhog Day.’

At the conclusion of International Women’s Day, it seemed everybody agreed on one point — while we’ve come a long way, it’s not yet far enough.

And in other news…

Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s visit to the United States this week seemed to centre on the AFL and Vegemite during her meeting with President Barack Obama. It may have been a clichéd way of breaking the ice but it was apparently effective nonetheless, especially when followed up with Gillard’s well-tuned speech to a dual sitting of the US Congress.

Back home, debate about the carbon tax continued, with some commentators arguing that Labor should push ahead with what is clearly going to be a tough reform, while others were more concerned about whether or not Gillard’s plan constitutes the breaking of an election promise.

In Libya, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi remained defiant into the third week of violence in his divided country. The UN Security Council discussed the possibility of a no-fly zone to hamper Gaddafi’s ability to attack rebel forces, but no conclusion was reached and on Wednesday, Gaddafi’s air forces bombed a major oil facility.

Suzannah Marshall Macbeth is a Master of Global Communications student at La Trobe University.  Last year, she wrote her creative writing honours thesis on the lack of space in literature for female sailors.