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Australia: indigenous women left behind

Australia places violence against women high on the agenda but indigenous women left behind, says UN expert

GENEVA (03 March 2017) – The United Nations Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes, and consequences Dubravka Šimonović has called on the Government of Australia to take all necessary steps to ensure that all women in the country are included in its efforts to prevent and combat violence against women.
“Violence against women in Australia has recently been recognized as a pandemic by political leaders at the highest levels of Government. However despite the strong political will to address the issue, violence against women is disturbingly common in Australia” said the expert at the end of her first official visit* to the country.

Throughout her visit to different jurisdictions, the expert praised examples of good practice, such as the development of data collection on women’s killings, as well as relevant legislative and policy reforms, including the National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children 2010-2022 and initiatives related to prevention like ‘OUR WATCH’ project.

However, the Rapporteur identified issues of concern in relation to the overall protection of women from violence. “Women's human rights in Australia are protected in an incomplete, patchwork way in different States and Territories. The rights set out in the international human rights conventions like CEDAW (the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women) are not directly applicable and not fully incorporated into the national legal system, and the consequences are that those rights are not legally enforceable. There is a need to harmonize the legal framework with CEDAW and to strengthen the integration of human rights into laws and policies at every level of Government,” said Ms. Šimonović.

She further noted that domestic/family violence is one of the leading causes of homelessness in Australia and remarked: “It is essential that women escaping violence can access affordable and safe housing and that the barriers towards doing this are removed.”
The expert also highlighted that the current funding for services and civil society organizations providing support to female victims of violence is not sustainable and at risk of being cut further: “I call on the Government to provide the necessary funding to match the current and future needs of women who are seeking advice and assistance to protect their lives in line with its human rights obligations,” she said.

During her visit, Ms. Šimonović also noted with concern that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women are mostly left behind by general policies to tackle violence. Highlighting the institutional, systemic, multiple, intersecting forms of discrimination that these women face she also made clear that, in addition to sexism and racism, many women are victims of class-based discrimination due to their low socio-economic status, as well as social exclusion accentuated by their regional or remote geographical location. These factors manifest themselves in an alarmingly high prevalence of violence against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women who continue to experience higher rates of domestic and family violence and more severe forms of such violence as compared to other women. For example, they are 32 times more likely to be hospitalized because of domestic/family violence and up to 3.7 times more likely than other women to be victims of sexual violence.”

“I call upon the Government to consider widening the specific National Action plans on violence against indigenous women, with increased funding and to consider the adoption of specific empowerment measures including temporary special measures that would accelerate the advancement of indigenous women and allow them to break free of violence and abuse” the expert stated.
The Special Rapporteur also emphasized that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and girls have been the fastest growing prison population group across Australia. She expressed concern about their over-incarceration, prison-overcrowding, strip searching, solitary confinement, lack of any alternative to custodial sentences, in particular for women with dependent children, inappropriate access to health care and the inadequacy of re-entry programme to prevent reoffending.
"Most of the women I visited were incarcerated for minor, non-violent offences, such as stealing, fraud, and breaches of domestic violence orders. I am also concerned that women and girls on remand or pre-trial detention are held together with convicted women, which raises serious concerns under article 10 (2) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights” said the expert. In that regard, she called on the Government to act now and to review its policy of incarceration of women especially for unpaid fines, which has a disproportionate effect on the rates of imprisonment of Aboriginal women because of their economic and social disadvantage. The expert also urged the Government to apply the United Nations Rules for the Treatment of Women Prisoners and Non-custodial Measures for Women Offenders (the Bangkok Rules).
The Special Rapporteur is also concerned about the lack of adequate policies to protect vulnerable women and reports of asylum-seekers and refugees women and girls transferred temporarily to Australia on medical grounds, including women who have been raped, who are in onshore detention and face return to the Regional Processing Centre (RPC) in Nauru.
During her fifteen-day visit, the Special Rapporteur visited five out of the six state level governments (New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland, South Australia and Tasmania) as well as the Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory. The expert met with representatives of each Government, the relevant authorities and civil society organisations, as well as with UN officials. She also visited the women’s correctional facility in Brisbane and shelters in different locations.

(*) You can read the Special Rapporteur’s end-of-mission statement in full here:
Ms. Dubravka Šimonović (Croatia) was appointed as Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences by the UN Human Rights Council in June 2015, to recommend measures, ways and means, at the national, regional and international levels, to eliminate violence against women and its causes, and to remedy its consequences. Ms. Šimonović has been member of the CEDAW Committee from 2002 to 2014. She headed the Human Rights Department at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Croatia and was the Minister Plenipotentiary at the Permanent Mission of Croatia to the UN in New York. She was also Ambassador to the OSCE and UN in Vienna. She co-chaired the Ad hoc Committee (CAHVIO) of the Council of Europe that elaborated the Convention on Preventing and Combatting Violence against Women and Domestic Violence (Istanbul Convention).She has a PhD in Family Law and published books and articles on human rights and women’s rights.
The Special Rapporteurs are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures’ experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.
UN Human Rights, Country Page Australia

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