HUMAN RIGHTS DAY, 10/12/2016


Another world is not only possible, she is on her way.
On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.

- Arundhati Roy, Indian novelist, essayist and activist, Confronting Empire


Human Rights Day[i] commemorates the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, and marks the culmination of the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence. It reminds us that gender-based violence is a violation of human rights, and that for many women, LGBTQI people, and many others, equal rights are far from being a reality.

2016 has been a divisive year for human rights. It has been a year in which many public debates —such as those around sexual violence, abortion, marriage equality, Indigenous rights, online safety, sexism in the media, bullying and homophobia in schools, just to name a few — have been characterised by misogyny, bigotry and patriarchal privilege.

The United States presidential election last month highlighted the ongoing volatility of human rights within political discourse, and the distance we have yet to cover to achieve gender equality within the highest rungs of global power. Here in Australia, ‘locker room banter’ continues to perpetuate rape culture and the condoning of violence against women. We saw it in Trump’s outlook on women, in Eddie McGuire’s attitude toward Caroline Wilson, and we saw it in the Magistrate’s comments on the Zane Alchin Tinder case, likening online sexual abuse and consent to “a game of football in which everyone had consented ‘to a few bumps’”.[ii]

These debates have reminded women that, still, our bodies are not our own. We often don’t have the power to choose when or how we fall pregnant and give birth, how we are spoken to or about on social media, or whether or not we are groped and “grabbed by the pussy”.

That women’s rights are not yet adequately protected here in Australia is hardly surprising given the results of the recent federal election. Malcolm Turnbull’s government has the lowest female representation in two decades,[iii] with only 13 women on government benches in the House of Representatives, compared with 63 men. That’s 17% of Coalition seats occupied by women, which could only be described as representative if Australia was also 17% female. Achieving equal political participation will be a fundamental step towards ensuring women’s rights are reflected in pay parity, family violence leave provisions, and in necessary legislative reforms to prevent online sexual violence.

2016 has also shown us the potentially transformative impact of collective struggles for human rights. In Turkey, a proposed bill that would pardon men convicted of sex with underage girls if they married them was withdrawn following public opposition.[iv] In Poland, the denial of women’s reproductive rights by an attempted ban on abortion was similarly undermined by mass protests and a global online petition.[v] In the days following the US election, we saw an outpouring of love, support and solidarity, reminding us that we can choose to grow stronger in the face of outright sexism, misogyny, and racism.

Human rights were an important theme for many of the activists, researchers and creatives who participated in our campaign for the 16 Days of Activism. Many of the stories shared through The Equality Conversation highlighted the importance of human rights in the fight for transformative change. They have also demonstrated that human rights mean many different things to different people. They can invoke a sense of safety and security, of belonging to a broader community, or of the disjuncture between ‘men’s rights’ and ‘women’s rights’ in many contexts.

Women’s rights have provided a call to action for Noha Barradah and other women in Saudi Arabia through the #StopEnslavingSaudiWomen campaign, that challenges the Saudi government to end the guardianship system and grant women full citizenship. For Rajathi Salma and her nephew Wassim Akram, working to promote women’s rights has, in itself, been a transformative process, fostering greater respect in their relationship and in their wider family. Shona Chapman and Lee-anne Daley discussed the intersecting forms of inequality that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples continue to face in Australia, and the importance of supporting strong community responses to family violence.

A point that comes through clearly from the stories in The Equality Conversation is that all of us hope to contribute to a world in which our work is no longer needed. This means working towards equality for everyone, not just in terms of gender or sexuality, by engaging everyone in the conversation. We see the strength that comes from collective action, and recognise that everyone has a right to be heard.

Human Rights Day reminds us all to take a stand for rights and to reaffirm our common humanity. We all have a role to play in challenging inequality, and creating a world in which respect for everyone’s rights, their bodies, and their voices, prevails.