On Monday, the United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, Dubravka Šimonović, wrapped up her 15 day visit to Australia with a press conference at the UN Information Centre in Canberra. She shared her preliminary conclusions on the state of violence against women in Australia. During her visit, Ms Šimonović focussed on the systemic causes of gender-based violence against women and the situation of women who encounter multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination and violence, such as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women, women with disabilities, migrant and refugee women, and women from remote or rural communities.

During her visit, the Special Rapporteur met with Government representatives at the federal, state and territorial level, the legislative and judicial branches, the National Human Rights Commission and various rights commissioners, as well as representatives from civil society. Ms Šimonović also visited different parts of the country to assess laws, policies and services to prevent and combat gender-based violence and met with survivors of violence.

Although the Special Rapporteur acknowledged that the publicity of violence against women in Australia has recently translated into a number of new policies and programs, and that prevention appears to be a high priority for the Turnbull Government, she also cited many key concerns around Australia’s approach to prevention and response services.

Firstly, although Australia has signed The Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), there are still two reservations on the convention in relation to paid parental leave and the employment of women in combat or combat related positions in the defence force. Ms Šimonović has called on the Government to properly address these issues.

Further, although Australia is a democratic nation, there is no comprehensive constitutional or legal protection of human rights at the federal level. Ms Šimonović further noted that there is no nationally recognised and agreed upon definition of family violence or domestic violence. Overall, she pointed out that there is a lack of harmonisation, and that women’s rights are protected in an incomplete way across different states and territories. In this respect, it was recommended that CEDAW should be fully incorporated at the federal and state levels.

On the National Action Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children 2010-2022, Ms Šimonović commented that while it shows commitment, it lacks a holistic approach to violence prevention. Instead, Australia would benefit more from having a national framework on violence against women.

Furthermore, homeless shelters and other services need more funding and should be focussed on empowerment measures to increase women’s skills, and should aim to break the cycle of violence. The budget also needs to be revised in order for more comprehensive policies to be implemented.

Ms Šimonović had very specific concerns regarding Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. She noted that Indigenous women are 34 times more likely to require hospital treatment as a result of domestic violence and are up to 3.7 times more likely to experience sexual abuse. Indigenous women also face institutional, intersecting, systemic, and multiple forms of discrimination, as well as sexism and racism, and class-based discrimination and socio-economic exclusion. Ms Šimonović criticised the lack of consultation with communities in developing programs to address violence against women, calling on the Government to better include Indigenous populations in policy and program development, into government offices (especially the police force), and other departments where Indigenous peoples are disproportionally represented, such as in prisons.

Ms Šimonović was especially critical of the overrepresentation of Indigenous women in prisons, overcrowding, strip searches, lack of custodial services, solitary confinement, insufficient services for women in prison with children, and the lack of programs offered to women to prevent re-offending. Women and girls that are being held on remand and pre-trial detention not being separated is also an issue. Ms Šimonović has called on the Government to examine and revise the laws and the legal framework that together with socio-economic disadvantage, contribute to the over-representation of Indigenous women in prisons. 

Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers and refugees was also criticised. In particular, Ms Šimonović voiced concerns over the serious reports of sexual assault and rape and the lack of investigation, the forced return of women to Nauru after being hospitalised in Australia, and the poor access to medical facilities. The Special Rapporteur also criticised the fact that access to services for migrant women is dependent on their visa status.

Overall, the Special Rapporteur found that there are many positive activities and policies in Australia around violence prevention. She commended the work of Our Watch, highlighting the need for these initiatives to be carried across sectors to ensure a holistic approach to prevention, and urged the Federal Government to provide the necessary funding to achieve these goals.