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Protecting women's rights

Protecting women's rights

As the keynote speaker for the biannual Lesbia Harford Oration, Lin Hatfield-Dodds (President of the Australian Council of Social Services, Director of Uniting Care Australia and Chair of the…

As the keynote speaker for the biannual Lesbia Harford Oration, Lin Hatfield-Dodds (President of the Australian Council of Social Services, Director of Uniting Care Australia and Chair of the Australian Capital Territory Community Inclusions Board) addressed the topic of Protecting Women's Rights with a focus on vulnerable women in Australia.

It's an enormous privilege and pleasure to be with you tonight, as we honour the significant achievements of Lesbia Harford. Given that this is a gathering of women focused on women's rights, I also want to acknowledge those who paved the way for a room full of professional women like us to gather to reflect on wielding our professional and personal power for the common good. Women like Mary Wollstonecraft, Simone de Beavoir, Emmeline Pankhurst, Susan Brownmiller, Andrea Dworkin, Susan Faludi, Marilyn French, Germaine Greer, Dale Spender, Margaret Atwood, and Miles Franklin. Illustrious company!

We gather tonight in light of the insights, passions and achievements of these and other strong women. But I think we all ought to be feeling more than a little outraged that the topic "protecting women's rights" is a relevant one in Australia in 2008.

We keep hearing that feminism is over, that all the battles have been won, that we women have achieved equality. And it's true - some giant strides have been taken.

We vote, we work, we run companies, head up political parties, mount expeditions to improbable parts of the world, achieve breakthroughs in science, and significantly shape the arts. But we are still the primary carers for our children (and increasingly our parents), we are more likely to be in casual or part-time than full-time work, we are less educated and are still paid less than men. And, let's face it, we are usually the glue that holds our household together.

This glue thing is important. I remember not long after becoming ACOSS President, wiping down my kitchen table after midnight having cooked and cleaned up after dinner, cleared emails I couldn't get to in business hours, supervised homework, fed the kids, the dog and the fish, and made the next day's school lunches, all before I sat down to review the papers for an ACOSS Board meeting in Sydney the next day. I live in Canberra. My partner, like me, travels a lot for work and was away so I was holding it together at home. While wiping the table I confess that I did a bit of muttering along the lines of "I bet Julian Disney or Michael Raper were never cleaning up their kitchens after midnight the night before a Board meeting...".

Don't tell me that the personal ain't political. What else is the political but the accumulation of the personal, the social? ...

I travel a lot and spend time in communities across Australia. My heart still breaks when I spend time with people who live in poverty and experience being locked out of mainstream life ... In spite of the economic boom we've just enjoyed, more than 1 in 10 Australians, many of them women, struggle to survive and make ends meet in the face of overwhelming daily disadvantage and exclusion. 1 in 10 is an appalling statistic in a country like ours.

What I want to put to you tonight, though, is the idea that there are broadly two tracks for women in Australia today. The first track is for women who are privileged and have many options before them - and most of us here tonight would fall into that category. We don't have to worry about shelter tonight, or whether our children's bellies will be growling with hunger. We can afford to visit a GP when required, and regular dental check-ups. We are educated, healthy and have a high degree of autonomy over our lives and the choices we make.

On the other track are women whose environment is characterised by lack rather than plenty. Women who struggle to live with dignity every day. Women living in locationally disadvantaged areas, where no-one has a job, who experience poor health, who worry constantly about safety and making ends meet.

I wonder what Lesbia Harford would think about these two classes of Australian women? I wonder what she, as a professional women, would say to us about our relationship with disadvantaged women. Luckily, I not only wondered, but committed my reflections to paper. ...

"I reckon that Lesbia would want us to

consider joining the dots between a

cognitive understanding of the

importance of justice and equity, of

the protection of women's rights,

and action. If not us, then who?

If not now, then when?"

I think that Lesbia would be delighted that this annual oration provides an opportunity for women lawyers in this state to gather to engage with the issues of significance to women. I am sure that if she was here now she would be agitating from the floor for collective action to close some of the gaps and address some of the inequities I've spoken about. She might challenge us about when we collectively stopped noticing those in our communities who are left out and missing out. She might ask us why we stopped agitating for fundamental social change that enables all women to live a decent life and claim their place in our communities.

I think that we can find the answer to some of Lesbia's putative questions in our constructs of the notion of rights. Different theorists speak of individual and group rights, of civil and political rights, of social, economic and cultural rights. Most progressive thinkers embrace an understanding of human rights that moves beyond an atomistic view of the person focused on individual liberties to a more communitarian framework in which the underpinning of human rights is communal.

If something is a right because every person has a right to it, then by nature such rights are communal, because the community ensures each member enjoys the same basic rights. Most of the economic, social and cultural rights by their nature are explicitly communal, such as the right to culture itself, and the right to freedom of association.

Most of the basic human rights address issues of people being excluded from communities. It is those who are marginalised who are most likely to be excluded from community through being denied access to housing, education, equal standing in the judicial system, and the ability to have a voice in how they are governed.

Women's rights, of course, are distinguished from broader human rights on the basis of the particularities of the exclusions and discriminations women experience. Women's rights issues include equal pay, paid maternity leave, autonomy in decision making about one's own body, and partnering and parenting rights.

I have a strong preference for the communitarian approach to rights, based on a more relational view of society. In the community sector, for example, we relate with those using our services not as isolated individuals, but as individuals-in-relationship. In using our services not as isolated individuals, but as individuals in relationship with others, with the environment, the economy, their communities. This understanding leads to a place where people identify with others, and on that basis protects the rights of others regardless of their own interests.

It implies that in politics and public debate people can speak from a values perspective, not only from self interest. With our relationally embedded sense of identity, women have a significant contribution to this perspective, here and around the world.

So, it's important that every Australian woman gets a fair go. It's important that we get it right on adequate and equitable welfare payments, on paid maternity leave, on access to quality childcare. That we ratify the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. That we ensure that every woman can access basic supports and services, including safe and affordable housing, and transport, health and education.

Protecting women's rights does not just confer benefits to women. Because of our "glue" role in our households and in the broader community, protecting women's rights builds the capacity and strength of the whole community. Efficient and effective!

I reckon that Lesbia would want us to consider joining the dots between a cognitive understanding of the importance of justice and equity, of the protection of women's rights, and action. If not us, then who? If not now, then when? Things will only get tougher for those most vulnerable as our economic situation worsens. Now is the time for we "first track" women to speak up, to act in pursuit of a fair go.

I don't want to live in an Australia in which it's ok that 11.2 per cent of the population is living in poverty. I don't want to live in an Australia in which over 100,000 people are homeless, where over 600,000 people are on public dental waiting lists, where our two million welfare recipients can't access the supports and services they need to get and keep a job while trying to survive on woefully inadequate payment levels.

I want to live in a country in which every citizen is valued. Where every person has the opportunity to participate in and contribute to their community. Where government takes a strong lead in delivering social justice and inclusion for all. Where diversity is celebrated. And where all of us, as citizens and women, do what we can we can where we can to make a difference.

I know that the word solidarity is deeply unfashionable. But I don't care. If feminism is to mean anything as we reform the remaining structural barriers for those women left out and missing out, then we need to reclaim the idea and act of solidarity. Those of us who are the haves must stand with those who are the have nots. We must create and hold safe spaces for the voiceless to speak and be heard. We must listen respectfully to the lived experience of disadvantaged women and use our own power and privilege to agitate for policy and legislative change.

Solidarity as a guiding principle can locate us firmly in the broad community of women, moving us beyond the notion of individual rights to embrace the communal construct of rights grounded in an understanding of society that we are all inter-related, and that all of us are better off when none of us fall behind.

You are here tonight as professional, gathered as a professional community. You understand how to influence systems and structures. You know about the getting and the wielding of power.

As we celebrate a century of women's suffrage, I urge you to use your personal and professional power for the common good. Let's work, where we are , with the tools we have, for justice and for hope, to transform Australian communities to be places of connection and belonging for everyone. Let's work and hope together for a fair and inclusive Australia in which all people have the resources and opportunities they need to reach their potential, and participate in and benefit from social and economic life.

As Margaret Mead famously said "People say to me that the actions of a few won't change the world. I tell you, it's the only thing that ever has."

The Lesbia Harford Oration is a biennial event on the Victorian Women Lawyers (VWL) calender. The oration is named after Victoria's Lesbia Harford. Lesbia was a champion of workers' rights and a pioneer of women in the legal profession. Lesbia wrote volumes of poetry, much of which articulated her concerns with the oppression of women and sexuality. This oration honours Lesbia's achievements by acknowledging our contemporaries who are contributing to our social fabric though their research, activism, questioning and their hard work in putting issues of equality on the agenda.

Lin Hatfield-Dodds was this year's keynote speaker for the oration on 29 October. Lin is the President of the Australian Council of Social Services, Director of Uniting Care Australia and Chair of the Australian Capital Territory Community Inclusions Board. She was the recipient of an International Women's Day Award in 2002 and is the 2008 ACT Australian of the Year.

The focus of Lin's keynote address was on Protecting Women's Rights with a focus on vulnerable women in Australia. This same theme is attributed to VWL's annual journal, Portia, which will be published in mid-November.

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