When Natasha Stott Despoja was appointed Ambassador for Women and Girls in late 2013, a certain (now former) Financial Review columnist described the appointment as a ‘cynical piece of politics’, which would see the ‘leftie sweetheart touring the diplomatic cocktail circuit’.
How wrong he was. In the three years since, Stott Despoja’s made 45 country trips to 31 different countries, promoting three significant causes: an end to violence against women; the promotion of women in representative positions; and an increase in women’s economic power.
She’s launched around 30 policies or major funding announcements for Australian projects, and seen the brutality of violence against women and girls firsthand.
Speaking at the Lowy Institute in Sydney on Tuesday, Stott Despoja offered a snapshot of her time in the role, and what she believes needs to happen now for gender equality.
She said Australia is doing good work to promote gender equality internationally, and acknowledged the current government for setting a target that 80% of all international development work Australia participates in must address gender equality.
Still, she said Australia must do more.
And there is good economic reasons to do so. Stott Despoja cited a September 2015 Mckinsey report that found $12 trillion could be added to global GDP by 2025 if every country matched the rate of improvement of the fasted-improving country in their region. McKinsey’s “full potential scenario” finds that as much as $28 trillion or 26% could be added, in a world where women participate in the economy equally to men. Women’s economic empowerment particularly matters when you consider research that finds women reinvest 90% of their incomes back into the household, compared with 35% for men.
“Realising this potential begins with full and equal access to education for girls,” Stott Despoja said, adding that child marriage affects around 14 million girls every year and pregnancy is the leading cause of death for women aged 13 to 19.
Sharing examples of appalling violence against women and girls, she noted the use of rape as a tactic of war, trafficking, sexual violence against displaced women, kidnapping, and the daily horror of domestic and family violence.
“I say this to illustrate the fact that everywhere I’ve gone I’ve seen the affects of violence, the shame and the stigma,” she said.
She said Australia is providing legislative support and policy work to help change laws that can transforms lives, has founded a number of women’s shelters in the Pacific and is investing in prevention.
She also noted how Australia has helped to get more women elected into representative positions across the Pacific, particularly by helping to fund public awareness campaigns to counter stereotypes that politics is ‘men’s work’.
Stott Despoja said women’s representation matters and must be addressed at a time when just 22% of parliamentary positions are held by women. Better representation helps in resolving conflict through non-violent measures, negotiating peace agreements, and for promoting laws and reforms that benefit girls and women. Meanwhile, it also changes perceptions and ‘norms’ for girls regarding what a leader looks like and how women participate in such processes. She said two of the world’s five countries to still have no female parliamentarians are located in the Pacific.
She suggested Australia further support countries in our region using quotas to quickly boost their level of female representation.
“Quotas are a no brainer as far as I’m concerned,” she said. “This has to be a core component of the work we do on advocacy in development. ‘It [quotas] worked in Samoa, it worked in Vanuatu and in Bougainville where four women were recently elected. I just want women in there.
“These women are there. They are talented. They are ready.”
Asked by Women’s Agenda how we could promote quotas overseas when our own Parliament is still not equally represented, Stott Despoja noted her frustrated at the lack of change locally here. “I got into Parliament 21 years ago last week when it was 14% female. In 21 years I thought we’d be at parity for sure. I didn’t think we’d still be struggling.”
She said temporary quotas work. “It’s up to every minister, male or female, to make clear when dealing with their counterparts that it’s not acceptable to deal with countries that have no female members of parliament.
“Sometimes I feel the Pacific is invisible. We have a role to ensure that’s not the case, that the women of this region are reflected and represented.”
Stott Despoja said she’e well aware that there have been ‘skeptics’ about her taking on this role. But despite the predictions of some columnists, there hasn’t been a whole lot of cocktails – although she did attend a reception at the High Commissioner’s residence during her final trip to Vanuatu a couple of weeks ago, an opportunity, she said, to finally “live the dream”.