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third periodic report

The following report has been prepared by the Coalition of Australian Participating Organizations of Women (CAPOW), a group of national women's organizations. The newest Australian Government report was not available during the time these NGOs prepared their report. Therefore, CAPOW has said it plans to submit additional information to CEDAW when the Australian report becomes available.

Organizations participating in CAPOW include:

IWRAW recently received a copy of the report to CEDAW from the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom of Australia. Its main points support the information contained in the report sent by CAPOW. For this reason we have not summarised it here.

[the following text from CAPOW has been edited only for clarity and brevity. Footnotes have been deleted. CAPOW has sent the full text of their report directly to CEDAW. ed.]




The principle of equality for men and women is not embodied in Australia's constitution, though NGOs continue to urge the government to take such measures. It has not implemented the recommendation of the Law Reform Commission on this point.

Federal legislation prohibiting discrimination on the grounds of sex, pregnancy and marital status contain a number of exemptions. These include:


Sex Discrimination Commissioner

The federal government, elected in 1996, has announced its intention to make significant changes to the human rights regime in Australia. Among these changes is a proposal to amend the Sex Discrimination Act of 1984 and abolish the specialist position of Sex Discrimination Commissioner (which is required under the Sex Discrimination Act 1984) within the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission. NGOs are concerned that proposals to abolish the position are an attempt to downgrade the importance of human rights legislation pertaining to women, and they are concerned about the potential effects of the loss of a dedicated specialist to deal with the implementation of the Sex Discrimination Act.

Budget cuts to the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC) will result in a loss of thirty to forty staff members and significantly affect HREOC's capacity to administer human rights legislation, including the Sex Discrimination Act.

Legislation prohibiting sex discrimination applies to employment, education, the provision of goods and services, accomodation, land, clubs and the administration of Commonwealth laws and programmes. The Sex Discrimination Act of 1984 does not apply more broadly and there is no avenue for redress of discrimination against women that does not fall into one of these areas. For example, the Act does not require the equal representation of women in Parliament or in political parties.

The Office of the Status of Women

The Office of the Status of Women (OSW), which has the important role of providing policy advice to government, was singled out for a thirty-eight percent cut in its 1996 budget, a far higher cut than that imposed on other areas of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet. The government has also closed OSW's register of women interested in being appointed to government positions, and in the 1997/98 budget, funding for NGOs through the Women's Grants Programme (to enable women's organizations to participate effectively in public debate and policy development) has been halved.

In previous years, the Office of the Status of Women has made a substantial contribution internationally, but under the current government it has not been represented at:

Also, the Office of the Status of Women has previously been linked with a number of focal points various government departments. One of these, concerned with gender and curriculum issues in the Department of Employment, Education, Training and Youth Affairs, has disappeared, and the last issue of its newsletter appeared in June 1996.

NGOs are greatly concerned that gains made over the past two decades are being seriously eroded and that women's access to government decision-making is being severely restricted.


The Affirmative Action Act of 1986 requires companies, higher education institutions, group training companies and trade unions with one hundred or more employees to implement affirmative action programmes for women and report on these annually to the Affirmative Action Agency. The only sanction available under the Act was that companies failing to report to the Agency be named in Parliament and be unable to tender for government contracts. In 1996 the federal government abolished compulsory reporting after a period of satisfactory reporting. This obviously weakens what little power the Act had to promote compliance through the force of public scrutiny.

NGOs are not satisfied that these changes are in the best interests of Australian women workers. The objectives of the Affirmative Action Act have not yet been achieved. Women do not yet have equality of opportunity and treatment in the workplace. Women's share of managerial jobs remains woefully low, and the Australian workforce remains highly gender segregated.


Violence against women

Australian women live within a culture that condones violence against women.

The federal government has cancelled funding for the Australian Institute of Criminology's four year project to establish the accurate levels of violence against women, after a preliminary report (at the end of the first year) showed a lack of consistency between the states in collecting information on domestic violence. The project was to have established a national database of domestic violence orders, in order to protect women across different jurisdictions.

Media portrayal of women

Between 1986 and 1993 the Australian Government made progressive steps toward addressing sex role stereotypes and promoting positive images of women through extensive consultation, research and the establishment of the National Working Party on the Portrayal of Women in the Media. This activity ceased in 1993 and no area of government has taken responsibility for these issues since that time.

The introduction of legislation in 1995 precipitated the collapse of the system regulating advertising standards. NGOs are concerned that the government is currently in the process of allowing an industry owned system to be implemented which reduces consumer rights and access, and contains no sanctions. The demonstrated need for a more effective response to stereotyping has been denied.


The government has taken measures to deal with the trafficking of women for prostitution from countries such as Thailand, which include immediate deportation of the women. This practice discriminates against the women by singling them out for punishment, and prevents them from giving evidence against the individuals who have exploited them. NGOs believe there is a need for safe refuge and support for these women to ensure their rights are upheld.


Australia is holding a Constitutional Convention in the lead-up to the centenary of our Federation. The government has failed to ensure that the Bill to establish the Constitutional Convention mandate equal representation for women in both appointed and elected delegate categories, and has framed it so that it acts to ensure a preponderance of men.

Although women's representation in the federal Parliament is relatively high as a result of the landslide 1996 election, the federal and state governments have made only token efforts to involve women in decision-making, either in elected office or in appointments to government statutory authorities, boards and committees, nor have they made any effort to have women appointed to the boards of corporations, even though the lack of women in decision making positions is evident in national statistics:

EMPLOYMENT - Convention Article 11

The Workplace Relations Act 1996 undermines the collectively based award system which has contributed so much to Australia's relatively good performance on pay equity. Research shows that increased levels of decentralization in the industrial system are associated with large male/female earnings gaps. Women's highest level of pay equity with men was achieved in 1991 prior to the commencement of decentralization of industrial relations. There is a lot of data on increasing income dispersion and the widening gap between cost of living and wage income, including work by the National Centre for Social and Economic Modelling.

The Act introduces individual contracts (Australian Workplace Agreements - AWA) which are to be kept secret. The transparency regarding pay and benefits which is essential for achieving pay equity will be further obstructed. Individual contracts will disadvantage weaker groups in the workforce and will be used to reduce employment entitlements over time as new agreements are reached with more recently engaged workers.

There is a much weaker set of protections and vetting and review of agreements under the new legislation than under the previous system of vetting by the Australian Industrial Relations Commission (AIRC). This individualized system will result in much less consistency and equity in industrial arrangements.

Trade unions cannot be involved in proceedings about approval of individual workplace agreements even where these are being used to undermine terms and conditions in particular industries, occupations or workplaces. Union rights of entry to workplaces to check compliance do not apply in relation to AWAs.

Minimum standards have been reduced considerably. There is now a restricted set of conditions which can be included in an award (even by agreement of the industrial parties). For example, occupational health and safety, sexual harassment, equal employment opportunity and training, are not listed as allowable award matters. The limitation on award matters also restricts the scope of matters which can be the subject of industrial disputes and hence can be brought before the AIRC to resolve. The award based "no disadvantage" test of whether a proposed enterprise agreement disadvantaged employees who would be covered by it by comparison with all the terms and conditions of the award (the test was formerly administered by the AIRC) has been replaced by a test of whether there is an overall reduction of an employees's own individual terms and conditions. There is no requirement for discrimination issues to be addressed in the workplace agreements.

The legislation specifically prohibits setting limits on the proportion of employees in particular types of employment (e.g. casual work) or on the maximum or minimum hours for part time workers. These provisions will contribute to further deregulation of employment in the female dominated jobs. Women are now more likely to work very short shifts and be subject to considerable pressure by employers to meet their needs. There is evidence that new workplace agreements seem generally to favour male working patterns and not those of women or other workers with domestic responsibilities. NGOs consider that these changes are not unintended consequences but appear intentional, and women's working conditions at the lower levels are likely to deteriorate even further.

Consultation requirements specifically in relation to women and other industrially vulnerable groups were included in previous legislation and have now been abolished.

The Act significantly increases the burden on individual women of recognizing and enforcing on an individual basis and at their own expense their employment rights at a time when legal aid funding is being cut.

Filing fees and costs awards have been introduced in relation to unjust dismissal claims which will reduce women's prospects of taking action to obtain remedies.

Provision of free legal assistance by the Employment Advocate is discretionary to "where the Employment Advocate considers this would promote enforcement of the provisions of the Act."

The current trend in Australia of reducing the size of the public sector through the competitive tendering and contracting out of services has detrimental impact on women in the workforce since women often work in the ancillary and support services which are often the first target for contracting out. Contracting out is often a strategy to achieve savings by reducing terms and conditions of employment, and this then affects women in those jobs.

International conventions

Whereas the previous legislation had ILO Conventions scheduled to it, the Workplace Relations Act does not. The federal government has on several occasions attacked measures to make international conventions count in Australian law and practice.

The Australian government has not become a signatory to the International Labour Convention and Recommendation on Outworkers, yet Australia employs between 90,000 and 300,000 outworkers, of whom ninety-five percent are migrant women.

Migrant women

Migrant women experienced nearly double the unemployment rate compared to Australian women in February 1997.

Maternity leave

Australia has a reservation to CEDAW, as it does not have paid maternity leave. The maternity allowance introduced by the previous government is too small and covers too brief a period of leave to meet international standards.


Despite extensive anti-discrimination and human rights legislation and complaints systems, there are still many complaints about workplace discrimination, particularly from younger women complaining about harassment and lesbian women about general discrimination.

The current federal government cuts in areas related to human rights has signalled to the community that it is against 'political correctness.' This failure to condemn harassment and other forms of discriminatory behaviour has left many women in the workplace feeling much less protected.

Child care

Australia has had an enviable child care system. A rapidly expanding centre-based care service has allowed a substantial proportion of Australian children to have reasonable quality child care at affordable cost. In two budgets, the current federal government has substantialy cut its contibution to funding such services. Costs of services have risen substantially and pressure is on to reduce staffing costs by using fewer or less qualified staff. Higher fees have already resulted in parents withdrawing children from care. The emphasis has almost entirely shifted from government involvement in the services themselves to a voucher-type subsidy for fees.

Children and mothers from low income housholds do not have access to good quality services. This also presents special problems for children in Aboriginal, non-English speaking and disabled families.

Access to pre-school and after school care for children with disabilities has also been seriously eroded by government budget cuts.


While Australia has good health services overall, including successful programmes such as breast cancer screening and the pap register, women have limited access to preventative health programmes and services. Lower income women have poorer health than others and continue to be missed in screening programmes. The Vietnamese community has a high incidence of cervical cancer. There are few specialised health services targeting ethnic community groups.

Despite extensive government and independent reports recommending a shift toward women-centred care during pregnancy, childbirth and in the postnatal period, women in Australia still have limited access to this type of care. The Australian health system is based entirely on the medical model and women are persuaded to accept the medical view. It is difficult for women to get information on homebirth, for example. Independent midwifery is difficult to access because it is not encouraged or supported in Australia. There are no health rebates for this type of care and no legal protection for the midwives or the mothers.

The Government has cut funding to Family Planning Australia by ten percent over 1996-1998 and has restricted the importation of abortion drug RU486. It has also cut $3.5 million in funding for family planning programmes run by the U.N.


The federal Attorney-General's Department has proposed a model criminal code to cover every state in Australia. The model proposes that abortion be entrenched in Australian law as a crime and that the conditions for allowing abortion be more restrictive than is currently the case in at least three states. The committee making these recommendations did not engage in any prior consultations.

Since the acceptance of the Beijing Plan of Action, the Australian government has not begun in any meaningful way to involve women in decision-making, and its failure to include women in the recent actions it has proposed or taken concerning abortion is a case in point.

Indigenous women

Indigenous women generally prefer to be cared for by other women, and lack of available health professionals in many regions results in late starts to antenatal care and infrequent visits. There is a shortage of trained aboriginal health workers. The aboriginal foetal death rate in 1991-93 was more than double the rate for other babies, and the proportion of low birthweight infants is more than twice as high.


Sport and recreation remains primarily a male domain. Women remain underrepresented in all decison-making positions. The sport and recreation environment is not always safe or accessible for women, and women are not adequately recognized or represented. Young women do not have the same opportunities for participation and development as young men, and there are increasing health concerns facing women in sport and recreation.



From March 1997, migrants will have to wait two years from arrival to receive social security benefits, incuding unemployment benefits, sickness allowance, youth training, seniors card and health care card. Women will be disproportionately disadvantaged, as they and those they care for are more reliant on social security benefits than men.


Lesbians do not share equal rights with othe women in Recognition of same sex relationships in the law, with regard to superannuation, with regard to medical decisions in the case of a seriously ill partner, and in recognition of their wills.

RURAL WOMEN - Convention Article 14

In 1996, funding was cut from the government health care budget. This has particularly affected women in the remote areas of Australia, who have little or no access to adequate health care facilities, counselling and family planning. The vast distances, lack of public transport and extreme poverty of many women and children in these areas, in particular Aboriginal women, make it almost impossible for them to travel to urban areas for these services.

Increasing urbanisation in Australia has led to rapid shrinking of the rural sector, and severe cuts in rural infrastructure. Government has achieved budgetary savings by cutting basic services in rural areas. The occasional projects introduced for rural women are so rare that they only serve to highlight the lack of services for the majority of rural women.

Living conditions, such as housing, sanitation, electricity and water, transport and communication in remote areas of Australia are well below urban norms. Many Aboriginal communities live in conditions which have been classed as third world. This is reflected in some of the highest mortality rates in the world, and a life expectancy twenty five years less than the Australian standard. The ongoing privatisation of previously public utilities is exacerbating this problem.

EQUALITY BEFORE THE LAW - Convention Article 15

Women are often more disadvantaged than men in regard to access to legal information and advice. The government has severely cut funding for the Legal Aid Commission, which provides a number of services to women. Among other things, this has resulted in a reduction in the budget of the Women's Legal Resources Centre and the Domestic Violence Advocacy Centre, telephone help lines and community legal education seminars on women's rights. NGOs are concerned that these cuts will substantially reduce access to justice for women, including the availability of legal assistance for victims of domestic violence and access to compensation from the Victim's Compensation Tribunal.



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