Australian ambassador discusses women's rights

The current Australian Ambassador for Women and Girls discusses fighting gender-based violence in the Indo-Pacific region, women in leadership roles, her personal experiences in Australian politics, and what advice she would give to future female leaders.

Installed as the Australian Ambassador for Women and Girls in 2013, Natasha Stott Despoja is no stranger to women’s rights.

Championing causes from women’s economic empowerment to ending gender inequalities in the Indo-Pacific region, she represents Australia at international conventions and summits on women’s rights and also founded Our Watch, an organization devoted to ending violence against women and children. The youngest woman to enter in the Australian parliament at the age of 26, she also served as the leader of the Australian Democrat party from 1995 to 2008 while championing bills that focused on women’s reproductive rights, genetic privacy, and paid maternity leave.

When asked about her current role as Australia’s Ambassador for Women and Girls, Ambassador Stott Despoja highlighted that the position seeks to both further women’s empowerment economically and politically, but also to support women who were being degraded through violence. She noted that they both stem from inequalities and quoted that 1 in 3 women will experience violence globally, while in Papua New Guinea and other Pacific countries rates of violence can be equal or higher. In her experience, these often stem from a lack of representation. In these same Pacific countries, she quoted, there is less than 5% representation of women in political roles, while in Australia representation is around 14%. By highlighting these inequalities, awareness and prevention measures can be taken. Such prevention and awareness measures can be done through a variety of initiatives through non-profits like Our Watch, legislation as pursued during her political career, and public-private partnerships or government initiatives.

The fight against inequality, however, must stem from an institutional and cultural level of change. One of the Ambassador’s main points is precisely that not enough women are in government in the first place, arguing that institutional bias can be felt all the way up to the highest political rungs and that old arguments about “merit” as cause for elected office or promotion demonstrate this bias. As a result, change needs to come from the top as well as the bottom. The Ambassador cites a particular example of a government initiative as a powerful case of government leading the charge. The former anti sex discrimination commissioner Elizabeth Broderick came up with the idea of champions of change, where men were encouraged to be supportive of women’s rights in a way similar to the UN’s HeforShe campaign. This initiative and partnership was later adopted by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade which set quotas to include more qualified women in government posts. These examples demonstrate the Ambassador’s point that a culture of support for women to succeed is critical. From male champions of change to women supporting other women, a culture of support for women is what her position seeks to create from a policy standpoint.

When asked why Ambassador Stott Despoja emphasizes women’s rights, she notes that her formation started early. Her mother instilled in her a need to assert her rights and educate herself- which allowed her to embrace a stronger formation at the University of Adelaide and start looking for a political career. Women in all kinds of leadership roles-even those that are not political-will contribute to a better understanding of the world around us. For the women of the future, her message of equality is clear. “Let’s celebrate being multi-faceted” she says “but don’t discriminate”.

Listen to the full interview here.

Read the full transcript here.