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Attacks against women a human rights issue: Gillian Triggs

Attacks against women a human rights issue: Gillian Triggs

By Karin Derkley

Advocacy Human Rights 


Professor Gillian Triggs knew attacks on her as the president of the Australian Human Rights Commission weren't necessarily personal, she told last week’s Women’s Legal Service breakfast.

"I realised I was just a conduit for one side of politics to attack the other side of politics. It wasn't about me - it was an ideological attack on the law."

But vicious and personal attacks on women in the public arena reflected a disrespect of women in Australian society more generally, she said at the event.

"I'm not saying women should be immune from public criticism, but the vicious and personal nature of those attacks suggests something deeper is at play."

"If at the political and public level you feel free to abuse women personally who are doing their job, that filters down to a licence to many within society to treat women with disrespect. And sadly we can also see that reflected in demeaning women and in physical violence against women."

The Women’s Legal Service breakfast is held to recognise the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women and to raise awareness among the legal profession of gender based violence.

The event was sponsored by the Colin Biggers & Paisley Foundation and Holmes List, as well as Hall & Wilcox, Holding Redlich and Lander & Rogers, with Ashurst, Baker McKenzie, DLA Piper, Gadens and King & Wood Mallesons also showing support to the cause.

It raised more than $13,000 for the Women’s Legal Service, which provides more than 3,000 women with expert legal advice and representation, education and capacity building programs each year.

Professor Triggs, who is now chair of Justice Connect, told the forum that the abuse of women had to be seen through the lens of human rights legislation. “Gender based violence is a serious violation of human rights law which poses a threat to human development as well as peace and security.”

Australia, which had played such a strong role in establishing the Declaration of Human Rights, especially under judge and former attorney general HV 'Doc' Evatt and human rights campaigner Jessie Street, had fallen far behind the rest of the world when it came to legislation protecting women’s rights, she said.

"It's hard to imagine now that Evatt was able to insist on embedding women's rights without a single negative vote in that cabinet."

Today, while Australia was still number one for educational attainment, we have slid down the list on all the other indices of gender equality according to the World Economic Forum, including number 48 for political empowerment and 42 for economic participation and wage equality, she pointed out.

"These are damaging and worrying statistics," she said. "I'm deeply concerned about Australia's isolation and exceptionalism when it comes to these legal principles. We are now the only democracy that doesn't have a federal charter of human rights legislation."

"We need to go back to relying on legal principles for women's rights as a matter of international law."

A lack of economic empowerment was of particular concern that contributed to the inability of women to escape situations of family violence, she said.

She praised the achievement of the Women’s Legal Service in its success with the Small Claims, Large Battles campaign that advocated directly to the Minister For Women Kelly O’Dwyer for reforms to help women escaping from family violence, including a simplified and streamlined small claims property process, and women’s ability to more easily access their former partner’s superannuation information.

But other measures announced by the Minister in her women’s economic security statement were still only a bandaid over a profound societal and systemic problem of inequality, Professor Triggs said.

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