A woeful year for women

Let’s face it; 2016 has been a pretty shitty year for women at home and internationally. We have come so close, but are still so far from equality and sometimes, the closer you are, the more painful the absence feels. Then sometimes the gross violence is just sickening.

It started on shaky ground when three of finalists for Australian of the Year were all champions of gender equality: Liz Broderick, Cate McGregor and David Morrison. Then there was bitter disappointments when the Federal Government slashed funding for domestic violence services. Internationally, we have seen ongoing impunity for gross sexual violence in terrorism and armed conflict in the Middle East. The UN Security Council failed to select any one of a fine range of qualified and politically suitable female candidates for Secretary General, and voters in the US elected a misogynist rather than a women for president.

As we know, the Australian of the Year award was given to David Morrison whose primary efforts for gender equality were when he was the senior leader of a large, mixed gender workforce; the Australian Army. While militaries continue to be largely hyper-masculine organisations primarily made up of men (the Australian Defence Force comprises fifteen percent women and the Army twelve percent) he was none the less, employed and appropriately remunerated to lead the Army through the strategic challenges of the day. That leadership should most definitely include an organisational culture that treated women not just as equals worthy of respect, but as valuable contributors to the team.

So Australia’s most public civic recognition was not given to the trans woman who wrote the speech David Morrison is most famous for, nor the woman who developed and implemented the necessary change regime to bring about the required organisational culture for women in defence, but a very privileged, white, middle aged, military man who was already well paid and recognised for his work in the area.

David Morrison is a wonderful individual: a wonderful human being and a wonderful man. I have met him on several occasions and been impressed by his critical insight into gender issues and military culture. However, his recognition came at the cost of recognising a woman who has worked tirelessly on these issues her whole life, bringing about the most comprehensive and effective change regime needed to develop a respectful, just workplace rooted in equality. His recognition came at the expense of a ground-breaking trans woman who has struggled with a wide range of prejudices and spoken with a clear and articulate voice not just on issues of gender equality, but also in her chosen professional field: strategy and defence (and cricket, but that’s a separate issue).

These issues go to the key feminist criticism of the He For She movement. While men’s support for gender equality is vital and appreciated, it cannot come in the form of taking space and recognition from women. Male allies must champion gender equality side by side with women. Often that means they need to cede space to competent, clever and articulate women. They need to use their privilege, their agency, their platform to amplify the voice of those with less privilege.

After a year of Rosie Batty’s indefatigable campaigning on domestic violence, the Federal Government slashed funding to the community legal centres which largely help victims of family violence. These funding cuts came despite a report by the Productivity Commission showing every dollar invested in community legal centres saved the community $18 further down the line. Then, in repeated insults to community sector workers, campaigners and affected women, the government boasted about insufficient piecemeal funding rounds as ‘evidence’ to their support for “ending the scourge of domestic and family violence and sexual assault”.

It is thought that by the end of the year, 71 women died violently in Australia.  The most recent of those was a woman in her 30s, stabbed in the neck by a 40 year old man in the mediation room of a West Australian courthouse; a place where women and their children should be safe. Additional pressures this year mean that women are often staying or returning to unsafe situations, even if they have reported violence. Moo Baluch, chief executive of Domestic Violence NSW noted that “there are more people living one pay packet away from homelessness. Poverty and homelessness is growing – we know those things contribute to family violence.”

Internationally, we have seen the rise of a terrorist organisation that has used sexual violence in war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide, with seeming impunity. Gendered war crimes have been the hallmark of Da’esh who have kidnapped women, published entire doctrines on the use of sex slaves, and thrown LGBTQI people off rooftops for their sexuality. Even as western backed forces battled to retake Mosul, no consideration was given to the thousands of Yazidi women kidnapped and held captive by Da’esh as sex slaves. Activists believe more than 3000 Yazidi women remain captive today and demand justice, including operations to free those held captive. But so far, no one is responding to their pleas.

In October, the United Nations appointed its ninth Secretary General. Fifty-two nations had joined a campaign to ensure a woman was appointed to the position. Known as the #She4SG campaign, it kicked off in earnest in March 2015. Even the current Secretary General, Ban Ki-Moon, had said it was “high time” a woman was appointed to the role. A total of seven highly competent and qualified women were candidates at various points in a race that was unprecedented in its openness. But none of those women was appointed to the UN’s top job.

The position was given to a white man from Western Europe, exactly what the appointee was not supposed to be. Western Europe has more Secretary Generals than any other regional group. Eastern Europe has had none. Two exceptionally qualified and competent female candidates were nominated from that region. Much to the consternation of many, they were unsuccessful. If the position could have been filled by someone from outside Eastern Europe, there were a range of valuable female candidates from Latin America and it has been a long time since a Secretary General came from that region. If the post could be filled by someone from Western Europe, there a valuable candidate from our own region (still classified in the Western Europe grouping). Former Prime Minister of New Zealand, and current head of the UN’s development program, Helen Clarke, was the most popular candidate among UN staff.

The Security Council, who recommends the successful candidate for the General Assembly to approve, said that Antonio Guterres was the candidate who they felt most confident and familiar with. As head of the UN refugee agency, Guterres has often appeared before the Council. But the issues dealt with by other candidates, female candidates, who head different parts of the UN or international organisations, do not come before the Council. Which begs the question, is Guterres’ appointment any more than a very public product of the patriarchal ‘boys club’?

He will likely make an exceptional Secretary General, and has already taken great strides to fill his senior leadership team with strong, capable and diverse women. But we remain sorely overdue for a woman to lead the United Nations.

Last, but not least of course, is the presidential election in the US. Electoral data continues to trickle in, shedding light on who voted for whom. But a vast number of women in the US, and internationally, remain flabbergasted that rather than electing a women president, US voters chose to elect a man with pending fraud and rape charges who had publicly degraded women so often, so grossly and so broadly that it is thought his behaviour has been normalised.

Of course, the election was not run or decided solely on gender grounds. Arguments remain that Americans wanted a candidate who spoke to domestic economic issues. In a system of voluntary voting, people really only turn up to vote when they feel passionately about one candidate or the other. So, had the Democratic National Convention chosen Bernie Sanders as their candidate, the result may have been very different. While many campaigners were excited at the prospects of their first woman president, many of Bernie’s policies and speeches were far more progressive and supportive of women than Hillary’s. But in patriarchal system such as politics, it is because of her sex, that Hillary would have been unable to say many of the pro-women things that Bernie did.

And so, while 2016 was a terrible year for women, we now face 2017 with a US President who sexually objectifies his own daughter, has called for women to be punished for having abortions, shows scant regard for legal or respectful behaviour of men towards women, and has already sought advice on who works on global women’s issues in the State Department.

At home, we see backwards steps in paid parental leave, the key policy that can effectively shape the gender pay gap by encouraging men to take on more care work, and allowing women the flexibility of early child care without having to too much financial burden or to leave the workforce entirely and continue their drop down the career and pay ladder.

Good riddance to 2016, but we have our work cut out for us in the year ahead!

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