Break the Bias

Women in Australia have been fighting for the right to equal pay since early this century. The principle of equal pay for equal work was recognised in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. Since then, women’s right to equal remuneration has gained increasing international support. Australian women workers were granted equal pay in 1969.

Twenty years ago, ten years ago, five years ago, I kept thinking well at least my granddaughters will not have to fight for equal pay and respect like I did. But that simply isn’t true. Despite laws against pay inequality, those same battles continue to be fought.

I spent most of my working life in Perth – except for a decade in Hong Kong where amazingly I faced no discrimination and always received equal pay. But here in Western Australia, the gender pay gap is the largest in Australia at 21.9%, with men earning approximately $23,000 more over the course of a year than women. Western Australia is followed by Queensland and then NSW as the states with the next highest pay gaps. 

I am so angry about this situation. We have to keep talking about the gender pay gap and bringing it into the open. When I discuss this with most of the men I know, they are appalled… they simply don’t know.

I tried to think of some positives for this week’s International Women’s Day and there are many.  Young women have once again found their voices led by Grace Tame and Brittany Higgins. If you didn’t hear the joint address by these two young women at the National Press Club early in February, I urge you to take 30 minutes to listen to it. 

I hope we see the change they are so passionately advocating for reflected in a change of Federal government at the coming elections. If ever there was a government with a tin ear about women and women’s issues, it’s this one. 

The #metoo movement has developed into a strong force in discussions around the world. So much for those who said it was a fad!  I know many women (myself included) who signed up to support #metoo about their experiences of discrimination in the workplace and we are still a powerful cohort for change. 

Personally, I will keep advocating and writing for women everywhere.

Enough is enough.

Human Rights Day

Human Rights Day is observed every year on 10 December – the day on which the United Nations General Assembly adopted, in 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

As the chair of the United Nations Human Rights Commission, Eleanor Roosevelt was the driving force in creating the 1948 charter of liberties which will always be her legacy: The Universal Declaration of Human Rights. She made an insightful speech that is still as relevant today as it was then. 

“Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home — so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world…Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.”

This year’s theme relates to ‘Equality’ and Article 1 of the UDHR – “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.

My thoughts this year are with friends in Afghanistan and Burma whose human rights continue to suffer under harsh regimes.  

But I am also thinking about the fact that here in Australia, Aboriginal and Torres Straits Islander people still suffer in many instances from a lack of human rights.

This day is also the last day of the international campaign 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence, which calls for the prevention and elimination of violence against women and girls.

In other areas, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought the world to a major crossroads: either we take the route of collective action and address the pervasive inequalities that have risen across the globe, or we continue on the route filled with deep-rooted injustices and pervasive inequalities.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights empowers us all. The principles enshrined in the Declaration are as relevant today as they were in 1948. We need to stand up for our own rights and those of others. We can take action in our own daily lives, to uphold the rights that protect us all and thereby promote respect among all human beings.

I found this link to the United Nations exhibits on human rights. There are some extraordinary images from talented amateur and professional photographers from exhibitions for the general public that have been showcased over the years at United Nations Headquarters.  Something to think about.

Australia must do more

The Australian government has made much of its assistance to Afghan refugees claiming it has already accepted 3,000 refugees from the country. What they don’t say is that the 3,000 is simply a part of our existing humanitarian intake of just 13,750 places. 

We have done nothing extra to help a country and its people in crisis. Nothing.

The Refugee Council of Australia is calling on the Australian Government to provide an additional 20,000 humanitarian visas to refugees from Afghanistan in its new brief

What’s the scale of the problem? At the beginning of 2021, 2.6 million citizens of Afghanistan were refugees, 239,000 were seeking asylum and 2.9 million were internally displaced. The Taliban’s takeover of the country, culminating in the capture of Kabul in August 2021, is resulting in ever-increasing displacement. By September 2021, UNHCR had reported 22,120 newly arrived refugees in neighbouring countries and 592,531 people internally displaced since January 2021.

Many more people in Afghanistan are yet to be displaced but fear for their lives because of their work as women’s rights activists, human rights defenders, government officials or staff employed by embassies or western armed forces or because of their religion, ethnicity, or sexual orientation.

For a personal view read the story written anonymously for the Guardian newspaper by a young woman in Kabul who was burning and hiding all her educational certificates in fear of the Taliban. 

So as an affluent and safe country, Australia must do more. Helping just 3,000 people is not enough. The Refugee Council is lobbying the government to accept 20,000 refugees. We have done it before when we assisted Chinese Vietnamese and Syrian and Iraqi refugees in crisis. 

We have a long relationship with Afghanistan. Over 20 years, Australia deployed 39,000 defence personnel to Afghanistan at a cost of $10 billion and spent $1.9 billion on projects to support women’s empowerment, human rights, education, health, and good governance. 

We can’t just sit by and let all our excellent work disappear under the hands of the Taliban. We need to step up and match the work done by other countries around the world.

Accepting 3,000 refugees is not enough.

Celebrating a Centenary

PEN was one of the world’s first non-governmental organisations and amongst the first international bodies advocating for human rights. It was the first worldwide association of writers, and the first organisation to point out that freedom of expression and literature are inseparable – a principle PEN continues to champion today.  

PEN International began in London in 1921, a hundred years ago. Within four years there were 25 PEN Centres in Europe, and by 1931 there were several Centres in South America as well as China.

As the world grew darker just before the outbreak of war in 1939, PEN member Centres included Argentina, Australia, Bolivia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Egypt, India, Iraq, Japan, Mexico, New Zealand, Palestine, Uruguay, the US and others. All the Scandinavian countries were included as well as several countries in Eastern Europe. Basque, Catalan and Yiddish Centres were represented, too.

Today with 155 centres in more than 100 countries, PEN acts to preserve endangered languages, support translation, protect the freedom to write, and expand the space for writers worldwide in the belief that literature can build communities.

Words without Borders, a wonderful organisation, is celebrating the PEN Centenary with some excellent new fiction. Written by Words Without Borders contributors who have ties to PEN centres in three countries, the stories from Nazlı Karabıyıkoğlu (Turkey), Kettly Mars (Haiti), and Mohamed Magani (Algeria), with translations by Ralph Hubbell, Nathan H. Dize and Edward Gauvin, make some great reading! You can find the stories on the Words without Borders Website

Check out your local PEN chapter around the world and get involved. Click here for the Perth Chapter

We could have done better

During the two decades in which Australia was ensnared in an unwinnable war after trailing the US into Afghanistan, successive Australian leaders like Julia Gillard, Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull all spoke reassuringly about how they would not desert the Afghans.

However, this is exactly what we have done.

Afghan friends following the unfolding drama in their former homes can’t believe that after all the fighting, after everything they and their families went through the Taliban is back. Violence, discrimination and persecution of women and young girls has returned. 

The Taliban is stronger right now than at any time since the US invasion. The United Nations reports record civilian casualties. In recent weeks, the militants have stepped up offensive in key cities Lashkar Gah, Kandahar, Kunduz and Herat.

This is critical. The Taliban has strongholds in rural areas but taking back cities is a decisive change potentially tipping the balance of power in its favour. Foreign Policy magazine this week said: 

“The urban offensives also have demographic implications. If the Taliban seize cities, the insurgents would bring an even more sizeable share of the population under their control.”

Australian journalist Stan Grant who worked as a foreign correspondent in Pakistan and Afghanistan has written thoughtfully about the issue based on his experiences

In 2014, former Australian Army Colonel and defence strategist for US General David Petraeus and Security Advisor to Condoleezza Rice, David Kilcullen, forecast exactly what is now happening in Afghanistan. “The worst-case scenario is not that ISIS and al-Qaeda continue to be rivals, it’s that they pal up. You end up with a precipitated withdrawal from Afghanistan, creating space for the Taliban to come back, just like ISIS did in Iraq.”

Kilcullen continues to write about the situation.

I pictured an Australian soldier today, back from extended tours of duty in the Middle East, watching the news on television. The hard-fought battles to defeat the Taliban in places like Uruzgan province and to then improve security and assist villagers re-build their lives, must have seemed a complete waste of time. The country seemed to be back where they had started from. Right in front of them on the screen all the good work that he or she thought they had done, was unravelling in fast moving pictures. 

Several years ago, at the Byron Bay Writers Festival, I interviewed Major General John Cantwell, Commander of Australian Forces in Afghanistan in 2010, and I asked him was the effort by Australian, and allied forces, worth it? What had we achieved in Afghanistan? Was it worth all the lives that had been lost? Cantwell answered that even though such comments seemed disrespectful to a life-time soldier, steeped in a sense of duty and service, he had to answer, “No. It wasn’t worth it.”

The whole mess has been summed up in the Guardian Australia by writers Paul Daley and Ben Doherty as a tragic and wasted opportunity. 

We could have done more. 

We could have done better. 

We’ve let the people of Afghanistan down.

Ageism is a Global Challenge

According to a recent United Nations Report ageism is a global challenge. 

Every second person in the world is believed to hold ageist attitudes. This leads to poorer physical and mental health and reduced quality of life for older persons as well as costing societies billions of dollars each year.

If you are over fifty and reading this, the concept will not be news to you. In established Western societies being ignored or being unable to find a job are often the reality for people over fifty, particularly if you are a woman. 

My colleague, Liz Byrski, wrote a really thoughtful book called Getting on: some thoughts on women and ageing. She writes: “once past fifty, older women begin to sense that they have become invisible. From visual displays in the mall to the pages of magazines and television screens at the heart of our home, young women with perfect skin, bouncy, enhanced breasts, pouting lips, long straight hair and perfect teeth gaze down on us.”

But the UN report on ageism also highlights the challenges for more vulnerable people during the COVID 19.  “The pandemic has put into stark relief the vulnerabilities of older people, especially the most marginalised, who often face overlapping discrimination and barriers.”   This refers to those who live in poverty, those with disabilities, who live alone or belong to minority groups. Women from a refugee background who live in refugee camps are particularly hard hit.

Ageism costs our societies billions of dollars. The discrimination means people of the older generation are not getting the care they require physically and mentally.  And as Liz writes the ageing population is traditionally viewed as a problem – a drain on financial resources, health, housing and community services. She argues that living longer and living well are the triumphs of a civilised society. We must do more to include people as they age.

Estimates in Australia suggest that if 5% more of people aged 55 or older were employed there would be a positive impact of AUD $48 billion on the national economy annually.

“Ageism harms everyone – old and young. But often it is so widespread and accepted that will do not recognise its detrimental effect on our dignity and rights”.

Micelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human rights

We need to fight ageism head-on as a deep-rooted human rights violation.