The Guardian October 4, 2000

Government signals continued discrimination against women

When Prime Minister Howard attended the Summit held at the opening of 
the UN General Assembly meeting early September, he refused to sign the 
optional protocol to the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of 
Discrimination Against Women. Many countries lined up at that time to sign 
and the required 10 countries have already ratified the protocol which will 
come into formal operation on December 22. But Howard stayed away!

The protocol gives the right to individual women and women's organisations 
to take cases of discrimination to the UN once opportunities for redress in 
their own countries have been exhausted.

The Convention on Discrimination Against Women incorporates the principles 
of the United Nations Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 
and other UN Conventions. The Howard Government uses the UN when it can be 
used against other countries that it does not like, but when UN principles 
are applied to Australia there is a different story.

By its refusal to sign and ratify the protocol the Government wants to 
snuff out any opportunity for those discriminated against to take a 
complaint to the UN. This, even though the protocol establishes that before 
a complaint is considered, the Committee must determine that all available 
domestic remedies have been exhausted.

Furthermore, the UN Committee will only consider a complaint from any 
country if the country has already become a party to the protocol. Where a 
complaint has been found admissible, the UN Committee will inform the 
government of the country concerned in confidence and provide an 
opportunity for the government to provide a written explanation or 
statement about the complaint.

In justifying its refusal to sign Howard claims that there are no 
significant wrongs to be righted in Australia and that Australia can look 
after its own human rights.

At the same time, the Government is ready to implement the policies decided 
by the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the World Trade 
Organisation  three international bodies that regularly make decisions 
which affect the economic and political life of the Australian people. The 
difference is that these bodies make decisions which the Government agrees 
with and supports while UN committees sometimes makes decisions that are 
critical of the Government's record.

The conclusion can only be drawn that behind the Government's arguments and 
actions lies a lack of commitment to women's equality and that future 
policies will further wind back the rights already won in past years.

For example, the cutbacks to child-care facilities are a severe blow to the 
opportunities for women to join the workforce. Arguments that women should 
stay at home and look after the family continue to be heard. In a number of 
fields, the rights and the economic status of women remain inferior to 
those of men. The disparity between wage rates has widened in recent years. 
Women are employed in sweatshop conditions in some industries. They 
continue to experience discrimination in a number of social fields even 
though most discriminatory laws have been removed.

The struggle for real and full equality in all fields has been a long one 
and it is not over yet. For centuries women were denied the vote. They 
could not publish books unless they used a male name. They were barred from 
all but the most menial work and were regarded as the chattel of men. Even 
when employment expanded, discrimination in wage rates prevailed. For 
employers it was a source of cheap labour. Women had few if any rights in 

Women's organisations of all political persuasions are in favour of the 
Federal Government signing the optional protocol and will be disappointed 
that the Howard Government has ignored their opinion.

This is yet another area in which the extremely conservative and 
reactionary outlook of the Howard Government is revealed. The Government's 
actions call for the strongest protest with the demand that the Government 
reverses its decision and signs up for the protocol together with the many 
other countries that have already signed.
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