UN calls for Australia to urgently decriminalise abortion and end offshore detention to improve women’s rights

UN calls for Australia to urgently decriminalise abortion and end offshore detention to improve women’s rights

The Australian Government has been urged to improve its track record on women’s rights overnight by an expert UN Committee on women’s rights.

The UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women made its criticism after a robust review earlier this month to assess Australia’s progress on ending discrimination against women.

The Committee called out the Australian Government for its cruelty towards women and girls seeking asylum and criticised the dire situation with offshore detention on Nauru. The Committee expressed its concern that the Australian Government “violates its obligations under international human rights and humanitarian laws, including by outsourcing offshore processing of refugee claims, transgressing non-refoulement obligations and separating families”.

The alarmingly high rates of women being siphoned into criminal justice systems and routinely strip searched was also under the spotlight, as was the criminalisation of abortion in a number of jurisdictions in Australia, and the treatment of LGBTI women and girls.

The Human Rights Law Centre attended the review to present the Committee with a report that highlights gaps in protections for women and girls.

Download report: Hear our voice: Equal rights for women and girls in Australia.

Refugee women and women seeking asylum

Women and girls who’ve sought asylum face mandatory and cruel indefinite detention on Nauru. The UN Committee expressed concern that women and girls seeking asylum in offshore detention are “[e]xposed to rape, sexual abuse and physical harm, perpetrated with impunity, by security guards, service providers, refugees and asylum seekers and by the local community in Nauru, and that women victims remain without access to justice”.

Freya Dinshaw, Senior Lawyer with the Human Rights Law Centre, said:

“It’s been five long, painful years. Women have been sexually assaulted. Children have been so traumatised that they have needed urgent psychiatric care. Nothing can justify indefinitely subjecting these women and girls to dangerous conditions in offshore refugee camps.”

The Australian Government continues to arbitrarily separate families as part of its offshore detention regime. Mothers and children in Nauru and Australia have been separated from husbands and fathers and other family members. Last night, the UN called for the Australian Government to “uphold the fundamental right to family unity”.

“The families who have been separated by Australia’s cynical offshore detention regime want what any family wants – to be together. The only thing stopping them from being reunited in safety is the Australian Government. Such deliberate and sustained cruelty to innocent human beings is fundamentally wrong.”

Women’s reproductive health rights

Since Australia was last reviewed by CEDAW, reproductive health laws have improved, with some states and territories removing abortion from criminal laws and enacting safe access zones around abortion clinics. However, the CEDAW Committee noted the “lack of harmonization in state and territory legislation on abortion, and the harassment and discrimination of women and girls seeking abortion”, to the detriment of women’s health.

Adrianne Walters, Senior Lawyer at the Human Rights Law Centre, said:

“For far too long, women have feared criminal prosecution, have been forced towards medically unsafe options, have had to travel interstate and have had to run a gauntlet of abuse just to see their doctor. All governments must end this disgraceful discrimination by decriminalising abortion and implementing safe access zones across the country.”

Stronger human rights protections

The Committee recommended that Australia adopt a federal Charter of Human Rights to fully incorporate the Convention into domestic law, and ensure equality for all Australians.

Lee Carnie, Senior Lawyer at the Human Rights Law Centre, said:

“Australia is the only Western liberal democracy without a Charter of Rights, or equivalent protection of rights. Every single woman and girl in our community should have their fundamental human rights to equality and dignity protected under law.”

LGBTI rights

The Human Rights Law Centre’s Hear Our Voice report highlights a number of human rights concerns, including the rights of lesbian, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer women and girls.

Lee Carnie, Senior Lawyer at the Human Rights Law Centre, said:

“Marriage equality was a welcome step forward, but we need to do more. The UN has demanded that Australian Governments address the high levels of discrimination lesbian, bisexual, and queer women and girls face through fairer anti-discrimination protections, inclusive health and education, and by tackling drivers for discrimination.”

“Transgender people face problems every day accessing services and facilities most Australians use without thinking twice, because their identity documents do not match who they are. State and territory governments still have a long way to go to improve access to identification, like birth certificates, so that trans and gender diverse Australians can have full equality. The UN is spot on, this is about the right to bodily integrity, autonomy and self-determination.”

The report also raised concerns about human rights issues experienced by intersex women and girls.

“Five years ago, a Senate Committee handed down its report on the involuntary and coerced sterilisation of intersex people. It’s time to implement these important recommendations to put an end to unnecessary surgeries performed on intersex children without their full and informed consent, and to provide appropriate counselling, support and redress.”

Fairer criminal justice systems

Women across Australia are being criminalised and forced into prisons at record rates. The CEDAW Committee was concerned at overcrowding in women’s prisons, “insufficient access to mental and physical health care” and strip searching in prisons.

Damaging and degrading practices within prisons, like strip searching, add to the trauma many women in prison have already suffered.

Ruth Barson, Director of Legal Advocacy with the Human Rights Law Centre, said:

“Australian governments must ensure women are treated fairly, equally and humanely by the justice system. But right now, mothers are being separated from their children, communities are being torn apart, and girls are being denied the opportunity to thrive, all because Australian governments are determined to push through punitive laws that unfairly target and trap women in the quicksand of the criminal justice system.”

Most women in prison are mothers who have experienced family and sexual violence. Despite this, women behind bars are forced to endure tens of thousands of degrading strip searches each year.

“There is absolutely no justification for repeatedly forcing a woman to remove every single item of her clothing in front of two strangers. Every single Australian government must introduce laws prohibiting routine strip searches.”

Background to the CEDAW review

The UN Committee on the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women is an international treaty adopted in 1979 by the UN General Assembly. In signing the treaty, Australia committed to taking all steps required under the treaty to eliminate discrimination against women and to being regularly reviewed by the Committee – a panel of experts on discrimination. Australia was last reviewed in 2010.

After the Committee finalises its concluding observations, the Australian Government has an obligation to take steps to ensure that all women and girls can enjoy the rights set out in the Convention.

For the priority issues identified by the Committee the Australian Government must report back to the Committee in 2 years about steps taken. For all other issues, the Australian Government must report back in 4 years for the Committee to monitor progress.

The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women’s Concluding Observations on Australia are available here.

Download report: Hear our voice: Equal rights for women and girls in Australia.

For further information please call:

Michelle Bennett, Director of Communications, Human Rights Law Centre, 0419 100 519