With the ACT election just around the corner, we decided to venture out to interview the women’s representatives from the three main political parties to find out what they think about gender.

There were a number of things we wanted to find out: first of all, do they believe that gender matters, and if so, why? Secondly, what do they see as some of the current key issues facing women in the ACT? Finally, we wanted to have them share their vision for gender equality, and outline how their parties will work towards that.

The result of our interviews with Meredith Hunter MLA (ACT Greens spokesperson for women), Vicki Dunne MLA (ACT Liberals spokesperson for women), and Joy Burch MLA (Minister for Women, ACT Labor) is three very different articles, and three different visions for the futures of ACT’s women.

In this election special you will also find a summary of the ACT Disability Advocacy Network (ACTDAN) Election Forum on Disability from Nicole O’Callaghan from Women With Disabilities ACT (WWDACT).

To begin you will find WCHM’s position statement for the ACT election—please feel free to raise these issues with your candidates in the upcoming election.

ACT 2012 Election: WCHM’s Priority Issues

Marcia Williams, WCHM Executive Director

The ACT Legislative Assembly Elections will be held on 20 October 2012. The Women’s Centre for Health Matters is seeking a commitment from all political parties and candidates to the following issues which matter for women in the ACT.

Maintaining gender/women specific services: At WCHM our focus on a social determinants approach to women’s health and wellbeing is about recognising and acknowledging the differences between women and men, and ensuring that services and approaches are sensitive to gender. In some cases this means that there is a need for specific gender specialist services. Because some groups of women experience greater marginalisation and isolation and have particular experiences as a result of being female, there is a need to recognise and respect a woman’s right to choose a women-only service where their needs are unlikely to be met by generic services. But with the current focus of Governments on reducing costs, and an environment where larger private sector organisations are competing against specialist services for a greater share of funding for the delivery of services, there is a trend towards gender neutral approaches to service and the provision of mixed sex services. As a consequence of this focus on efficiency, The ACT needs to make sure that quality and responsiveness of services are not lost and recognise that specialist providers of gender-specific services will still be required to respond to vulnerable women with particular needs and to supplement what ‘generalist’ mainstream services can do.

Improved focus on gender disaggregated data and impact statements: Gender disaggregated data is important for identifying the different and/or similar needs of men and women in relation to things such as access to services and the impacts of policies. The Parliamentary Agreement between ACT Labour and ACT Greens committed to the phasing in of gender impact statements and gender disaggregated data associated with ACT Government legislation, policies, budget and annual reports by 2010. While some minor progress has been made, WCHM’s experience is that this data is still not routinely built in to new policies and programs, and is not reported on regularly. Also the Women’s Electoral Lobby ACT in its Full Picture report assessed the progress made by the ACT administration between 2008 and 2012 toward the gender equality commitments and found that gender assessment of Budget decisions remains inadequate, and that insufficient consideration is given to gender in the design of programs, in the assessment criteria for ACT Government tenders, and in the requirements placed on agencies that deliver services with ACT Government funds.

Increased focus on the prevention of violence against women: Violence against women, its causes and impacts are gendered. It contributes to women’s marginalisation and isolation and, while violence against women affects the lives of many different women, factors such as Aboriginality, age, sexuality, ethnicity and disability contribute to the risk of family violence. Women in these groups may also face barriers to appropriate support or services when they experience domestic or family violence. The ACT Prevention of Violence against Women and Children Strategy 2011-2017, called Our Responsibility: Ending Violence Against Women and Children, was launched last year. The Strategy aims to prevent violence against women both inside and outside their homes and to reduce the number of children exposed to violence against their mothers and other female carers. Given the dominance of domestic and family violence as the primary cause for women of homelessness and a higher risk of health problems, approaches must be developed in the ACT that bring together specialist and mainstream services—as well as policy and practice.

Addressing the needs of women in the criminal justice system: At any given time, the AMC and Bimberi are home to a small (but fluctuating) number of women. In comparison to the wider male prisoner population, they are a very small minority. This means that services and infrastructure are not designed with women’s needs in mind, and that women have restricted access to prison programs given the need to maintain gender segregation. The impacts of current AMC practices on the smaller population of women and their access to appropriate health services, trauma informed counselling, rehabilitation, education and training need to be addressed so that the women’s post-release prospects and health are improved, their barriers to re-entry minimised and their prospects of relapse and recidivism reduced.

Adopt a whole of Government approach to the social determinants of women’s health and wellbeing needs: ACT women’s lives are different from those of men and each woman’s life circumstances impact upon her health. Overall, women have less financial security, but more responsibility for caring for others. These differences also affect women’s health, their use of the health care system and other services, and depends on supportive work, home and community environments, and services that are sensitive to women’s needs. Health inequalities exist in the ACT and some women are unable to access or afford the services they need, or are unable to find a service that understands the context of their lives or their past experiences. Creating good health in the ACT for women means acting on the social determinants of health—the factors, conditions, actions and environments that shape health, but which lie outside the health care system. A greater focus on including key areas of the social determinants such as transport, housing, urban planning and sport and recreation in the design, planning and implementation of women’s health policy and services needs to be adopted in the ACT. This also requires a ‘whole of government’ response to policy and funding for programs and services across the ACT in order to design approaches to ensure that women are able to fully participate in all aspects of life in the ACT.

 Green light for gender equality

Annelise Roberts, WCHM Community Development Worker

I spoke with Meredith Hunter, Member for Ginninderra and ACT Greens’ spokesperson for women, about what she sees as some of the critical issues for ACT women in the lead-up to October’s election. No surprises here—gender inequity is very clearly on the Greens’ agenda and our conversation was predictable in that sense. Given that the Greens have one ear to the community sector, it was also unsurprising (and very pleasing) that our conversation followed very closely the contours of WCHM’s own pro-choice values and vision.

First up, the Greens see increasing female leadership and representation, legislating to protect women’s right to make choices about their life course without risking disadvantage, and embedding economic equality as key to creating positive change in the lives of Australian women. As Ms Hunter commented, being a woman is still a determinant of disadvantage: “We still know that there are less women who are heading up organisations, who are on company boards, less women in politics … We know that a lot of women are still the primary care givers, whether it’s for children, ageing parents.”

To illustrate the Greens’ response to these issues, Ms Hunter named their support for the recent community sector pay equity case. While she acknowledges that the case will make a real difference to the lives of the sector’s predominantly female workforce, and to the future of the sector itself, she is cautious about celebrating too soon: “Another issue for many working women in the community sector particularly is that although the pay equity case covered many areas, it didn’t cover child care, it didn’t cover aged care.”

Ms Hunter showed the same restraint in noting that, in spite of our female Prime Minister, there continues to be a lack of female representation in leadership and decision-making roles across all sectors and all parts of the community. This, she argues, is a real barrier to genuine gender equality. Ms Hunter suggested that it is partly attributable to inflexible models of parenting and unsupportive workplace environments. “Women have barriers that they can’t get around because they choose to have children, basically. There is an issue there around taking time out to have children or working part-time while your children are younger or whatever.” She thinks that can be addressed by “placing greater value and ensuring there’s no barriers for the other parent to also take on those [parenting] responsibilities”—in other words, ensuring through legislation that there is the capacity for people to have “real shared parenting” without having to risk economic and social disadvantage.

Some of Ms Hunter’s ideas are ones that persistently get voiced in the community sector, as services and organisations struggle to deliver outcomes in a landscape where funding is tight and data is scarce. The Greens’ 2008 parliamentary agreement with Labor included a mandate to improve the collection of sex-disaggregated data across the public service, alongside compulsory ‘gender impact analysis’, as part of the ACT Government’s new triple-bottom-line reporting mechanisms, “to make sure that policies and programs are actually meeting the needs of women.” Ms Hunter also wants to see better data on violence against women, an issue which she identifies as another priority: “Is there a gap in our research around ‘what works’? What works with changing perpetrator behaviour? What works to embed that culture? … Men have to play a role in this as well … but we do need to make sure that our services that are out there are being properly funded and supported.” This is music to the ears of community organisations working on this issue who, although able to diagnose emerging issues in the community, lack the resources to conduct full-scale research of the kind that would allow for really targeted measures and services.

Speaking of targeted services, Ms Hunter also expressed great cynicism about the recent youth homelessness sector reforms which led to the closure of the ACT’s only women-specific youth refuge, Lowanna. “I think we’ve lost a fantastic service, one that was doing really, really great work with a whole bunch of young women but also had the expertise around Indigenous young women as well. … So I think there’s a lot of work to do there in building trust and a respectful relationship [between Government and the community sector] that I think hasn’t really been happening. … If we are in that position after this election, we will be doing the work to look at how we can re-open that service.”

Finally, Ms Hunter named access to healthcare and funding for health prevention as other key issues for women in the ACT, although she was unspecific about what this will look like: “Of course we need to have that acute crisis end, but there’s a lot more we believe can be done in the preventative health area.” Ms Hunter also mentioned that the Greens are currently investigating claims that Calvary Hospital has been withholding supply of emergency contraception to women who have been sexually assaulted—an issue about women’s access to an appropriate standard of public healthcare and advice that WCHM will watch with great interest.

All in all, with the tone of this week’s public debate on misogyny, it’s encouraging to see that the ACT Greens take gender seriously: “We’ve made some progress towards equality … [But] we know that these gender and equality issues are still very much live issues out there.” One point I would make, however, is that Ms Hunter outlined a vision for gender equality that involved legislative safeguarding, and visible female leadership—what was missing from this picture in our discussion was a more sophisticated and detailed understanding of what it might take to create real cultural change, from the level of the community up (of the kind that she acknowledges is necessary in tackling violence against women). But it was apparent that Ms Hunter does recognise that the Alan Jones’s of the world mean that “the reality is we can’t be complacent”, and with the Greens’ commitment to working with the community sector, it’s likely that ideas for community-building will reach their ears at any rate.

A liberal minister for women in the ACT? Perhaps not

Angela Carnovale, WCHM Social Research Officer

From the outset, before even interviewing Vicki Dunne, Member for Ginninderra, I knew that some of her values do not align with those of WCHM. WCHM is a pro-choice organisation for example, while Vicki Dunne is on the record as anti-choice (Ms Dunne actually uses the term pro-life, however the terms pro-choice and anti-choice better sum up for WCHM the two sides of the abortion debate). This is important because believing in choice matters. It is, after all, the bedrock of the WCHM mission to empower women to improve their health and wellbeing, and it’s our vision that women can choose and access responsive, women-focussed health and wellbeing services.

But as I said, this point was established from the outset.

To begin the interview, I asked Ms Dunne to identify what she considers to be the main issues impacting upon women in the ACT and, if she were to become ACT Minister for Women, how she would work to address these. Ms Dunne stated that “the issues for women are pretty much the issues for people across the whole of the Territory”, and include appropriate access to healthcare, appropriate and affordable housing and there being ample dollars in the family budget to ensure that all individuals in the family have their needs met.

A short way into the interview it became clear that Ms Dunne could not or would not speak of any issues that specifically relate to women and continue to require the attention of government. Ms Dunne explained that she does not necessarily look at issues through the gender lens, because “with some particular exceptions, if you’re writing good policy, you’re writing good policy for women as well”. In other words, Ms Dunne did not accept that gender informs an individual’s identity, experience or needs and therefore does not see the “policy thrust…through the prism of women” or gender in general.

The fact that Ms Dunne—the ACT Liberals spokesperson for women—does not recognise the need to have gender-informed policy planning and service design raises an important question: If the Liberal party was to form government after the October 20 election, would they even see the need for a Minister for Women in the ACT?

It also raised doubts about how valuable Ms Dunne (if in government) would consider a voice like WCHM’s, or gender-specific services and organisations in general. I asked Ms Dunne directly whether she felt there was a need for women’s specific services, to which she replied:

“I think that there needs to be diversity. Some people will feel comfortable going to a woman’s service other people will feel comfortable in a service that doesn’t say: ‘well, I’m looking after women’. … You have to enable the person, the client, to find the place that is best for them and you can’t necessarily say ‘well, you need to go to a woman’s service because you’re a girl’.”

So, what would Ms Dunne hope to achieve as the ACT Minister for Women?

“I think that what I want to see as the ACT Minister for Women is a society where women are truly valued for their contributions and irrespective of their looks, their occupation, and whatever. That their contribution is as a citizen who happens to be a woman, rather than people being exploited or overlooked because they’re a woman”.

WCHM also wants to ensure that women are able to make and be valued for our contributions to our city. But women in the ACT have the right to policies and services that are understanding of and responsive to our needs and experiences as women. The same goes for men, and for all individuals irrespective of where they are on the gender spectrum. This is because gender matters; it informs our experience of the world and the way we are organised into it. Several times throughout the interview Ms Dunne suggested that applying a gender lens to policy planning and service design forces individuals into categories that they may not choose to be in. From our experience in WCHM we would say that it is only through applying a gender lens to policy planning and service delivery that you can write policies and design services that truly give women and men the choices they need in their lives

Joy Burch on why gender matters

Silvia Page, WCHM Project Worker (Mental Health)

Among her many portfolios Minister Joy Burch MLA, Member for Brindabella is the ACT Minister for Women. With the Territory’s election looming, Minister Burch took some time out to talk to WCHM about what’s on Labor’s agenda for ACT women.

Labor are yet to announce their policy for women but the Minister did discuss a previous announcement to run a number of workshops on leadership in the prevention of violence against women. The workshops will provide up to 50 women with the opportunity to develop their leadership skills. The funding for the workshops will be reallocated from the existing Audrey Fagan scholarship.

When asked what she believes are the main concerns for women in the ACT, the Minister spoke about the impact of domestic violence. “We in Canberra live in what’s considered an affluent and privileged society but underneath that 1 in 5 [women] are experiencing violence. It beggars belief that an educated affluent society still produces those statistics. I think until we eradicate this scourge on society women will not be included and as ambitious and [able to] attain what they truly desire.” Domestic violence can include physical, emotional, sexual, verbal, economic abuse and in most cases the perpetrators are men. One in every five women over 15 in Australia will experience sexual violence and one in three women over 15 will experience physical violence (Homelessness Australia). The repercussions are far reaching and research shows that children who live with domestic violence are more likely to experience violence in adulthood.

To illustrate how issues affect men and women differently the Minister drew on the example of homelessness. “If you don’t understand gender and the impact of how that plays out through statistics you could actually not have the response that you need to make sure that women have access to homelessness services”. She talked about how the extent of homelessness among women is not recognised because they do not fit the stereotype of a rough sleeper but more commonly experience secondary level homelessness which the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) defines as people who move frequently from one temporary shelter to another including friends, emergency accommodation, youth refuges, hostels and boarding houses. The 2006 ABS Counting the Homeless Census estimated that 44% of the homeless population are women and in the ACT, 42 in every 10,000 people are homeless. “Almost half of the women with children staying in homeless assistance services are escaping domestic violence. One in every two women who approach services for women escaping domestic violence is turned away due to lack of accommodation or lack of resources (Chamberlain & MacKenzie, 2006).”

Other areas that the Minister briefly identified as being of concern to women included: difficulties accessing childcare and early education facilities; and gender pay equity and the under representation of women in senior roles in the workplace.

Minister Burch described the community sector as a “predominantly feminised work force, predominantly in caring roles that sadly have been undervalued and under paid for some time”. At Katy Gallagher’s election campaign breakfast on Tuesday, the Prime Minister announced that the Federal Government will introduce legislation to Parliament to set up an account to fund the Fair Work Australia decision to increase wages for community sector workers. In the quarter ending May 2012, the gender pay gap stood at 17.5 % (EOWA, 2012). WCHM has welcomed the ACT and Federal Government’s decision to decrease gender based wage inequality.

I left Minister Burch’s office with the impression that she understands and values the role of research in informing government policy and programs. The minister noted that implementing the triple bottom line assessment framework to policy development was one of her greatest achievements during her time as the Minister for Women. Put simply, this means that the government assess their policy decisions against social, environmental and economic factors including gender. The triple bottom line approach aligns with WCHM’s strategic vision—to enable women to choose and access responsive, women focused health and wellbeing services. We use the social determinants of health model to aim our activities at addressing those broader determinants of health that normally fall outside the responsibilities of the health sector, but are often the reasons why people experience poor health. The triple bottom line reporting will assist WCHM to carry on this work.


  1. Homelessness Australia, Homelessness and Womenwww.homelessnessaustralia.org.au/site/issues.php
  2. Chamberlain, C., MacKenzie, D., Counting the Homeless 2006, Australian Bureau of Statistics, Cat. No. 2050.0. http://www.abs.gov.au/AUSSTATS/abs@.nsf/DetailsPage/2050.02006?OpenDocument
  3. EOWA, Gender Pay Gap Statistics, 2012, http://www.eowa.gov.au/Information_Centres/Resource_Centre/Statistics.asp

Representing women and girls with disability

Nicole O’Callaghan, WWDACT Policy/Administration Officer

On August 30 the ACT Disability Advocacy Network (ACTDAN) held its Election Forum on Disability. The ACTDAN election forum had three MLA participants: Joy Burch MLA (ACT Labor), Steve Doszpot MLA (ACT Liberals) and Amanda Bresnan MLA (ACT Greens). Participants in the forum came along with expectations of a vibrant, interactive discussion about the political landscape of disability in each political party.

Advocacy for Inclusion hosted the night and each member organisation of the ACT Disability Advocacy Network (People with Disabilities ACT, ACT Council of Social Service, Women With Disabilities ACT, Mental Health Community Coalition and the ACT Disability, Aged and Carers Advocacy Service) asked a prepared question for the members to answer. The WWDACT prepared question was: What specific or targeted measures does your party have in place to ensure the inclusion of/ women and girls with disabilities?

Ms Joy Burch spoke of the current and progressive measures which the ACT government has in place to ensure the inclusion of women and girls. She noted the Ministerial Advisory Council for Women as a major targeted instrument that the government uses as a catalyst to promote the voices of women with disabilities in the ACT. The cohort of women with disabilities have a dedicated place on the council every term.

Ms Amanda Bresnan spoke of the need for the ACT Government to continue to improve benchmarks for the inclusion of women and girls with disabilities in government policy. Ms Bresnan acknowledged the Official Visitors (an issue that WWDACT has been highly involved in through the organisation of an expert ad hoc group to provide independent advice to government). Transport being written into international legislation was also a major topic of her discussion.

Steve Doszpot appeared very uncomfortable and did not answer the WWDACT question. At the conclusion of the night I was left with trepidation and confusion as to why there was reluctance from one of the election forum participants to speak on disability issues that are specific to women.

WCHM Matters, Work and Women

The past few months at WCHM have had a buzz to them; busy but productive and inspired.

To begin, Marg and Marcia were busy with organising the very successful WCHM Annual General Meeting (AGM) and pre-election forum that was held on Thursday September 20. The pre-election forum featured Meredith Hunter (MLA, ACT Greens), Amanda Bresnan (MLA, ACT Greens), Joy Burch (MLA, ACT Minister for Women) and Jeremy Hanson (MLA, ACT Liberals). Although it was only an hour in length we managed to ask the panel about a range of issues including sex disaggregated data, the National Disability Insurance Scheme, women specific services, prevention of violence against women and women and prison.

The AGM saw the resignation of Alison Osmond, Judith Briscoe, Eve Burns, Jane Dahlstrom and Kathleen O’Sullivan from the WCHM Board, each of whom have made a valuable contribution to the Centre over their years of service. This meant that there were several positions to fill, and in addition to re-nominating Robyn McClelland and Helen Krig, we formally welcomed Kate Doney, Helen Swift, Mariluz Gonzalez, Karen McGilvery and Aodhamair Lenagh-Maguire. The WCHM team looks forward to working with the new WCHM Board in the continued spirit of collaboration and discussion, and thanks all the outgoing members for their participation and skills, and wishes them the very best.

The team has also had the pleasure of welcoming a couple of new staff members. Silvia Page started with the Centre in August in the role of Project Worker (Mental Health) and Ashley Harrison came on board in September to run the ACT Women’s Services Network’s Summer of Respect campaign.

This campaign will kick off with Reclaim the Night (RTN) (see the recent article about RTN in the City News), which will be held in Garema Place on Friday October 26 from 6:30-8:30pm. In this year’s Reclaim the Night we hope that participants will reflect on the history of RTN, the progress made along the way, and state their hopes for the future. Following RTN, the ACT Women’s Services Network will transport the Summer of Respect Chill Station to a number of different festivals and community events in order to spread the message about respectful relationships and the need to end sexual violence. If you are interested in knowing more about the Summer of Respect or about getting involved, please visit www.facebook.com/summerofrespect

WCHM also partnered with A Gender Agenda (AGA) and Canberra Playback Theatre to host an event for Mental Health Week called RETHINK MAN WOMAN: Journey to the Borderlands of Gender. The night of playback theatre was designed to encourage community stories about gender: the times individuals have loved their gender; the times they’ve hated it; stories of changing gender or wanting to change gender; stories of questioning, being confused, and struggling for change in a world obsessed with the question: male or female. The night was a fantastic success with over 100 participants, many laughs and an important message about the need to encourage and celebrate diversity.

And last but by no means least; we are privileged to have Linda Norris, a Bachelor of Social Work Student from the Australian Catholic University, on placement with us. Linda will be with the Centre for three to four months and has contributed to a range of projects, such as the Women’s Health and Wellbeing Hub, and she is also contributing through the preparation of a range of new fact sheets for the Centre.

Worth Checking Out…

Forgotten Australians: Life Stories is a collection of videos featuring the stories of six people who started life differently—one of them in another country—but who shared the experience of a childhood in Children’s Homes, institutions or foster care in Australia. They are strong and hopeful people, but they live with the trauma of childhood abuse and neglect, and they find many aspects of everyday living challenging. They are members of a very large group of people who call themselves the Forgotten Australians. Meet Caroline, Allan, Tony, Wilma, Pamella and Laurie, as they bring to life the story of the Forgotten Australians, and help us understand what makes them who they are.

In August this year the Australian National University hosted a lecture by Michelle Bachelet, Under Secretary-General of the United Nations and Executive Director of UN Women, on global efforts to achieve gender equality and the empowerment of women. Australia still deals with gender inequality, such as through the gender pay gap, and sexism and misogyny, as has been directed to our Prime Minister. But when we stand back and take a global snapshot, we see that many women in the world are fighting even for basic access to education and healthcare, and that women the world over experience violence and discrimination because of their gender. The task at hand should certainly not overwhelm us; incredible gains have indeed already been made. But nor can we afford to forget the work that is yet to be done. In the words of Ms Bachelet, gender equality is not only the right thing to do; it is the smart thing to do. Everyone will benefit.

When documentary filmmaker Ellie Land saw reports in the national press about an increasing trend in women undergoing labia surgery to neaten the appearance of their genitals, she set out to make a documentary exploring the subject. Her completed project is Centrefold, a short animated documentary presenting the personal accounts of three women who have had labiaplasty. At a time when all I seem to hear on this topic are sensationalist news bites that either completely ignore or speak for the relationship women have with their bodies, Centrefold is a welcome, thoughtful, elegant relief.

Ms. Magazine sparked a revolution in American journalism when it was launched in the 1971. At a time when mainstream media more commonly offered women advice on maintaining a home, raising children or choosing cosmetics Ms. made feminist voices a part of the mainstream media and focussed on issues such as abortion law reform, domestic violence, emancipation from unhappy marriage and the views of political candidates on women’s issues. Of course today there are still media that advise women on fashion and shopping and other such dull matters, but there is also an array of smart, opinionated and engaging media by women for women. 41 years on, the Ms.Magazine Blog is no exception. Thank you Gloria Steinem.