Thursday 8 March 2018 is International Women’s Day. The theme for this year’s day is ‘Time is Now: Rural and urban activists transforming women’s lives’.
International Women’s Day has been held on 8 March since 1913. This date was officially adopted by the United Nations in 1975 during International Women’s Year. For more information about the history of International Women’s Day, please see this 2013 Parliamentary Library FlagPost on ‘International Women’s Day’.
In the 12 months since the last International Women’s Day, there has been a global surge in activism around women’s rights, equality, and calls for the need to address sexual assault and harassment, violence, and discrimination against women. Movements such as #MeToo and Time’s Up in the United States, and international counterparts such as #YoTambien, #QuellaVoltaChe, #BalanceTonPorc and #Ana_kaman, have made headlines across the world as social media enabled mass disclosure of sexual harassment.
Before becoming a hashtag, the ‘Me Too’ movement was founded in the United States by Tarana Burke in 2006. It aimed to show the prevalence of sexual violence and to show survivors that they were not alone. #MeToo went viral on social media in the wake of sexual abuse allegations against Hollywood film producer Harvey Weinstein in October 2017. Since then, a number of high profile men have faced allegations of sexual assault or harassment, in what has been dubbed the ‘Weinstein effect’.
However, sexual harassment and violence against women is far from a problem restricted to Hollywood or high profile industries. In 2017, the Australian Human Rights Commission released ‘Change The Course: National Report on Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment at Australian Universities’. This report presented findings from a survey of 30,000 students across 39 universities and found that around 51% of university students were sexually harassed on at least one occasion in 2016.
Family and domestic violence rates are also high. A recent report by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) showed that family, domestic and sexual violence is a major health and welfare issue: ‘It occurs across all ages and all socioeconomic and demographic groups, but predominantly affects women and children’.
Regarding women, the AIHW reported that in Australia:
- One in five women have been sexually assaulted and/or threatened since the age of 15
- One in six women have experienced physical and/or sexual violence by a current or previous partner
- In 2014–15, on average, nearly 8 women a day were hospitalised as a result of assault by their spouse or partner
- In 2012–13 to 2013–14, approximately one woman a week was killed as a result of violence from a current or previous partner.
Some groups of people are particularly vulnerable. Those at greater risk of family, domestic and sexual violence include:
- Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women
- Young women
- Pregnant women
- Women with disability
- Women experiencing financial hardship
- Women and men who experienced abuse or witnessed domestic violence as children.
Focussing on rural women
The theme of this year’s International Women’s Day ties into the United Nations’ Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) priority theme: ‘Challenges and opportunities in achieving gender equality and the empowerment of rural women and girls’. This theme will be addressed at the 62nd session of CSW taking place in New York from 12–23 March 2018.
The priority theme recognises the challenges and disadvantage rural women face and the need to address barriers and protect their human rights. As noted in the report of the United Nations Secretary-General on ‘Challenges and opportunities in achieving gender equality and the empowerment of rural women and girls’, globally, rural women are worse off on nearly every indicator for which data is available. The report also states that rural women are disproportionately affected by poverty and climate change, carry a heavier burden of unpaid work, are underrepresented in local and national institutions, and have less access to high quality health care and education.
In Australia, women living in rural and remote can face challenges in terms of access to services, support, and isolation. The life experiences of women in rural areas also differs from those in urban areas. In 2011, a summary of findings from the Australian Longitudinal Study on Women’s Health reported that rural women are more likely to get married younger and have more children than urban women, are less likely to have completed high school or have post-secondary education, are more likely do unpaid work, have poorer access to health services, and are more likely than urban women to have experienced an abusive relationship. Furthermore, women in rural areas who experience an abusive relationship face barriers to seeking help. These barriers include social and physical isolation, transport difficulties, limited phone and internet services, prevalence of firearms, limited financial resources, and a lack of access to appropriate legal and advocacy services.
According to an Australian study, women in rural and regional areas also experience high rates of workplace sexual harassment due to the prevalence of male-dominated workplaces, such as mining and agriculture, and a ‘masculine ethos’ in rural areas. In these contexts, rural women may be reluctant to speak out against harassment because of a lack of workplace harassment policies, concerns about negative consequences from reporting, and concerns about confidentiality in small communities. Some researchers argue that from a workplace perspective, overcoming such barriers requires ‘institutional courage’—‘to help victims and prevent violence in the first place’.
Although perhaps more readily associated with lamingtons than activism, the Country Women’s Association (CWA) has a long history of advocacy for women in rural and regional areas in Australia. The CWA was formed in 1922 in New South Wales ‘when country women were fighting isolation and a lack of health facilities’. Jennifer Jones’ book, Country Women and the Colour Bar, examines activism by Aboriginal and white members of the CWA in the 1950s and 60s as they advocated for social change and racial equality. The national body, Country Women’s Association of Australia, is the largest women’s organisation in Australia with approximately 40,000 members and 1600 branches.