As outlined in the Foreign Policy White Paper, the empowerment of women and girls is a priority of Australia’s foreign policy.
This chapter considers evidence received on the strengthened focus within Australia’s aid program on investments to improve outcomes for women and girls.
Focus on improving outcomes for women and girls
As noted earlier in this report, ‘gender equality and empowering women and girls’ is one of six priority areas introduced in the Australian Government’s aid policy released in 2014.
The policy acknowledged the persistence of gender inequality in the Asia-Pacific region, nominating limited access to employment and educational opportunities, under-representation in parliaments, and high rates of violence and abuse as issues affecting women and girls in the region. The policy went on:
The evidence is clear—gender equality is critical to development, and must be a key part of aid programming.
The policy committed Australia to ‘being at the forefront of efforts to empower women and girls and promote gender equality in the Indo-Pacific region’.
In the Australian Government’s aid performance framework, also released in 2014, the government committed to a strategic target of more than 80 per cent of investments, regardless of their objectives, effectively addressing gender issues in their implementation.
As explained in the framework:
This might mean ensuring women participate in decision-making throughout implementation, identifying and pursuing opportunities for women to be employed through an investment, or addressing particular challenges to implementation such as violence or social norms that exclude women.
In 2016, the then Minister for Foreign Affairs, the Hon. Julie Bishop MP, released the Gender equality and women’s empowerment strategy. The strategy established three priorities to guide the Australian Government’s work on gender equality:
enhancing women’s voice in decision-making, leadership and peace-building;
promoting women’s economic empowerment; and
ending violence against women and girls.
The strategy included a commitment to invest in gender equality through Australia’s aid program, ‘recognising that women’s empowerment is a key driver of sustainable economic growth, development and stability’.
The strategy explained that Australia’s aid program employs the Organisation for Economic Development (OECD) Development Assistance Committee (DAC) gender equality policy marker, which requires program managers to record whether an investment has a ‘principal’ or ‘significant’ gender equality objective or is not targeted at gender equality.
In a submission to the inquiry, DFAT outlined initiatives to increase women’s economic empowerment and reduce violence against women and girls. For example, DFAT referred to the Pacific Women Shaping Pacific Development initiative, Australia’s ‘flagship’ gender investment in the Pacific, which commenced in 2013 and supports women in 14 countries to participate in political, economic, and social life:
In its first five years, the initiative has seen 10,605 women take on leadership roles at the community, provincial and national level; 5,964 women access financial literacy training and financial services; and more than 526,000 people participate in community awareness sessions on violence against women.
While DFAT emphasised that significant progress had been made, it also acknowledged that the strategic target in relation to empowering women and girls had not yet been achieved. During 2016-17, 77 per cent of aid investments had been determined to have effectively address gender equality in their implementation, slightly below the target of 80 per cent.
The Performance of Australian Aid 2016-17 report notes that the strategic target in relation to empowering women and girls is the only one of ten targets that is yet to be achieved. However, the report also stated that the target reflects Australia’s ‘global leadership in this area and is widely acknowledged by development partners as progressive and influential’.
The report noted that progress towards achieving the target was uneven, by region and also by sector:
Investments in the Pacific faced multiple challenges in addressing gender equality, and will require strong leadership to improve their gender performance. Investments in South East and East Asia, the Middle East and Africa performed well, while gender equality results from investments in South and West Asia were close to the 80 per cent target.
... There is also a variable story by sector ... In particular, the evidence suggests that it is more challenging to undertake gender analysis, develop gender informed designs and demonstrate tangible gender equality results in investments that work to improve systems rather than delivering direct benefits for people.
DFAT summarised some of the lessons of its aid programming in relation to empowering women and girls:
Retrofitting gender equality is difficult – development initiatives that intend from the outset to promote gender equality are far more successful. Considering gender equality in early (investment/concept) stages leads to better gender equality outcomes. Effective interventions need to respond to existing power structures and complex influences and pick the right partners – host governments, civil society organisations, the private sector or religious organisations can all play a role.
Efforts to advance gender equality must be based on strong analysis of the issues facing women and girls in any given context; this is integral to longer-term success. Moving into 'non-traditional' sectors like economic reform, trade and investment, infrastructure and security requires new skills and innovative approaches to effectively address gender equality. Entering these sectors, particularly in middle-income countries, often involves different delivery models working with new partners with less exposure to gender equality principles and commitments.
Evidence to the Committee indicated that there is broad support for the Australian Government’s approach to empowering women and girls through the aid program.
For example, a number of submitters referred to the OECD DAC 2018 peer review of Australia’s aid program, which described Australia’s approach to gender equality as ‘exemplary’.
The review noted Australia’s ‘strong commitment to mainstreaming gender’ and also the comprehensive nature of its approach:
A dedicated strategy, performance targets, financial resources and political leadership underpin this commitment, enabling Australia to make gender equality a genuinely cross-cutting issue.
The review found that, in 2015, 54 per cent of Australia’s bilateral allocable aid had gender equality as a principal or significant objective, compared with the DAC country average of 36.3 per cent.
The OECD DAC suggested that Australia’s achievements with respect to mainstreaming gender in the aid program could inform a similar approach to mainstreaming environment and climate change.
The United Nations (UN) Women National Committee Australia stated that ‘[t]he increased emphasis on the outcomes for women and girls is a signal achievement of the aid program in recent years’.
While noting broad support for the existing approach, the Committee is also aware of a range of suggestions for improving the effectiveness of aid programming in relation to empowering women and girls.
For example, the Institute for Sustainable Futures (ISF) at the University of Technology Sydney suggested that ‘[i]nvolving women in private sector development is an obvious and important opportunity for the aid program’. The ISF went on:
Our literature review across Cambodia, Indonesia and Laos shows the key barriers experienced by female entrepreneurs include regulatory barriers, limited access to finance, limited access to business development services, socio-cultural and religious norms which limit women’s educational and economic independence, limited access to networks and networking which support business development, lack of education and training and informal fees and taxes. Aid programs seeking to involve and benefit women need to develop strategies that address these issues. Potential strategies that should be considered include supporting women’s social networks in relation to entrepreneurship work, socialisation processes with husbands and family towards engendering a supportive environment for women to engage, technical training and education programs that are gender sensitive and account for child care duties, financial barriers and limited mobility issues, as well as provision of financial support in the form of low-interest loans and financial management training.
Further evidence in relation to private sector development is considered in the previous chapter.
The ISF also noted that initiatives to empower women can sometimes result in backlash. Speaking to the Committee in Sydney, Professor Juliet Willetts, Research Director, International Development, at the ISF explained:
We can’t just assume that the effects are positive for women; we actually need to ask them, and we need systems in place to do that. ... When you change gender dynamics there will be resistance and may be negative consequences. We need to expect that, be aware of that and build in ways of mitigating that and ways to deal with it when it actually happens. For instance, it’s making sure that in this case the civil society organisations and in-country partners are prepared enough, have the skills to deal with these situations and are going in with eyes open rather than closed.
Similarly, the International Women’s Development Agency (IWDA) recommended support through aid delivery partners and women’s rights organisations to ‘mitigate and respond to backlash and threats related to opposition to gender equality’.
World Vision Australia submitted that, despite the stated focus of the aid program on both women and girls, ‘the reality has been that the specific challenges, needs and opportunities of girls have been neglected to date’. World Vision explained:
Girls experience (dis)empowerment and (in)equality differently than adult women. In addition, to achieve lasting change, Australia’s aid investments must address both boys and girls from the outset to ensure wider and early intervention in programs that seek cultural, attitudinal and [behavioural] change.
World Vision recommended the development of a ‘strategy for mainstreaming the rights and needs of boys and girls across Australian aid’ and the establishment of a section or branch within DFAT dedicated to child rights.
Similarly, Plan International Australia noted the ‘unique challenges for girls aged 10 to 19 in the areas of gender based violence, sexual and reproductive health, secondary education, economic empowerment, humanitarian emergencies and leadership.’
Plan International noted the large numbers of adolescent girls—in developing countries and particularly in the Asia-Pacific region—and suggested there is growing evidence that ‘the key to unlocking a country’s economic prosperity sits with adolescent girls’:
When girls are educated, empowered and treated as equals, they hold the key to breaking the intergenerational cycle of poverty and driving progress for everyone – for themselves, their families, communities and countries.
Plan International’s recommendations included the development of a ‘stand‑alone action plan on achieving gender equality for adolescent girls through Australia’s foreign policy, trade, aid and development’, similar to the US Government’s 2016 Global Strategy to Empower Adolescent Girls.
Speaking to the Committee in Melbourne, Ms Hayley Cull, Plan International’s Executive Director of Advocacy and Community Engagement, explained:
... Australia really needs to strengthen its strategic policy focus on adolescent girls. We believe a very strong way of doing this is to set out an action plan, specifically, to address those very unique and complex challenges that only adolescent girls face—such as child marriage and the barriers to education and work, gender based violence and the way that girls are experiencing these differently from other groups.
Plan International also recommended the establishment of a stand-alone target for investments targeting adolescent girls in the context of Australia’s broader efforts on gender equality.
In discussing the effectiveness initiatives to improve outcomes for women and girls, some stakeholders emphasised the importance of considering how different factors (including gender) compound or intersect.
For example, the IWDA submitted:
Women and girls are not a single, homogenous group. Their needs and interests also vary across the life course and with rural/urban location. Discrimination on the basis of disability, sexual orientation, identity and expression, age, religion or ethnicity can intersect to deepen marginalisation.
Frameworks for analysis, policy development, programming and implementation, and for assessing outcomes and impacts, need to consider and incorporate the diverse, intersecting factors that shape the lives of women and girls. This will improve programming supported by the aid budget, ensuring it is responsive to women and girls’ diverse needs and circumstances, and that progress on gender equality benefits all women and girls.
Similarly, World Vision submitted:
... compounding vulnerability and discrimination can result from a multitude of factors (including having a disability or being a member of a minority ethnic or religious group) and, with this in mind, World Vision encourages DFAT to ensure that aid initiatives are grounded in a thorough vulnerability analysis and equipped with an appropriate inclusion strategy.
The Australian Disability and Development Consortium (ADDC) highlighted the importance of improving outcomes for women and girls with disabilities:
... women with disabilities often experience double discrimination on account of their disability and their gender. This makes them more vulnerable to poverty and social exclusion, and restricts their access to opportunities such as education, employment and social participation, and basic services. Women with disabilities also experience sexual and physical violence at rates two to three times higher than women without disabilities. This means that all aid program efforts aimed at empowering women must include strategies to ensure women with disabilities are included equally. It also means there is a need for targeted programs to specifically reach and empower women with disabilities.
Ms Lucy Hodson, Executive Officer of the ADDC, emphasised that disability and gender were ‘cross-cutting issues’:
All gender programs need to be disability sensitive, just as all disability programs need to be gender sensitive.
The ADDC’s recommendations included the establishment of a strategic target for disability inclusion—mirroring the existing strategic target for gender equality—and better reporting of data in relation to the performance of investments relating to disability inclusion.
The ADDC went on to outline a series of initiatives to empower women and girls with disabilities that are supported by Australia’s aid program.
Ms Amy Haddad, Assistant Secretary of DFAT’s Gender Equality Branch, explained that DFAT is considering the intersection of strategies to address different issues across the aid program:
... we have strategies for both gender inclusion and disability inclusion, and the challenge we have is how we bring those together so that when we're delivering aid programs we're making sure that we're being as inclusive as we can be, and those policies do talk to each other. ... What we're seeking to do is deepen our capacity to consider all different kinds of recipients of our aid programs and to make sure we've got the analysis there so that when we're developing those programs we're reaching out to those people who are disabled, people who are women, and people who are women and who are also disabled. It's a bit of a buzz word—intersectionality—but that's what we're looking at in terms of the inclusion of the aid program.
Water, sanitation, and hygiene and health issues
While not canvassed in detail in this report, the Committee heard evidence on particular issues affecting women and girls, including water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH), menstrual health, and sexual and reproductive health, as well as the intersections between these and other issues.
For example, WaterAid Australia submitted:
... challenges in managing reproductive health pose significant barriers to educational attainment for women and girls, limiting social and economic prospects and perpetuating gender inequality. Adolescent pregnancy remains a leading cause of death and disability for girls aged 15-19 and is a major contributing factor to poor school attendance and completion. Similarly, an inability for girls to manage menstruation in hygienic and dignified ways, or to access quality and affordable sanitary products, contributes to poor health and social outcomes, including school absenteeism.
Similarly, Professor Willetts explained:
[Water and sanitation] is an absolute basic human necessity day in, day out, particularly for women and girls, including for issues such as menstrual hygiene, which has now become an issue which is way more discussed and talked about in terms of, for instance, girls going to school. If schools don't have toilets then the girls are more likely not to go to school, and we now have research based evidence that proves that. So we know it's an area that needs to be addressed.
A discussion paper prepared by WaterAid and Marie Stopes International Australia considered the ‘often-overlooked intersection between menstrual and sexual and reproductive health’ and highlighted the importance of ‘scaled-up investment in holistic, cross-sectoral projects, in which women and girls are at the centre of solutions’.
Adjunct Professor Ann Brassil, Chief Executive Officer of Family Planning NSW, emphasised that reproductive and sexual health are significant issues particularly in the Pacific region:
Women die of cervical cancer [in the Pacific] at 13 times the rate of women in Australia, and that's simply because they don't have access to cervical cancer screening programs. Young women are getting pregnant at really high rates, and they only have about 28 per cent of the access to contraception that we have in Australia. Without the ability to time and space your children, you don't get access to education, you don't get access to jobs, it lowers your income, it lowers your ability to control the number of children you have, it increases your mortality, and women die because of the multiple numbers of births that they have. Women in the Pacific require access to contraception, and they're not getting it.
More broadly, DFAT submitted that ‘inadequate access to clean water and poor sanitation and hygiene in [low and middle-income] countries results in yearly economic losses of US$260 billion, largely due to increased health care costs and decreased productivity’.
The Committee endorses the Australian Government’s clear commitment to gender equality and empowering women and girls through the aid program, and commends DFAT for its efforts to date to give effect to this commitment.
The Committee notes the strong support among stakeholders for the continuation of this approach.
Drawing on suggestions received in evidence to the inquiry, the Committee makes the following recommendations intended to strengthen the aid program’s focus on women and girls.
The Committee recommends that, within the aid for trade program (noting Recommendation 7) and other Development Partnerships (aid) investments, the Australian Government better prioritise seeking to improve market access for poor and marginalised groups in recipient countries, in particular women and girls, adults and children living with a disability, and disabled women and girls. As noted in Recommendation 7, aid for trade investments should be more explicitly linked to the objective of reducing poverty, in particular for women and girls, those living with a disability and/or other marginalised groups.
The Committee recommends that the Australian Government provide more funding for local-led water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) initiatives to communities most at need, particularly given the impact of a lack of safe drinking water, wash facilities, rest rooms, and sewerage disposal on the advancement and safety of women and girls in particular.
The Committee recommends that the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade work through the Development Partnerships (aid) program to further develop, prioritise and fund community-led localised initiatives proposed and developed by women and girls, women and girls with a disability, people with a disability, and other disadvantaged or marginalised groups within localised areas within each recipient country.
The Committee recommends that the Australian Government provide greater assistance and funding for holistic menstrual health programs, holistic breastfeeding programs, micro-nutrient investments, and nutrition initiatives before, during, and after pregnancy within an increased Development Partnerships (aid) budget, including through the provision of more funding for water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) initiatives to communities most at need (see Recommendation 17).
The Committee also encourages DFAT to consider whether its approach in relation to empowering women and girls could serve as a model for mainstreaming other priority issues within the aid program.
In particular, building on the aid program’s commitment to gender equality and empowering women and girls, the Committee endorses recommendations made by the Australian Disability and Development Consortium in relation to ensuring that people with disabilities (including women and girls) are included in aid and development efforts.
With respect to use of Development Partnerships (aid) to assist people living with a disability in recipient countries, in particular women and girls, the Committee recommends that the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade:
include data on disability-inclusion investment performance by investment priority area in future Performance of Australian Aid reports (as occurred in the 2014-15 and 2015-16 reports);
establish a new strategic target that an ambitious percentage of investments, regardless of their objectives, will effectively address disability inclusion in their implementation. This target should be determined according to the latest baseline data available, including the most recent Aid Quality Checks data;
integrate disability analysis, including disaggregated data, identification of barriers for women/people with disabilities, and strategies for inclusion and empowerment of women/people with disabilities in investments targeted towards women’s empowerment and aid for trade; and
in responding to the Office of Development Effectiveness’ report, Development for All: Evaluation of Progress Made in Strengthening Disability Inclusion in Australian Aid, implement the agreed recommendations as expediently as possible.
Similarly, the Committee endorses recommendations made by Plan International Australia, outlined in its Half a Billion Reasons: How investing in adolescent girls can change the world report, in relation to the potential of aid and development efforts targeted at adolescent girls.
The Committee recommends that the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, in the context of increasing Development Partnerships funding (as per Recommendations 3-5):
build on its commitment to achieving gender equality globally by developing a stand-alone action plan for adolescent girls, similar to the US Government’s 2016 Global Strategy to Empower Adolescent Girls; and
set a target that at least 15 per cent of all investments under Development Partnerships with the principal or significant objective of advancing gender equality, identify adolescent girls as the primary beneficiaries by 2030.
Continuation of the inquiry
The Committee recommends that this inquiry be continued in the next Parliament.
Senator the Hon Ian MacdonaldMr Chris Crewther MP
Joint Standing Committee onForeign Affairs and Aid
Foreign Affairs, Defence and TradeSub-Committee
2 April 2019