Thirteen years old. It’s an age when child marriage is deemed less controversial than a girl continuing her schooling in some countries. And other nations? Well, they’re not much better in certain aspects of gender equality either. There’s still less opportunities for education and work for women, still domestic abuse, still judgement about selection of clothing. Reproductive rights are compromised, there’s sexual assault, an expectation to serve others and having to constantly prove one’s worth and intelligence.
Looking through a global lens, the issues for women are overwhelming and difficult to stomach. Not to mention that this is just a momentary glance at the various daily obstacles they face. In light of the threat to women’s livelihoods and their freedoms after the rapid takeover by the Taliban in Afghanistan in August last year, it is baffling to consider how some societies are able to move forward with gender equality, while others slip rapidly backwards.
Closer to home here in Australia, there are many organisations and individuals working hard for gender equality. Executive director of Victorian Women’s Trust, Mary Crooks, believes that there are three key issues affecting women in our nation at present: lack of economic security, rising cases of domestic violence involving women, and poor government decision-making around climate change.
“Women’s economic security, in which I would say the lack of affordable housing, the gender pay gap of course – the fact that women are behind the eight-ball in terms of their lifetime savings and superannuation – and then, bearing the brunt of the economic impact of COVID,” she says. “They are the ones who have been helped least in terms of the last two federal budgets.”
Crooks says that we need to seek a world that is “much more in harmony resource-wise”, and the Victorian Women’s Trust aims to help this transformation on a local scale. An independent feminist organisation established in 1985, VWT creates social change programs and campaigns, runs events, and gives grants to important grassroots projects – all in the name of pursuing gender equality.
Crooks goes on to discuss the second big issue: “There is no doubt we have yet to see any really serious inroads as a country into understanding why so much violence is perpetrated against women and children. But also in reducing the harm, not just the death toll … the hundreds of thousands of incidents every year, which may or may not result in hospitalisation, long-term injuries, pain and trauma.”
According to Domestic Violence Resource Centre Victoria, more than 92,000 family violence incidents were attended to by police last year. This is a jump from about 78,000 in 2015-16.
“We need spaces in families, in communities, in workplaces where there is deep respect possible between men and women because if that respect is there, then there’s no harm,” says Crooks.
The third main issue in Crook’s eyes is standing by and having to watch the recklessness of our national decision-makers surrounding climate change action. “Just as the effects of natural disasters impact substantially on women, they will also bear the brunt of a lot of the negative impacts of unmitigated climate change,” she says.
According to UN WomenWatch, the majority of the world’s poorer population consists of women – whose livelihoods are reliant upon natural resources that are threatened by the effects of climate change.
HISTORY REPEATING ITSELF
Strong in her stance on social justice, public policies, environmental rights and gender equality, Crooks reflects on her experience over the years when it comes to voicing her opinion.
“A persistent, almost unnoticeable pressure to keep your trap shut as a woman. Not to be heard, not to be listened to,” she says.
“If you do speak out or speak up, there are ways and means of people then making you feel uncomfortable for having done so. I feel as though that has been a threat in my lifetime, and at times I’ve felt awkward and intimidated.
“But you know what? I’ve just kept on going. I’ve not given into it. Probably if I had my time again, I would have actually pushed back civilly and actively against that type of subconscious demeaning that a woman can feel throughout her life.”
Twenty-year-old Ballarat resident Chelsea Mason says she has grown up surrounded by sexist stereotypes.
“I grew up – and continue to – in a household that has very traditional views, especially coming down to what clothes I should like and wear,” she says.
“In school I had jokes thrown at me like ‘go wash the dishes, go make me a sandwich’, and when attending a male dominant-workplace such as a mechanic I was always told to take a male with me, because otherwise they will screw you over … these are just a few examples.”
Despite the sexist scenarios and comments that have presented themselves, Mason says what she has experienced has helped her in becoming resilient.
“Here I am today wearing the clothes I like, taking responsibility at the local sports club, and thriving at work. I would like to see young women start to be heard more in the future. I want to see more empowerment, more trust, faith and belief between genders.”
A BRIGHTER FUTURE
“Right on time.” My scheduled 11am Monday morning call is answered by a warm and wise voice. It belongs to Eve Mahlab.
While she has a remarkable list of titles to her name over a career spanning decades, Mahlab says her proudest achievement is that she is the co-founder and chair of Australian Women Donor’s Network, now known as Australians Investing In Women.
AIIW is a leading not-for-profit advocate for gender-wise philanthropy, connecting with corporate, philanthropic and community leaders. The organisation’s over-arching goal listed on its website is to strengthen society by investing in women and girls.
“I was active in different women’s organisations – women lawyers … the Women’s Electoral Lobby and so on, but we all needed money. I thought the best thing I could do was to push more philanthropic money to women and their organisations,” Mahlab says. “I think there are so many areas in which the advancement of women is called for.”
According to the UN Women’s 2020 survey, women are still behind in terms of their wages and obtaining employment during their prime working ages of 25 to 54. UN Women Australia also reports that Australian women are under represented when it comes to economic and political decision-making processes.
Mahlab says that the needs of women are often quite different to those of men, despite philanthropists assuming that they were the same for a long time. “Women often lost out. My approach was to make them more visible, and inject a culture into the philanthropic community which understood that … and never overlooked women.”
The 2021 Culture Report on belonging at work by the Achievers Workforce Institute states that one-third of men feel a general sense of belonging in their workplace environment, compared to just one-fifth of women. Women are also 25 percent less likely to express a personal opinion that may be differing to that of others.
When it comes to future generations, Mahlab’s wish reflects a big part of her life’s work. “I would like to see more financial assistance and advancement of women and their development, whether it’s at kindergarten level or higher up at university,” she says.
“I think because we live in a very diverse situation all over the world, the decisions as to how money will be spent for women are also very diverse.”
This would mean that it would be left up to Federal and State leaders, as well as local organisations and residents, to push for relevant changes depending on the circumstances of women in their community.
Crooks believes such measures are possible in the future. When giving a speech some years ago, an audience member asked what her definition of feminism was. “When you get that question, you don’t know whether it’s coming from a place of ‘oh, you’re all a bunch of Feminazis’. But I thought on my feet. I said ‘I love singing. I founded a choir of men and women, and we sing in four-part harmony’. I told the audience ‘I’m going to give you a metaphor for my feminism.
“I said this: ‘if you hear a bunch of women singing, it will make your spine tingle because it’s so beautiful. If you hear a bunch of men singing, it will make your spine tingle because it’s so beautiful. When you hear men and women singing well together, they produce a quality of sound that the other two can’t produce on their own.’ It’s a metaphor for how we can work together well – respectfully, equally, not being threatened.”
Crooks has no doubts that gender equality is premised on the fact that everyone is going to benefit. “Men will break a lot of the shackles of their patriarchal world, boys will grow up with a different form of modelling … so will girls,” she says. “Our environment will be healthier, our families and communities will be healthier, and there will be less unresolved pain bore by women throughout their lives because so many suffered at the hands of violent perpetrators.
“I certainly believe in leaving the world a better place for women, if you can.”