14 October 2019

Girls Take Over Parliament - Matter of Public Importance

It's just been incredible to hear so many stories and contributions from the girls who have participated. It's been an absolute joy for this chamber to be filled with voices of young girls and young women, and I'm very pleased to participate in and join the debate. We mark this occasion today, and we have this experience all as part of International Day of the Girl Child as well, where every year on 11 October the world is called to recognise the unique challenges that girls face, to talk about their potential and to bring about significant change and make a contribution to building a better world.

It's so appropriate that, at a time when we're celebrating International Day of the Girl Child, we have all these young women take over our parliament. It's also been very special for me to be able to welcome my stepdaughter to the parliament today—she's been here with her classmates as well—because what we're talking about is my stepdaughter's future, these young women's future and, indeed, every girl in Australia's future. We're talking about their rights to education and to affordable health care, their freedom of expression, equal pay and their right to determine their own future. We're talking about their aspirations to become leaders, to create positive change, to contribute to our world and to be a voice for their own rights. It's about their hopes and dreams to follow their passions and do what they enjoy.

Over the past decade, we have seen girls all around the world rising up to the challenge and leading movements for change. They're leading the charge on tackling gender equality, fighting for action on climate change and fighting for their right to an education. There are girls like Malala Yousafzai, who as a young girl defied the Taliban in Pakistan and demanded that all girls be allowed to receive an education. Malala was shot in the head by a Taliban gunman in 2012, but she survived, and, as we know, in 2014 she became the youngest person to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. There are also girls like the young women who have gone through CAMFED's mentorship program around the world, which supports girls to access schools, succeed and become leaders of change in their communities.

There are so many incredible role models globally and locally for our young girls to choose from. But, unfortunately, we know that, even whilst there are all these amazing role models for young girls, a lot of girls in Australia still don't feel entirely empowered to advocate for the future that they want to see in our world. Plan International, the leading international charity for girls' equality recently published a report in which they asked 1,461 girls and young women around Australia to share their hopes, dreams and concerns for the future. Their report showed that 91 per cent of girls had an overwhelming desire to lead change on the big social issues facing their future. But, sadly, the same girls noted that they were less confident in their abilities to achieve that leadership. This is something we should all be concerned about in this parliament, particularly as the women who have got to this place and have had an opportunity to lead. We need to make sure that we're empowering the young women who come along next to feel that confidence and that capacity to deliver change, and I hope that some of you young women who are here today really feel that and feel confident in your ability to change our country as well.

This report from Plan International showed that 91 per cent of the girls had an overwhelming desire to lead this change, and often the change that they nominated as most important was that of climate change. They were right to be concerned about this, because we know climate change is real. Its impacts have the potential to hit the poor and the young hardest, and its effects will be irreversible. It is not, as the Prime Minister has said, a matter of needless anxiety among young people; it is a matter which requires urgent and serious action.

More than 18 per cent of the young girls surveyed by Plan also nominated violence against women as a leading concern. Here in Australia one woman a week is murdered by a current or former partner and one in six women experience abuse before the age of 15. These are horrific statistics and our work to address them is nowhere near complete.

When it came to girls around the world the respondents cited education as a major barrier holding back their peers from achieving their goals and being able to participate in the kind of society they wanted to see and they're right. Globally 131 million young girls remain out of school. Four out of 10 girls will never enter a classroom. These statistics are worse in lower and lower-middle income countries where one in four young people are illiterate. We know that 90 per cent of a child's brain develops in their first five years of life but 175 million pre-primary aged children are not enrolled in pre-primary education.

This survey also asked girls what their biggest wish for other girls around the world was and one in three all agreed that it was equality—for them to also be equal, to be seen as equals and treated as equals—and if you ask me it seems like a pretty fair and reasonable wish. But the reality is our girls don't see fairness in their future and it's not hard to understand why, because beyond the issues I've already canvassed there are plenty of other barriers which remain in our community that act as a barrier to gender equality and to fairness. For a start, the gender pay gap and the associated superannuation gap remain pervasive. In 2019 Australia's full-time gender pay gap stands at 14 per cent according to the Workplace Gender Equality Agency. In industries such as finance and insurance services the gap soars to 24.4 per cent. Fragmented work histories and lower paid work mean women are also likely to accumulate significantly less in superannuation savings and, therefore, face a greater risk of economic insecurity in retirement. On top of this, we know that women still carry a disproportionate burden of unpaid work. The ABS tells us that 36 per cent of women spend up to 15 hours in unpaid domestic work weekly.

If we are to take gender equality seriously, beyond these important but largely symbolic days, then we need to get serious about implementing policies that will create a fairer nation in Australia. Policies like the nation-changing reforms implemented under previous Labor governments, including for paid parental leave; the Workplace Gender Equality Act; affordable, flexible and high-quality child care and laws against discrimination and sexual harassment, through amendments to the Sex Discrimination Act. These are the types of policy endeavours we should be pursuing, not, as some of the other senators who came in before focused on, shaming women from political parties who have quotas and allegations that that means there is no merit on this side—ridiculous things to hear in a debate about girls and young women and their future in parliament. Policies like this are big reforms—nation changing reforms. I can't think of a better time to start putting women and girls and their futures at the centre of policy than International Day of the Girl.

14 October 2019