Australia’s forgotten gag rule

By CARE Australia March 8, 2017 0 comments

By Sally Moyle, Chief Executive, CARE Australia

This article was originally published in the Canberra Times on 8 March 2017.

When US President Donald Trump effectively banned the discussion of abortion by groups that receive federal government funding, there was immediate global outrage.

How could women’s freedoms be blithely axed with the stroke of a pen?

That would never happen here in Australia, I’m sure many thought.

Yet it already has. For 13 years, Australia had its own version of the gag rule. Innocuously named the Family Planning Guidelines, it prohibited aid agencies that received Australian Government funding from providing advice or counselling on abortion.

Many would be surprised to learn the policy was only scrapped in 2009.

How many preventable deaths it caused, we will never know.

What is clear is Australian funding through our aid program for family planning collapsed, and it was those most at risk in our region who lived with the consequences.

The policy came into force over 20 years ago when the then Government bartered away sexual and reproductive health and rights to get a deal through the Senate.

The deal was with Senator Brian Harradine to pass legislation that would enable the privatisation of Telstra.

Shockingly, as we mark International Women’s Day, there are moves afoot in some quarters, including those in elected office, to have this policy revived.

To its credit, the current government has recognised the link between equality, prosperity and peace, and has placed equality between women and men at the centre of its aid program and foreign policy.

It is a legacy the government must not allow to be eroded in the face of a fractured Parliament and a global push towards populist, insular politics.

I am proud of Australia’s international reputation as a champion of equality and women’s empowerment.

With the US decision likely to affect communities all over the world, Australia’s investment in family planning has never been more important. Particularly when you consider the pivotal role Australian aid plays in the Asia-Pacific region, which has some of the worst rates of maternal mortality in the world.

We know women and girls bear the brunt of poverty. Too often girls miss out on school, women do not have secure, paid employment, and women die needlessly during pregnancy and childbirth.

When women are healthy and educated, our experience shows their family will be too. And when women earn an income, they invest it in the health and education of their children and families.

The importance of investing in women is starkly demonstrated in Papua New Guinea, our closest neighbour and one too few Australians are familiar with.

I first visited as a child in the 1970s at a time when the country was full of hope for its new independence.

Equality between women and men was enshrined in its Constitution. However, for a long time, it was not taken very seriously and was seen, particularly by its almost all-male leaders, as a western import.

Women in PNG today experience some of the highest levels of violence anywhere in the world, are at huge risk of dying during childbirth, are almost entirely excluded from leadership and struggle to benefit equally from their work. It is in this context Australian aid can have an enormous impact on people’s lives and a positive effect across generations.

Human rights must not stop at Australia’s borders.

Now is the time for Australia to accelerate its leadership on the world stage, and ensure women and girls – wherever they are – can have equal access to reproductive health services and rights.

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop’s recent funding announcement for sexual and reproductive health services in times of emergency was a positive step and an important statement about the Australian Government’s priorities.

It was one of the first indications of how Australia will respond to the Trump era of geopolitics.

The foreign policy white paper currently being developed will hopefully offer a few more clues as to what Australia’s future priorities will be.

When it comes to women’s rights, leadership from the Australian Government has never been more important.

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