Forum confronts gender and racism issues

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The circumstances surrounding gender discrimination and racism were openly discussed in a wide-reaching forum, reports ASTHA SINGH
The Symposium on Racism and Women held on October 17 at the NSW Parliament theaterette, proved an excellent forum for members of the community and organisations to express concerns about gender and racial discrimination against women. Government representatives, politicians and academicians addressed these issues, and positive outcomes in advocating improvement in government policies and programs to condemn racism against women were achieved. The forum was co-sponsored by the Immigrant Women’s Speakout Association of NSW (IWSA) and the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC). The full house marked an important milestone in women empowerment strategies of NSW and Australia.
Gender equality in Australia implies a society in which women and men enjoy the same opportunities, outcomes, rights and obligations in all spheres of life. Equality between the two genders exists when both have equal opportunities for financial independence through work or through setting up businesses, enjoy equal access to education and the opportunity to develop personal ambitions. The forum addressed a critical aspect of gender discrimination as the empowerment of women, with a focus on identifying and redressing racism issues and discussing ideas about how women would achieve autonomy to manage their own lives.
The forum was well-attended and included Federal and State Government politicians such as Pru Goward, Minister for Women; Sophie Cotsis, Shadow Minister for Women, and various heads of ethnic organisations such as the Federation of Ethnic Communities Council, the Ethnic Communities Council and the Community Relations Commission. Speeches were given by Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, representing Prime Minister Tony Abbott, also Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Social Services, with a special responsibility for Multicultural Affairs and Settlement Services; and Victor Dominello, NSW Minister for Citizen and Communities and Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, also member for Ryde, who also represented the Premier of NSW. Mr Dominello hosted the symposium on behalf of the NSW Government. NSW Deputy Leader of the Opposition and Member for Canterbury Linda Burney represented the NSW Opposition Leader, and also spoke at the forum. Speeches were also delivered by Gillian Triggs, President Australian Human Rights Commission; Stepan Kerkyasharian, President Anti-Discrimination Board; and Pallavi Sinha, Chairperson of the Immigrant Women’s Speakout Association (IWSA).
Participants of the symposium reflected on the current measures in making better strategies in responding and assisting victims of racial vilification and attacks.
In her introductory speech Ms Sinha said, “In relation to women, 80% of women who approach IWSA as clients have reported that they experienced racism. When a woman experiences racism, it doubles discrimination because of the fact that she is from a different race, cultural background and age-group. Sometimes women are more vulnerable because they don’t know their rights or they don’t have the confidence to stand up for themselves. Racism against women affects individuals and Australian society adversely”. As Chairperson of IWSA, Ms Sinha admitted that she has seen women who have suffered a loss of self-esteem, have felt stigmatised and isolated which had a negative effect on their physical, emotional and mental health and their participation in a household or at their workplace, which can have a negative effect on productivity and the economy.
“I think it’s very important that more research is done in this area and that the government adopt a gender perspective in the design, delivery and evaluation of all policies and programs,” she stated.
“Unfortunately, immigrant and refugee women suffer a ‘triple whammy’ effect when racially vilified. It’s a combination of factors. It’s both gender (because) they’re women. It’s race because of their particular racial background, but it’s also more nuanced in that we have to think of the cultural and linguistic backgrounds which add to those disadvantages,” stated Guillian Triggs.
Addressing women’s issues also requires recognising that women are a diverse group, in the roles they play as well as in characteristics such as age, social status, urban or rural orientation and educational attainment.
“Racism in any form should be condemned as it is damaging and systemic. Migrant women face many problems around employment and engagement in society, they don’t have job search networks and they also need gender education along with awareness about facilitation of work placements,” she added.
Summing up, Ms Triggs said, “migration discrimination cuts across various other types of discriminations like asylum seekers discrimination, race, sex, age and ethnicity discrimination”.
Concetta Fierravanti-Wells summed up the racial discrimination act of 1975 and mentioned some initiatives taken by the Government in advocating gender and race equality like Harmony day on March 21 and endorsement of intercultural and international events in Australia by the government.
Victor Dominello emphasised that intensity of discrimination and racial activities is usually precipitated by fear and ignorance by the victims in most cases, minorities. He succinctly stated that inter-religion, inter-racial and inter-community marriages are an antidote to racism.
Stepan Kerkyasharian’s speech was the most informative and factual one. He spoke about the root causes of discrimination and about his own experiences about resolving issues around racism and discrimination. He once again boldly explained the definitions of the two, and explained the laws around the prevalence of racism and discrimination. He recommended that different boards across institutions and government should perform their roles in facilitating prevention of such acts from occurring through print media, online communication, magazines, newsletters and also set up an effective enquiry and complaint service.
Linda Burney, the first Aboriginal Australian elected to the NSW Parliament emphatically stated that sexual violence is regularly linked to racism for indigenous women, often within very small towns.
“It makes you feel sick, racism,” Ms Burney said. “For anyone who says racism isn’t an issue in this country and that people should just got on with it, we are a great multicultural society, there is no two ways about it, but let’s not pretend”.
Ms Sinha also added that legislation needs to be toughened to give women more access to help, and that it is a problem that has a disproportionately negative effect on immigrant women.
The serious mood lightened within the forum with a vibrant and colourful display by Asian women playing the drums, and a flash mob by migrant women.
Following this, two women participants shared stories of racism they experienced and the Q&A session saw active participation between attendees and guest speakers.
As an outcome of the Symposium, IWSA will be working with the AHRC and ADB to prepare recommendations about migrant women facing racism that will be presented to the State and Federal Governments.

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