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This blog post is part of the Women and Foreign Policy program’s interview series on Gender Equality in Foreign Policy, featuring global and U.S. officials leading initiatives to promote gender equality in the defense, development, and diplomatic sectors. This interview is with Natasha Stott Despoja, former Australian Ambassador for Women and Girls (2013-2016). She is the founding Chair of Our Watch, the national foundation to prevent violence against women and their children, and author of the 2019 book On Violence.
You served as Australia's Ambassador for Women and Girls from 2013 to 2016. How and why was the the Ambassador for Women and Girls post created? What were your main responsibilities in the role?
The Global Australian Ambassador for Women and Girls was first created in 2011. Essentially, the position and responsibilities emulated that of the U.S. Ambassador for Global Women’s Issues, appointed by the Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.
I was appointed by Foreign Minister Julie Bishop in 2013 and served three years. My Minister established a target that 80% of all Australia’s international development must effectively address gender equality in its implementation. I was responsible for all the government’s work internationally on gender equality. The three priority areas were: promoting women’s leadership, supporting women’s economic empowerment, and eliminating and preventing violence against women and girls (be that domestic and family violence and sexual assault or in conflict, post conflict, and other environments).
I was responsible for attending regional and multi-lateral fora, including the Commission on the Status of Women and, while Australia was a member of the UN Security Council, addressing that Council during the Women, Peace and Security debates in 2014.
I also did multiple bilateral visits, with a strong emphasis on our region—not only because it is the place that we could make the most difference—but it is also a part of the world with some of the highest rates of violence against women and children, as much as 90 percent in Papua New Guinea, and also the lowest levels of representation of women in politics. I enjoyed working with my U.S. counterpart Ambassador Cathy Russell. In fact, it was a highlight of my term to spend one of my last visits to Papua New Guinea with Cathy where we were able to work on tripartite programs together to promote women’s economic security and their safety.
Only a few countries have created ambassador or envoy positions for global women’s issues. Did the Australian Ambassador position change the way gender equality is integrated into Australian foreign policy?
It’s true that only a handful of countries have had comparable roles. I was pleased to see Canada and the UK establish similar roles in recent times. Countries such as the Seychelles, Finland, and Sweden have led the way as well.
There is no doubt that this role in Australia helped influence political and policy understanding of issues affecting women around the world and, specifically, in our region. There was a demonstrable change in the way diplomats and other personnel within the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade focused their energies and programs on ensuring that gender equality was a key part of their work. I would argue Australia has now placed gender equality at the heart of its foreign policy and aid work which, in part, is a great tribute to the former Minister, Julie Bishop.
What are some key initiatives you undertook during your tenure, and what would you consider your main achievements?
Serving as Ambassador for Women and Girls was a great privilege. The greatest benefit has been seeing my country, under successive governments, assisting women in genuine need. But it is a two way street: I learnt a lot from my brothers and sisters around the world and especially in the Pacific.
I’m proud of many Australian achievements in this area, be it providing domestic violence shelters and women centers in places like Tonga, Vanuatu, Fiji, and Samoa or funding organizations such as the Commonwealth Gender Equality Network through which amazing young people advocate tolerance, respect, and a broader understanding of gender and equality.
I believe Australia’s contribution to the UN Women, Peace and Security debates, along with the specific work we are doing in refugee camps to promote sexual and reproductive health, are among the most critical things we can do and are the programs of which I am most proud.
Did you encounter challenges, either domestically or abroad, in advancing gender equality within the foreign policy apparatus?
Of course, there are always challenges when grappling with issues to do with gender, power, and especially the prevention of violence against women and children. There were certainly men and women in positions of power in Australia opposed to the position itself.
I have found that some people in politics are still naive as to the benefits of investing in women and girls around the world in order to bring about safety, security, as well as a more productive and peaceful world. Sometimes, highlighting the economic benefits of getting women and girls into education and employment seem to be the ones legislators and leaders will listen to.
What would your advice be to someone coming into a gender envoy or ambassador post, in Australia or elsewhere?
I certainly encourage more countries to create these roles and to ensure they are filled! Anyone holding one of these privileged positions I am sure would understand the importance of such a role.
My advice is just to make sure that it is always an open ended discussion/consultation/exchange between countries and people. Australia certainly doesn’t have the answers, but we can help with some solutions and resources and we can learn from other countries.
Many people I visited in our region and beyond were staggered that Australia still has a high rate of violence against women and children: every day in Australia, police are called to a domestic violence dispute every two minutes, that’s 657 times per day. Every week, a woman dies violently, usually at the hands of someone she knows. No one country has achieved gender equality. We must work together and learn from each other.