Published:  12:00 AM, 08 March 2017

The world has become a worse place for women

At this moment in history, the world stands at a crossroads in the long-fought battle for gender equality. Rather than making gains and advancing, we are defending the hard-fought victories that we thought we had won for good. Rather than enjoying our freedoms, we're watching them be trampled on. Rather than celebrating, we're protesting.
The winding back of women and girls' rights is happening in all corners of the globe.

In one of the first acts of the new presidential administration, the United States' Government reinstated a federal ban on funding for international organizations that counsel women on family planning options including abortion. The "Mexico City" policy places restrictions on all global health funding provided by the US, potentially affecting millions of women and girls in the developing world and the services they rely on, including family planning, HIV, maternal and child health services.

The impact on teenage girls in particular will be devastating. Complications in pregnancy and childbirth are among the leading causes of death in girls aged 15 to 19 in low and middle-income countries. When a mother is under 20, her child is 50 percent more likely to be stillborn or die within its first weeks of life.

In Russia, the Parliament voted in favour of a new bill that removes most domestic violence offences from the Russian criminal code. Astonishingly, 368 parliamentarians voted in favour of the change and only one opposed it, with one abstention. Rather than building on existing protections for Russian women and girls at risk of domestic violence, the government is intent on stripping away protections -- giving a green light to abusers.

In Bangladesh, a new proposed child marriage law provides a broad, undefined exception for girls under the age of 18 to be married in 'special cases'. The law has been criticised by advocates, saying the exception is a backward step in the fight to end child marriage in Bangladesh, a country with one of the highest rates of child marriage in the world, with 52 percent of girls married under the age of 18.

As we see countries around the world place restrictions on women and girls' choices, their freedoms and their right to safety, there is an urgent need for the Australian government to step up to fight for the rights of women and girls.
Fortunately, a new opportunity has arisen for Australia to position itself as a leader for the rights of women and girls around the world. As we speak, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade is working towards developing a new Foreign Policy White Paper, setting out a high-level strategic direction for the next 10 to 15 years. Foreign Minister Julie Bishop believes this White Paper will decide Australia's most important global priorities to work toward with our allies in the decade to come.

One of the best indicators of whether a country is peaceful and stable isn't its level of wealth, or ethnic profile or religious identity -- I suggest it is how a nation treats women and girls. - Julie Bishop There is little doubt that gender equality is one of the most pressing principles in contemporary society. And Australia is in a good position to lead the pack on defending women and girls' rights at a time when they're being wound back around the world.

Australia is one of the few countries that has an Ambassador for Women and Girls to deliver international advocacy. In 2016, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade developed a Gender Equality and Women's Empowerment Strategy with an 80 percent target for aid development investments specifically to improve life for women and girls.
In December 2016, in a speech to the Lowy Institute, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop re-affirmed the important role women and girls play in peace and security:

"...I cannot emphasise enough the critical connection between peace, security and gender equality. One of the best indicators of whether a country is peaceful and stable isn't its level of wealth, or ethnic profile or religious identity -- I suggest it is how a nation treats women and girls.

As I have argued many times as Foreign Minister -- gender equality isn't just the right thing to do, it's the smart thing to do. According to the McKinsey Global Institute, if women were to participate in the economy at a level comparable to men, global GDP would grow by 26 per cent, or USD28 trillion, by 2025." It's more important than ever that Australia is a vocal and proud advocate for protecting and advancing the rights of all women and girls: whether it's through the United Nations, or the G20 or bilateral diplomacy.

Australia must continue to strengthen and grow its gender targeted aid and development investments so that we can promote economic growth and development, as well as increasing peace and security globally. This is undeniably a crucial moment in time for women and girls across the world.

As a fierce advocate of girls and women's rights, I hope that Australia's commitment to gender equality is unmistakably front and centre in the new Foreign Policy White Paper. Gender should not simply be a side note in the White Paper, instead it should form a cornerstone of Australia's strategic foreign policy direction for the next 10 to 15 years.

This is undeniably a crucial moment in time for women and girls across the world. The Australian Government has an opportunity to grasp this moment, to stand with women and girls across the globe and to articulate Australia's vision for a world free from gender inequality. The writer is Senior Policy Advocacy and Government Relations Advisor at Plan International Australia

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