ANNIKA MCINERNEY & GABRIELLE VERHAGEN
Vol 11, Issue 2
International Women’s Day is on 8 March every year. It is a day to celebrate women and recognise the ongoing inequality faced by those who identify as a woman around the world. It is about highlighting an intersectionality of disadvantage and working towards changing it.
This year the theme is ‘Be Bold for Change’. This theme resonates for us as women working in the law both because of the historic gender divide within those practicing law, and because of it’s capacity to influence society. For us, being bold for change means helping those most marginalised in the community. It means vocalising the inequality that still persists both internationally and within Australia in spite of the fear of being labelled with a derogatory term such as ‘feminazi’, or facing worse backlash. It means addressing intersectionality and acknowledging our own privilege relative to other women. It means listening to, and learning from, those who have lived experience even if it may be uncomfortable.
The law (and those who work in/with it) is in a unique position to help reflect and shape social values. Law underpins our society, it does not exist in a vacuum, and therefore has a great responsibility to do whatever it can to help those marginalised by our society.
Unfortunately, the law is not known for being bold for change. Our common law system is slow to change, and stuck in precedents and historical jurisprudence. Change does occur, there is no doubt, but it is slow due to the nature of litigation. This means that statute, and thus our politicians, bear the burden of boldly changing Australian law to reflect the modern issues of gender inequality. There have been very publicised attempts at this in particular areas, most notably attempts to deal with domestic violence. The issue is a clear case study of both the power and limits of the law. Domestic violence is overwhelmingly perpetrated by men, and the survivors of it are overwhelming women. Men are also victims of domestic violence, and their experiences should not be ignored or belittled, our focus on women as survivors is simply because statistics show that women suffer it more than men. It is clear that domestic violence is a gendered issue. Laws can punish perpetrators, but can they proactively change the underlying issues that lead to domestic violence? The real question is: how much can the law actually change the lives of the most marginalised women in Australia?
One very clear initiative which could assist women would be to properly fund the community legal sector, something which is yet to occur and will get worse from 1 July 2017, with the Women’s Legal Service to lose their duty lawyer. Another would be the increase of community legal education. There is only so much the law can do. We believe that education from an early age on gender issues, including subconscious societal prejudices and relationships, would ultimately be needed to combat the issues which women face. Our society needs to take a bold look in the mirror and start by acknowledging that we are not all equal, and this definitely does not stop at gender.
Our International Women’s Day panel Mind the Gap: It’s Not All About the Money hopes to address the theme for this year through our panelists and their stories. Magistrate Urfa Masood is the first Muslim woman to be appointed to the judiciary in Victoria. Her appointment is a clear bold shift for the judiciary, one which will hopefully be followed by more diversity. Kristen Walker QC is one of only a limited number of women Queen’s Council members, who regularly speaks at the High Court. A recent article in the Age revealed that only 25% of women appear as leading counsel in the High Court. Beth Gaze’s academic work has focussed on the intersection of legal and social issues. As stated above, this intersection is key to achieving systemic change within our society. As an advisor on the Equal Opportunity Act 2010 (Vic), Beth has contributed to the rules which underpin Victorian society and the ways we interact. All of these women are promoting bold, systemic change in their own ways, and we are incredibly excited to share International Women’s Day with them.
To come and hear these amazing women speak, come to our International Women’s Day Panel on the 8th of March at 6.30pm on level 1. Inspire yourselves, and be bold for change.
Gabrielle Verhagen and Annika McInerney are third-year JD students and the LSS Women's Officers for 2017
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