We cannot solve problems we do not understand, argues Ramona Vijeyarasa. In the final article of this 3-part series, exclusive to BroadAgenda, Dr Vijeyarasa, the lead scholar behind the Gender Legislative Index, explains the importance of gender disaggregated data.
We cannot fix what we do not know. It seems quite an obvious mantra. Yet it begs the question, do legislators actually understand what women need from the law? When a draft bill is being debated, is there enough gender expertise in the room, or evidence on paper, for a true gender audit of the implications of that law for women and girls to be conducted.
Too often the answer is no. Earlier in this series, I introduced readers to the concept of gender-responsive legislation. The ultimate goal is for national legislation to do a better job at embedding women’s rights. This requires a law to specifically acknowledge and respond to existing discrimination facing women. The law also needs to be drafted in a way that accounts for differences in the needs and interests of men and women in relation to a particular area of law.
…only around 15 per cent of (parliamentary DFAT) submissions actually considered the gendered implications for the law.
From a practical perspective, however, what is needed to ensure that the final law enacted is actually gender-responsive? Australia’s Modern Slavery Act (Cth) of 2018 is illustrative. The 2018 federal law mandated medium and large-scale businesses to undertake due diligence to identify the risks of exploitation in their supply chains. In the lead-up to the law’s enactment, 225 submissions were made to the Australian Parliament’s Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade. While often well-intended and a pivotal part of any parliamentary democracy, my own research showed that only around 15 per cent of submissions actually considered the gendered implications for the law. This is surprising given the dominance of women in certain sectors of supply, namely, the garment sector and the evident gender-disaggregated nature of work in the supply chains.
Alarmingly, only two submissions out of the 225 offered concrete recommendations directly addressing the question of how women workers are at risk of exploitation in the supply chains of medium and large-scale businesses and how better regulation of business practises is needed. The end result was a gender-blind law that failed to call for either gender-sensitive due diligence or gender-disaggregated data collection to better understand the situation that was being regulated in the first place or the likely impact of the law.
This is just one example of the risks of legislating without understanding the problem from a gender perspective. Gender-disaggregated data is therefore key.
The role of gender-disaggregated data in legal drafting
Gender disaggregated data in the legal drafting process can allow for a very nuanced understanding of the picture. The Gender Legislative Index evaluated the Fair Work Amendment (Textile, Clothing and Footwear Industry) Act, a law that addresses income that has been unpaid and owing to workers in the Textile Clothing and Footwear Industries in Australia. Evaluators were quick to assume that there would be very specific gendered implications from the law. Yet, it took much deeper digging to actually understand what those implications were.
While men dominate some aspects of that industry, women who are often older, migrant women and from a non-English speaking background dominate other aspects. Hearing from organisations such as Asian Women at Work and Immigrant Woman’s Speak Out becomes key. The law was written in facially neutral terms but in reality, different and particular groups of women will be affected by – and benefit from it – the law in different ways. Without adequately understanding how men and women will be affected by the law and which women and men, a law may fail to achieve its goals.
Data collection on the situation of women
There are in fact clear international standards when it comes to monitoring the situation of women. The collection of statistical information on women was the subject of a standalone recommendation in 1989 by the CEDAW Committee, which emphasised the need for governments to design national statistical data collection processes in a way “that data can be disaggregated according to gender, with regard to both absolute numbers and percentages, so that interested users can easily obtain information on the situation of women in the particular sector in which they are interested”. This was the first of many instances in which the CEDAW Committee has called for comprehensive monitoring of the situation of women.
Data can achieve both an understanding of what legal and policy reform is required to improve the situation of women but also to monitor their effectiveness. Hopefully with such data at hand, we can start to push Australia into the shortlist of world leaders when it comes to gender equality.
Ramona Vijeyarasa is a scholar in the Faculty of Law at the University of Technology Sydney and the 2020 Women’s Leadership Institute Australia (WLIA) Research Fellow. This research has been made possible, in part, thanks to WLIA, as well as the UTS Centre for Social Justice and Inclusion Social Impact Grant 2020.
Jessica Abramovic works as a Policy Officer at the Australian Research Centre and volunteers for Feminartsy, an online feminist literature and arts journal. She studies a Graduate Diploma in Professional Writing at Deakin University, and holds a BA in Communications and International Studies, and a Masters in International Development from the University of Canberra.