International Women's Day 2023

08 March 2023

Lauren KATHAGE (Yan Yean) (15:33):

It is my honour to speak today on International Women’s Day. Yesterday was 100 days since I was elected, and this year marks 100 years since women won the right to stand for election to a Victorian Parliament. There is a proud history of women’s struggle to get into this place. Somebody bought my daughter a picture book which tells the story of Emmeline Pankhurst, a UK suffragette, and I thought, ‘Oh.’ My daughter is five and I do not think she is ready to learn about this yet. I do not want her to know that there is inequality in the world and that women are sometimes treated as less than equal. How can I expose that to my five-year-old? So when I read it to her I change the words. I make it up as I go along to match the pictures, and I basically take the guts out of the story, which is about women fighting for the right to vote. When is a young girl old enough to learn that the world does not always treat women as it should? And when will young girls never have to learn that because women are treated equally?

I reflected last night that perhaps in not reading the full true story to my daughter I was doing her a disservice, and I wondered if it was akin to those opposite opposing a motion to even discuss International Women’s Day in this place. Many of my daughter’s picture books follow the same pattern: a hero overcoming adversity. In not reading her the story, I have come to realise, I am not showing her the full role of women as heroes, heroes like Heather and Gnanes, who joined me here today as my guests for International Women’s Day. Heather was an apprentice in this very place and painted much of the gold leaf that you see in various places around here, especially in the other place. If you happened to bring a ladder to work and climbed up it, you would see where the apprentices and the painter-decorators of the 1970s wrote their names on the ledges above.

Gnanes was also here. Gnanes is a volunteer at the Mernda Community House, teaching women how to sew. I was so pleased this morning that in her excitement to come to Parliament House, this place of power, this morning she sewed me a small keepsake, with an inside lining fabric with pictures of women. I thought that was very touching and I was very happy to have them here with me today.

A personal hero who, unbeknownst to her, helped shape my life path is Jackie Huggins. A Bidjara and Birri Gubba Juru academic, author and activist, she would enter the lecture hall when I was at university, speak to us students and change our lives, our understanding of how the world works and how it should work. That was a long time ago. More recently she has served as the co-chair of the eminent panel advising the Queensland government on the process of truth-telling and treaties. It is not enough for some women to have a voice. All women must have a voice. And it is not enough that people who are the subject of policies and programs do not have a guiding say in them. That is why I support an Aboriginal Voice to Parliament.

Young women must have a voice too. I met Sophie at Whittlesea Secondary College, which I was visiting to discuss the $11.7 million upgrade we are delivering to that fine school. Her principal had brought Sophie along to meet me because Sophie has a keen interest in politics. Sophie asked me, ‘What advice would you give to an aspiring politician?’ My answer was immediate: join the Labor Party. For if you are a female and if you want a seat in this place at the table of decision-making, any high school maths student could tell you that your odds are much better on this side of the chamber.

But in this chamber we are not focused on ourselves, we are focused on the women in Victoria. That is why the 2022–23 state budget invested approximately $940 million in initiatives primarily aimed at improving outcomes for women. It is why the Victorian government established and has responded to the inquiry into economic equity for Victorian women and has committed $3 million to industry strategies in manufacturing and energy to help women enter and stay in male-dominated sectors.

There are other spheres of influence for women besides politics. On Monday at the Bridge Inn Road upgrade I met Azize, a female apprentice who was working alongside her male and female colleagues to build the infrastructure that will make such a tangible improvement to the lives of so many in my electorate. We have seen that with free TAFE and with the support for apprentices in Victoria it has become easier for women to forge a career in male dominated sectors. As I said earlier, this year is 100 years since women won the right to stand for election in the Victorian Parliament. Why is it important that there are female representatives in Parliament? It is not just about somewhat abstract notions of fairness or the claims that women are more empathetic. It is about real change. A 2022 study in the European Journal of Public Health found that:

… greater female political representation is associated with lower geographical inequalities in infant mortality, smaller inequalities in … health … and fewer disability-adjusted life-years lost for women and men.

Better outcomes do not happen by accident. Female-strong governments introduce things like increased maternal and child health hours for new parents. We are investing $69 million to help parents, when their babies are born, to have more access to free maternal and child health services, new early parenting services and additional support for multicultural and Aboriginal communities. It is to make those early weeks and months easier.

Female-strong governments also introduce policies like our $71 million package to create 20 new women’s health clinics at public hospitals, a new statewide service and more sexual and reproductive health hubs across Victoria, as well as working with Aboriginal health organisations to deliver dedicated Aboriginal-led women’s health clinics. These will provide comprehensive care for Victorians experiencing pain, and women’s pain often goes undiagnosed; I think here of my niece, who each month suffers from debilitating pain, interrupting her schooling and her participation in sport. I am looking forward to hearing more from the inquiry into women’s pain management that is being established.

It is true that some people do not believe that women belong in Parliament. In fact I am often asked when I am out and about with community groups or here in this house, ‘Who is looking after your daughters?’ Well, the Labor government is looking after my daughters. As we speak my three-year-old daughter is in free three-year-old kinder, taking part in play-based learning, and my big girl is at a great local state school, with the latest school newsletter informing me that it is running the Respectful Relationships program. The Respectful Relationships program acquits a key recommendation of the Labor government’s Royal Commission into Family Violence, helping schools promote respect, positive attitudes and behaviours in all aspects in their classrooms, their culture, their playground, the staffroom and more broadly in the school community. I am so glad that my daughter will benefit from that.

Purple and green are the colours of International Women’s Day, as they were for the British suffragettes: purple representing justice and green representing hope. I wear green today for my daughters, to represent the hope I hold that they will be the heroes of their own stories. Thank you for the opportunity to speak on International Women’s Day, and I thank all of my incredibly strong female colleagues for all the support, guidance and fantastic role modelling they have provided for myself and other new members of Parliament.