Women's Rights

The following content draws upon, in part, the Joint Australian NGO Coalition's fact sheets prepared for the Universal Periodic Review.

Equality laws

Women's rights are not fully protected in Australia.

Australia's Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (SDA) does not adequately address systemic discrimination or promote substantive equality – there is no general prohibition on sex discrimination; the burden for addressing sex discrimination is on individual complainants; intersectional discrimination is not adequately addressed; and exemptions to the Act, such as those for religious institutions, perpetuate unfair and unreasonable discrimination against women. Protection from discrimination against women in the workforce remains inadequate, particularly in the areas of pregnancy and family responsibilities. Proposed changes to the SDA, which will improve protections against sexual harassment, and discrimination on the basis of breastfeeding and family responsibilities, are welcome but further improvements are needed, such as those recommended in the 2008 Senate Committee Inquiry into the SDA. The Australian Government has committed to consolidating and harmonising federal anti-discrimination law into a single Act and to considering the unimplemented Inquiry recommendations as part of this process, but it is not yet clear how this will happen.

Inequality in business and the workplace

Women remain significantly underrepresented on boards and at senior management level. In 2010, only 8.4% of directors of the largest 200 publicly listed companies in Australia and 33.4% of government boards are women. Australia has recently introduced a new gender diversity target of 40% representation for both women and men on Australian Government boards. However the target of 40% applies when looking at the total number of women and men across all Australian Government boards – it does not address representation on individual government boards and may therefore have little impact.

The gender pay gap continues to widen, with women earning 82 cents in the male dollar (the biggest gap since 1994), and the gap is as big as 35% in some industries. The gender pay gap affects current incomes, living standards and the capacity of women to save for retirement. The report of the 2008-09 Parliamentary Committee Inquiry into pay equity, Making it Fair, made a large number of recommendations to which the Government has not yet responded.

Violence Against Women

High rates of violence against women remain a major issue, with almost one-in-three Australian women experiencing physical violence and almost one-in-five women experiencing sexual violence in their lifetime. The government-appointed National Council to Reduce Violence Against Women and Children delivered its report in April 2009. In August 2010, the Australian Government released a draft National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and Children, but this has yet to be implemented fully.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women experience horrific levels of violence and are 35 times more likely to be hospitalised as a result of spousal or partner violence than non-Indigenous women. Violence against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women is associated with a number of factors, including racism, dispossession, disadvantage and poor living conditions. Australia provides funding to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services, however Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women experience difficulties in accessing and gaining representation from these services. Australia has also funded family violence prevention legal services to provide services to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, however these services are not available in all parts of Australia, including urban areas, and are not adequately funded for law reform and policy development work.

The needs of particular women

Women from different population groups experience particular difficulties. There is limited access to family violence and sexual assault services in rural and remote areas. Women from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds face difficulties in reporting violence and accessing culturally appropriate accommodation. Violence against women with disabilities often goes undetected, unreported or uninvestigated, and there is a lack of access to appropriate services, including crisis accommodation, for women with disabilities. Violence against women identifying as lesbian, bisexual, transgender, transsexual or intersex within relationships often goes unacknowledged by national anti-violence strategies. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women also experience high rates of violence.

Three major government-commissioned reports have found that the family law system does not respond effectively to issues of family violence. As part of its election platform, the Australian Labor Party committed to amending legislation responding to these reports but has not done so since being re-elected.

The CEDAW Action Plan, prepared by YWCA with Women's Legal Services NSW on behalf of a coalition of NGOs setting out what the Australian and State and Territory Governments should do to put into action the UN's recommendations on women's human rights in Australia, can be found along with CEDAW's Review of Australia on the resources page of this site.

What the UN Human Rights Council recommended in the Universal Periodic Review

In January 2011 Australia was reviewed by the UN Human Rights Council during the Universal Periodic Review (or UPR) (a process whereby the human rights performance of all UN member states is reviewed by other states).  In June 2011 Australia provided its response to the 145 recommendations made by the Human Rights Council.

The Government has accepted over 90 per cent of the recommendations and has committed to incorporating the recommendations it has accepted into the National Human Rights Action Plan.

In relation to women's rights, the Human Rights Council made a number of relevant recommendations.  Australia has responded to these recommendations as set out in the following table.




Take steps to end gender discrimination and violence against women and children (recommendations 86.47 and 86.51, 86.54, 86.56, 86.66 and 86.77) and ensure equal respect, participation and enjoyment of human rights and opportunities including economic, social and cultural rights (recommendations 86.49 and 86.50).

Already reflected

Australia accepts the recommendation on the basis it is reflected in existing laws or policies and Australia will continue to take steps to achieve relevant outcomes.

Continue to ensure gender equality in employment (recommendations 86.54 and 86.56).

Already reflected

Implement legislation prohibiting discrimination and harassment on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender (recommendations 86.66 and 86.77).

Already reflected

Increase the representation of indigenous women in decision making positions (recommendation 86.120).

Already reflected

Put an end to systematic racial discrimination against women of vulnerable groups (recommendation 86.48).


The Australian Government considers that its current laws, policies and programs do not discriminate on the basis of race.

Strengthen the Sex Discrimination Act and consider the adoption of temporary special measures (recommendation 86.52).


Legislation to strengthen the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 was passed in May 2011.

Implement a National Action Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and Children and strengthen efforts to address the prevalence of violence against vulnerable groups (recommendations 86.72, 86.76 – 86.81)


The National Plan for Violence Against Women and their Children is a 12-year agreement between Australian, State and Territory governments, including an outcome that ‘Indigenous Communities are Strengthened’.

Adopt legislation to prevent and combat violence against women and girls and to prosecute and punish the perpetrators (recommendations 86.73 and 86.74).


States and Territories have in place legislation to criminalise violent conduct and sexual assault together with mechanisms to prosecute and punish perpetrators. The Australian Government has introduced legislation to prioritise the safety of children in family law proceedings and communicate that family violence and child abuse are unacceptable.

Ensure that all victims of violence have access to counselling and assistance with recovery (recommendation 86.82).


The Australian, State and Territory governments will continue to provide services to victims of violence including counselling and, where appropriate, financial assistance through victims of crime compensation schemes.

Increase the availability and provision of accessible legal advice to reach women in remote indigenous communities (recommendation 86.92).


The Australian Government has increased funding by 14.5% for Indigenous-specific legal services over 2010-14. It will continue to work with States and Territories to build the capacity of Indigenous language interpreter services.

Remove obstacles faced by indigenous women in accessing health, education and employment opportunities (recommendation 86.119).


No legal impediments to access have been identified.

Adopt targets of 40 percent representation of women on public and private sector boards (recommendation 86.55).


The Australian Government has committed to achieving 40% representation of women on public sector boards and will continue to work with the private sector to achieve gender balance in private sector leadership ranks and forums.

Withdraw Australia’s reservations to CEDAW (recommendation 86.16).


Australia will systematically review its reservations to human rights treaties, having regard to whether reservations remain necessary.

Prohibit corporal punishment within the family in all states and territories (recommendation 86.75).


While Australia has programs in place to protect children against family violence, and laws against assault, it remains lawful for parents in all States and Territories to use reasonable corporal punishment to discipline their children.