12 March 2021
YWCA Canberra has a strong local reputation of hosting International Women’s Day events that highlight the lived experiences of women in Canberra. We continued this tradition in 2021, using women’s personal narratives to demonstrate policy failures and call for more to be done towards gender equality.
Our 2021 International Women’s Day event, held on Wednesday 10 March at the Kambri Cultural Centre, saw nearly 100 guests come together to explore how the COVID-1 pandemic has impacted on gender equality and women’s economic security and wellbeing.
The event began with a heartfelt Welcome to Country delivered by Ngunnawal Elder, Aunty Violet. She extended words of empathy toward all women who had experienced housing and financial insecurity and reflected on how racial and gender inequalities can leave too many women suffering.
YWCA Canberra CEO, Frances Crimmins then welcomed our guests and introduced the theme of this year’s event: Our Lives, Our Futures: Gender equality in the age of COVID-19. Frances provided evidence of the high prevalence of housing and financial insecurity for women in our community, and how the COVID-19 pandemic exposed the structural failings of system-wide and generational economic and social policies that have meant too many women are falling into poverty and homelessness.
Frances then introduced our short documentary featuring three local women—Aishlinn, Madeleine and Megan—who spoke openly about their financial and housing experiences. This video invites the viewer to take a closer look at the impact of COVID-19 on women’s labour market outcomes as well as the policy settings that can result in retirement insecurity and housing stress when their lives unexpectedly change.
Following the documentary, our panel discussion explored the themes of the film and gender equality in the age of COVID-19 more broadly. Facilitated by former ABC Radio broadcaster Alex Sloan AM, our expert panellists were:
Helen summed up the overarching theme perfectly when she said “COVID has shown us that our economy is based on the exploitation of women.” As a society, we still rely upon high rates of unpaid labour by women, and the very occupations that we depended on so much during the height of the crisis—nurses, teachers and early childhood professionals—are also low-paid and female-dominated occupations. And as Kat pointed out, gender inequality can impact women at any point in their lives, leaving them in precarious situations.
Government stimulus being directed largely at male-dominated industries certainly hasn’t helped facilitate gender equality, and the early access to superannuation scheme likely entrenched retirement poverty for many women, with early data showing that women who accessed the scheme were more likely to empty their superannuation accounts than men. As Katherine pointed out, the government’s commentary on safeguarding our retirements by providing additional contributions to our superannuation relies on having surplus income, which just isn’t a reality for many women on lower incomes and those forced to work fewer hours due to unpaid care requirements.
On a positive note, Kat commented that the COVID-19 pandemic has increased the commonality of working from home, which has helped many women with a disability to access the workforce. It is just too sad that a pandemic affecting able-bodied people was required to drive this change, rather than recognition of the rights of people with a disability.
What we need, according to our panel, is a complete restructuring of policy development, as delivered through the Budget, with consideration of how measures can have disproportionate consequences for women as compared to men. This call for Gender Responsive Budgeting (GRB) has been a long-standing feature of our advocacy work and we continue to call for GRB at both the ACT and Commonwealth level.
At YWCA Canberra, we call on policy makers at all levels to take this message to heart and implement this much-needed change, for both our economy and the wellbeing of 51 per cent of the population.