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Opinion: It’s time to accelerate women’s equality and end exploitation

3 min read

International Women’s Day 2022 celebrates women’s social, economic, cultural, and political achievements. It invites reflection on where we are at as a nation regarding women’s equality. HerSpace is a not-for-profit pioneering a specialised mental health recovery service for women survivors of exploitation in Australia. Exploitation, also known as modern slavery, includes all forms of sexual exploitation, human trafficking, slavery and slavery-like practices such as debt bondage and forced marriage.

Are you surprised to read that modern slavery is currently happening in Australia? I grew up learning about the victorious anti-slavery movements of the past. I believed that much of the battle against slavery had already been fought and won. It was hard to accept the current estimate that there are more enslaved people in the world today than at any other time in history. The Federal Government’s National Action Plan to End Modern Slavery 2020 – 2025 acknowledges that Australia continues to have an exploitation problem. Thousands are exploited in Australia. It’s estimated that 4 out of 5 victims go undetected, and 83% are women and girls.

We can draw inspiration to continue the fight against exploitation from courageous women across the centuries. A north star to commemorate this International Women’s Day is Harriet Tubman, an abolitionist living in the 1800s. The Underground Railroad was a series of secret passages and safe houses used to help enslaved people in the US escape to freedom. Harriet, an African American woman, also known as ‘Moses’, became the most famous ‘conductor’ of the Underground Railroad, leading an exodus of over 70 enslaved people to freedom. She also championed women’s suffrage. When both the human rights of women and African Americans were denied, she endured great sacrifice to fight for freedom.

The theme for International Women’s Day 2022 is ‘break the bias’ – creating a world free of bias, stereotypes and discrimination. It’s tempting to think that the effects of our own biases are innocuous. But haven’t we seen examples across history of seemingly insignificant attitudes and judgements spiralling into devastating forms of degradation of human beings? What impacts do our biases, stereotypes, and discrimination have on fuelling the exploitation of women in this nation?

The seeds of exploitation are scattered in many directions in Australia. They take root in social vulnerabilities. They bud in our economic system. They shoot up in our legal processes.

Recent data shows the disproportionate economic impact of the pandemic on women. Economic vulnerability fuels exploitation. There is a devastating mental health recovery support gap for women survivors of exploitation in Australia. The shortage of trauma recovery services for women impacted by violence means they face long waitlists or are turned away. A lack of community awareness about exploitation can mean survivors remain hidden in plain sight. Would you see the signs of exploitation in a woman’s life? What if you were the only window of opportunity she had to seek help?

Have our biases, stereotypes, and discrimination veiled the dark realities of exploitation in the nation? Exploitation dims the light of freedom in human beings. We can break the bias by ‘seeing’. How is your eyesight going? Do you see people for who they are and all they can be? We can restore the truth of every woman’s identity. The world is missing out on the sea of talent, dreams and creative expression that could burst forth from these women and girls to heal and better the world.

A movie called “Not without my daughter” is about a woman and her child taken overseas and held against their will. The mother has various opportunities to escape alone but stays and continues to seek a change for them both. When I think about giving up the fight against the exploitation of women in this nation, I rally myself – not without my daughter, not without my sister, not without my mother. We are not free as a nation until we are all free.

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Roxan is the Executive Officer of HerSpace Limited.


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