A fearless voice against the status quo through a career spanning politics, diplomacy and advocacy, Natasha Stott Despoja AM has been fighting since day dot. 

Over more than two decades, Australian Parliament’s youngest female politician turned tireless gender equity campaigner has made a habit of challenging the system and delivering results. Appointed a Senator at 26 in 1995 then elected in 1996, Ms Stott Despoja’s political career of more than a decade spawned important policy and sparked progressive debate of huge significance. Leader of the Australian Democrats party in her early 30s, she was the Senator who introduced Australia’s first paid parental leave legislation to the Parliament in 2002 and the nation’s first same-sex marriage legislation alongside Senator Andrew Bartlett in 2005. 

Work on technological issues such as genetic privacy, stem cell regulations and the space industry were also highlights – though maybe not as headline-grabbing. Having set such a trailblazing standard through her parliamentary career, it should come as no surprise that Ms Stott Despoja has continued to work tirelessly for theleaving the public glare of parliamentary service in 2008. 

As Australia’s Ambassador for Women and Girls between 2013 and 2016, she visited more than 30 countries in the name of advancing gender equality and promoting women’s economic empowerment. Through this role she worked with partners in government, business and civil society to support the aspirations of women and girls around the world. Ms Stott Despoja is also a member of the World Bank Gender Advisory Council and currently sits on the UN High Level Working Group on the Health and Human Rights of Women, Children and Adolescents. 

“No one country has achieved gender equality,” she told Leader. “Despite enormous progress, the issues facing women and girls remain a great human rights challenge for our world.” 

2013 was also the year Ms Stott Despoja took up her role as founding chair at Our Watch, the Australian not-for-profit which aims to drive change in the culture, behaviours and power imbalances that lead to violence against women and their children. The role is considered by Ms Stott Despoja as one of the greatest privileges of her life. The epidemic of gender-based violence – home and abroad – is an issue close to the heart. 

“One of the most heinous manifestations of gender inequality is the scourge of violence against women and girls,” she said. “We know that globally, more than one in three women has been beaten, coerced into sex or abused in some way. “Every 10 minutes, somewhere in the world, an adolescent girl dies as the result of violence. “As the World Health Organisation has stated, it is an epidemic. 

“Everywhere I have been, including in Australia, I have seen the effect of violence against women and children. I see the shame and the stigma. I see the injuries and after effects, both physical and emotional.” 

The statistics on domestic violence in Australia make for chilling reading and highlight the significance of the issues organisations such as Our Watch are tackling. A research project conducted in 2015 by Australia’s National Research Organisation for Women’s Safety based on ABS figures estimated one in three women in Australia had experienced physical violence since the age of 15. 

The 2017 National Homicide Monitoring Program report by the Australian Institute of Criminology found on average, one woman was murdered a week in Australia over a two-year period from 2012 to 2014. Meanwhile, the strength in uptake of paid domestic violence leave by WA public servants following the State Government’s introduction of the scheme in August last year caught policymakers off-guard, and vindicated the need for such support in the workplace. 

There are countless more anecdotal and statistical examples to draw on, but each point to a need for change and the importance of empowerment. Ms Stott Despoja said tackling genderbased violence was a challenge which required cultural and policy change, with Then Ambassador for Women and Girls Natasha Stott Despoja AM and Advisor Felicity Volk at the ASEAN Secretariat in Jakarta in 2014. Image: Joshua Estey/Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Our Watch’s work centred on primary prevention. 

“The research is clear – in order to address the violence, we need to tackle the attitudes and behaviour that give rise to violence in the first place,” Ms Stott Despoja said. “The good news is that violence is not inevitable, it is preventable." 

THE VALUE OF #METOO AND THE POWER OF LEADERSHIP 

The cultural impact of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements hit globally in 2017, empowering many victims of sexual assault and violence to speak up and let their experiences be known. By sparking a conversation and helping people be heard, Ms Stott Despoja said there was promise in people finding their voice, but it was important such movements encouraged further action across the board. 

“While these movements highlight the magnitude of the issue, they have also left many asking ‘what’s next?’,” she said. “With greater public awareness and a groundswell of support to amplify the voices of women, we must use this global momentum to change lives for the better and disrupt the gender disparities that are tightly woven into our culture and value systems.” Ms Stott Despoja said Our Watch’s work showed a desire from the everyday Australian to do more. “Our research shows a majority of Australians want to be better ‘bystanders’,” she said. 

“They want the tools and knowledge in order to intervene safely in situations where people are at risk, or where they see examples of inappropriate behaviour. “Businesses can assist through workplace giving, or by simply being alert to the experiences their employees may be going through.” 

The former Australian Democrats leader said she would speak on the importance of empowerment when addressing the upcoming AIM WA Leadership Summit in October. “I am passionate about people feeling empowered,” she said. The research is clear - to address violence, we need to tackle the attitudes that give rise to violence. 

“To me, empowerment is firstly to give someone the tools and information they need to form views on how to improve the world. It’s then to listen closely to what that person has to say. My message is that your community needs you to be engaged in leadership and decision-making. I encourage you to seize every opportunity to seek information, to speak up and to be a leader – you have the power to change." 

“Real and lasting improvements to our world, including creating greater opportunities for women and girls here and around the globe, require us all to be leaders – within our families, with our friends, in workplaces and in our communities.” 

BREAKING THE GLASS CEILING 

The youngest woman to enter Australian Federal Parliament – a record which still stands – at a time when the Parliament comprised just 14 per cent women, Ms Stott Despoja believes her gender and relative youth challenged the political system and brought about lasting change. But the environment wasn’t always as inclusive as the public who voted her into power. 

“I look back and can’t believe that, at my first business lunch, I was asked if I went into politics to meet a husband,” she said. “Sometimes the sexist commentary was debilitating, but I am proud of the way I handled it and how my entry into Parliament hopefully created change and paved the way for many women of all ages and backgrounds to follow. 

“I am proud to be the youngest woman to ever enter the Federal Parliament because I believe ‘you can’t be what you can’t see’ – the idea of challenging the stereotypes around what constitutes a politician was important.” 

At 32 per cent, women are still underrepresented in Australia’s Parliament in 2018, but things have come a long way since the mid-1990s. 

“At the time I was subject to ridiculous and sometimes amusing stereotypes by the media and other politicians,” Ms Stott Despoja said. “However, the public was ready for change – they wanted fresh faces and to see our diversity and difference reflected and represented in our decision-making institutions.”

Jack McGinn is a Journalist at The West Australian Newspapers and is a writer for 'Leader', AIM WA's magazine for members.