Commissioner Jackie Blue. Photo: HRC

Why we must heed UN calls for action on treatment of women in Family Court

The UN committee on women’s rights listened to our voices, and we cannot ignore their recommendations, writes Jackie Blue is the Equal Employment Opportunities and Women’s Rights Commissioner

Every four years New Zealand women get a chance to voice their concerns about women’s rights to a United Nations committee of 23 independent experts, who then provide a report and recommendations to our government.

Before I went to Geneva earlier this month to speak to the Committee for the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), the Commission engaged with many New Zealand women to ascertain their top human rights issues.

They said, overwhelmingly, that gender-based violence was the primary human rights issue for New Zealand women. This was no surprise as research shows us that cases of violence against women are drastically under-reported. In 2016 there were over 118,000 police domestic violence callouts – one every five minutes and yet this could be only 20% of domestic violence incidents.

We went to Geneva with a focus on five main human rights issues. I used my time before the CEDAW Committee to focus on gender-based violence.  On the same day that I spoke for the Human Rights Commission, New Zealand NGO’s also put their concerns forward to the CEDAW Committee.  Two days later, the CEDAW Committee held a full day examination of our government, led by Jan Logie, parliamentary under secretary to the minister of justice (domestic and sexual violence). The questions to our government reflected many of the concerns NGO’s and the Commission.

Last Monday, CEDAW issued its ‘Concluding Observations’ which included recommendations on equality, access to justice, gender-based violence, trafficking, education, health, employment, sexual harassment, data collection and family relations.

It was clear that CEDAW had listened to us and the NGOs.  Many of its recommendations addressed gender-based violence. The Committee endorsed the Commission’s recommendation that New Zealand needed a cross-party response to combat the alarmingly high level of gender-based violence in this country. They also recommended the government allocate resources to develop a comprehensive prevention strategy for gender-based violence against women.

We were also pleased by other recommendations that reflected our meetings with New Zealand women. These included a call for the government to collect and report separately to CEDAW on the number of cases of violence against women that have been investigated and have led to prosecutions, data on women who have received legal aid and women victims of violence who have been compensated.

New Zealand’s Family Court, already the subject of a review commissioned by the Minister of Justice, received a lot of attention at the CEDAW examination.

Like the members of CEDAW, I was shocked and dismayed at the evidence in the submission made by The Backbone Collective, which was one of the NGOs.

The experiences of the hundreds of women who contacted the Backbone Collective were overwhelmingly negative and canvassed prejudice, marginalization, large debts, negative impacts of health and well-being and inconsistency of judicial decisions.

The CEDAW report published this week called on the New Zealand government to upgrade the Ministerial Review into the Family Court to a Royal Commission of Inquiry with an independent mandate to engage in a wide-ranging evaluation of the drawbacks and obstruction of justice and safety for women inherent in the Family Court system.

Understanding the urgency and scale of these human rights issues, CEDAW wants to see a progress report from the New Zealand government in two years’ time on the issues of: a cross-party strategy on gender-based violence; the Royal Commission into the Family Court; removing abortion from the Crimes Act; resourcing of the Human Rights Commission; and amending the Immigration Act 2009 to allow the Human Rights Commission to process complaints from migrants.

Dr Jackie Blue is the Equal Employment Opportunities and Women’s Rights Commissioner

Read the CEDAW concluding observations here.

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