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Inside Australia’s bid to be on the world’s top women’s rights committee

“At least three days a week, I’m up at 5.30am getting ready for work,” says the former senator. “I log on to a virtual call with the Australian Mission to the United Nations by 6.15am and then by 6.30am we are having our first bilateral meeting with a member-state.”

In roughly 20 minutes, Stott Despoja has to persuade diplomats and ambassadors that her record – her 13 years as a centrist senator; her period as Australia’s ambassador for women and girls; and her time as founding chair of Our Watch, Australia’s peak body in the prevention of violence against women – justifies a position on CEDAW.

Natasha Stott Despoja, along with an election officer and representative from Australia's mission to the United Nations, speaks to a Cape Verde diplomat.

Natasha Stott Despoja, along with an election officer and representative from Australia’s mission to the United Nations, speaks to a Cape Verde diplomat.

Her dog, Merkel the German wirehaired pointer – named after the German Chancellor Angela Merkel – sometimes interrupts the call. The internet sometimes, but thankfully not too frequently, cuts out. Instead of meeting in the foyer of the UN’s New York building, an image of the lobby is used as a Zoom background. And unlike in-person campaigning, Stott Despoja cannot hand out the Haigh’s chocolates she usually gifts (“I promise, nowhere near enough to constitute a bribe!”).

It’s no ordinary campaign. If successful against the 21 other candidates vying for 11 CEDAW positions, Stott Despoja would be the first Australian in three decades to sit on the committee. Elizabeth Evatt, Australia’s first female federal court judge, was a member from 1984 and committee chair for two years from 1989.

And there’s reason to believe Australia’s bid will be successful. Australia has only put its hand up for one UN position so far this year, channelling all its diplomatic might behind the lone campaign.

Australia’s network of ambassadors are contacting their counterparts to scope out support. Where Stott Despoja is waking up early to hold bilateral meetings, it appears as though some other candidates are not. And Stott Despoja has also been commended for uniquely having her campaign brochure translated into French, Arabic, Spanish and Russian – even if it does lead to awkward moments where diplomats ask her questions in those languages, assuming she is fluent.

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“Post-COVID-19, the United Nations in New York has become ‘Zoom-town’,” says Australia’s Ambassador to the United Nations Mitch Fifield. “So Natasha has been hitting the road virtually, with Zoom meeting after Zoom meeting.”

Foreign Minister Marise Payne, who is also Minister for Women, says Stott Despoja would “bring our regional perspective to advancing the rights and transforming the lives of many women and girls across the world.”

“The Committee would be all the stronger for welcoming a member of her calibre, especially during these unprecedented times,” says Senator Payne.

Stott Despoja recognises CEDAW, which monitors and updates the powerful female discrimination convention that has been in effect for almost 40 years, will have a fundamentally different role post-coronavirus.

“We know that women are disproportionately affected in times of risk in natural disasters and other disasters. In this case, we know that women often represent a high proportion of health workers.”

“We’re seeing higher rates of family violence. CEDAW’s relevance will be more important than ever at rebuilding a post-COVID world, and one that still aims to promote gender equality,” says Stott Despoja.

It’s an opportunity to insert policies promoting gender equality as part of the economic rebuild, she says, as societies recognise they are safer and more productive when women reduce their share of unpaid work, childcare is made cheaper or free, and family violence is tackled seriously.

With the added complication of a virtual election campaign, Stott Despoja cannot tell how well she’s going. It was already a win to have Australia mount a bid for CEDAW – something local advocates have wanted for years.

Come June 29, she will know whether those early mornings had paid off. And maybe by then she’ll be in New York.

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