Leadership, empowerment of women central to Asia-Pacific forum

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The forum was funded by the government of the Netherlands.

Dozens of women from across the Asia-Pacific region are in Melbourne this week for high-level meetings to find out how Victoria deals with domestic violence and other issues affecting women.

The week-long Women's Action for Voice and Empowerment (WAVE) forum is hosting women from Cambodia, Myanmar, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, East Timor and elsewhere, paid for by a $22 million grant from the government of the Netherlands.

"We want to learn from other countries for us to build alliances for this feminist movement, this movement for women around the region," said Htar Htar, who has opened the first women's refuge in the Myanmar capital Yangon.

"The stories of women are very common. One, we are coming out of the oppression. Two, what we are doing and who we are now, started with the power inside us."

The WAVE forum kicks off a five-year project that is being run by the Melbourne-based International Women's Development Agency.

"It's almost unprecedented to see people invest in women's leadership like this, in an international space that fully respects that it's a movement," the agency's CEO Joanna Hayter said.

"That will enable that change to happen. It's not just organisations, it's the collective strength."

Women walk in the shoes of Victorian violence victim

As part of the program, some of the women were taken on the Walk In Her Shoes tour of the Melbourne Magistrates Court, which aims to show visitors what it is like to navigate the courts while applying for a family intervention order.

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The women were encouraged to 'walk in the shoes' of a family violence victim.

They sat in the family violence court and later Magistrate Felicity Broughton helped to explain the processes they had seen by putting some of the women in her shoes — the judge's bench.

"Is what you've seen different from what you're seeing at home?" Magistrate Broughton asked.

One woman answered: "Quite different."

Legal systems differ from country to country and Victoria's laws were a revelation to some.

"We have a positive obligation under the Family Violence Act to make inquiries about the children's safety and how they might be affected by family violence," Magistrate Broughton explained to them.

Myanmar's laws are very much a work-in-progress as the country finds its way under its new democracy.

Htar Htar explained that women were still reluctant to act against cultural norms that accept a husband beating his wife.

"If you don't have this protection order, even if you have a very good law, women won't access it," she said.

"So in Myanmar there is no such thing as a protection order yet."

Australians asked to consider who makes their clothes

United Sisterhood in Cambodia, known as Us, brings together a number of women's groups including the Workers' Information Centre, which aims to improve the plight of the 630,000 women who work in Cambodia's garment trade.

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Many women in Asia working in clothing factories do so in sub-standard conditions.

The women endure "long hours, they are working with low paid and also the safety and hygiene environment," the centre's Chann Sitha Mark said.

Many move to Phnom Penh from the provinces and live in costly, dirty accommodation.

Conditions have been improving a little because of protests by the workers and international attention, but Chann Sitha Mark wanted Australians to think more about where their clothes are made.

"Asking those questions really helps because it links to the whole production line, from the farm and also the factory and how it's actually exported and sold here," she said.

"If they can be involved in terms of engaging with the brands to really focus on the condition of the workers that would be very good, because they have the power to do that."

PNG working with men to target behaviours

Lilly Be'Soer has spent two decades trying to improve women's rights in Papua New Guinea, where two out of three women are said to be affected by violence.

"The male power, the control. They know that what they are doing is wrong," she said.
Her organisation, Voice for Change, is working with men - including security officers, police and sports organisations.

"We are working with them, in training and advocacy, targeting at them their own behaviours," she said.

"[To get them to] examine their own relationship and the kind of partnership and communications they have within their families. They have to change before they go out and change others."

There have been gains for women across the region in recent years and the WAVE forum is proof to some degree.

Once these women would not have dared to leave their countries to talk about violence and women's issues. But it can come at a price.

"The more we succeed in elevating women's rights and elevating our status the nastier the backlash gets and it's getting pretty dangerous out there," Ms Hayter said.

"And there's a whole bunch of both individuals and institutions that really do not want to see women's status lifted. It's far more in their interests to commodify us and to keep us silent. We're not having it."