Professor Caroline Homer AO, Burnet Institute Executive Team, Co-Program Director, Maternal and Child Health.

Professor Homer is an advocate for women's rights and supports Australia's bid to host the Women Deliver Conference in 2022. Discover what she has to say on the challenges and opportunities around gender equality.

What was the turning point that inspired you to become an advocate for gender equality?
I am not sure I have a magical turning point. As a midwife I have always been acutely aware of the gender inequities and imbalances that exist in the world and how there is so much still to do, change and activate.

What are the biggest challenges in the Australian health sector for women and girls?
The health and medical sector has a higher proportion of women than men although fewer women are in senior leadership positions. Nursing and midwifery make up more than half of the health workforce and these are predominately feminised professions. In addition, there are now more women entering medicine than men which is changing the balance of the medical workforce. Despite all these changes, women are still under-represented in senior leadership in hospitals, medical research institutes, professional colleagues and ministries of health. A lack of women in leadership means a lack of focus on woman focussed health care, especially for women from marginalised groups.

Would you consider Australia to be a progressive country when it comes to maternal health and women and girls sexual and reproductive health and rights? What are we getting right, what should we start doing now and what should we stop?
Yes and no. Yes because we have universal access to health care for women and girls. We have a strong commitment to evidence-based options for health care and many services available to women especially those from marginalised and vulnerable groups.

No because we still have big gaps especially in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and babies, a lack of universal free access to abortion, challenges for women in rural and remote settings to access services, unwarranted variation in a number of key health outcomes.

There is still a culture in maternity care that the rights of the unborn child is more important than the rights of the woman herself. This plays out in access to abortion, access to vaginal birth after caesarean section, access to vaginal breech birth – these all focus on the implications for the baby not the mother.

How can Australia’s strengths contribute to our bid to host ‘Women Deliver 2022’ in Melbourne?
We have great strengths in health care delivery, universal access to health services and we are in an amazing region of the world. We have some real champions of gender equity including Julia Gillard and some wonderful female politicians (Tanya Plibersek and Penny Wong) and journalists (Annabel Crabb and Laura Tingle), ex-politicians (Hon Julie Bishop) and advocates (like Elizabeth Broderick).

Every woman and girl should have access to quality and affordable health care, where they can freely exercise their sexual and reproductive health rights and be treated and respected equally. From a global perspective how are we tracking on this?
In comparison to low to middle income countries we are tracking well but that does not mean that we have not got more to do. I think we have nothing to be proud of in terms of Aboriginal and Torres Strat Islander health and social outcomes.

Melbourne is a gateway to the Pacific region and brings together cultures from more than 15 small island Pacific nations. What issues and challenges have you seen facing women across the Asia Pacific through your work with the Burnet Institute?
Access to universal health care, access to modern contraceptives, high rates of gender based violence and very low proportions of women in government in almost all the PICs.

How would ‘Women Deliver 2022’ provide a platform to help foster gender equality and support the wellbeing of girls and women here in Australia and around the world?
There is a real need for there to be a focus on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and the incredible lineage of more than 3000 generations. There are similarities with other countries such as New Zealand, Canada and USA. Women’s business is a fundamental part of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women’s health and culture.

Australia’s bid theme is Beyond Boundaries: A sustainable future – what does this mean to you in terms of wellbeing of girls and women, especially maternal, sexual, and reproductive health and rights?
I think this means looking beyond your own boundaries to think about how gender equity and universal reproductive health and rights can be provided to all women in our region and in the world.

What positive outcomes and legacy impacts would you like to see emerge from the ‘Women Deliver 2022’ if hosted in Melbourne?
A real engagement from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and women from the Pacific in the Women Deliver movement.
An understanding and acknowledgement from our federal government that gender equity matters and a commitment to tear down barriers for all women.
 

Click here to find out how you can support Melbourne's bid to host the 2022 Women Deliver conference.