Australia Awards scholars join diverse International Women’s Day discussion panel
Posted: 15 March 2023
More than 100 years after the world first marked International Women’s Day, it remains a call to action to improve gender equality as well as an occasion to celebrate the achievements of women globally. To mark International Women’s Day this year, more than 40 Australia Awards scholars heard from a panel consisting of a senior Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) representative, a New Colombo Plan alumna, and four of their fellow scholars. The panellists all spoke about their experiences and this year’s UN Women Australia’s theme for the Day: ‘Cracking the Code: Innovation for a gender equal future’.
Megan Jones, Assistant Secretary of DFAT’s Indian Ocean and South Asia Regional Branch, opened discussions by noting that gender equality is a core policy priority for the Australian Government, founded on women’s economic empowerment, women in leadership and the elimination of violence against women.
“Australia Awards is no exception and aims for equal participation by women and men,” Megan said. “I am pleased that the current cohort of scholars meets the target of at least 50% of Scholarships being offered to women—with 168 women and 134 men now studying in Australia supported by Australia Awards – South Asia & Mongolia”.
Megan highlighted examples of alumni who were using innovation to improve the lives for women and girls.
Maldivian scholar Aminath Shaliny observed that celebrating International Women’s Day is easy, but “the next step of implementing change to improve women’s lives is the challenge.” Shaliny, who is studying a Master of Development Studies at the University of Melbourne, reflected on the fact that in Maldives, gendered preconceptions of careers often lock women out of economic activity involving technology. She contrasted this to what she has observed in Australia. “Women in Australia work in all fields, from corporate [and] engineering, to transportation and forklift driving,” Shaliny said, noting that she hopes to work towards a similar situation in her home country.
Addressing the theme of ‘Cracking the Code: Innovation for a gender equal future’, Bhutanese scholar Radhika Orari—who works in cybersecurity and is studying artificial intelligence through a Master of Data Science at Deakin University—spoke about her overwhelmingly positive experiences of working with other women in Bhutan and the gender balance in her field. In Australia, Radhika has been developing networking skills and joining professional bodies alongside undertaking her studies. She encouraged all female scholars to pursue such opportunities, commenting that “Australia Awards has helped me enhance my skills and my engagement so far,” and that her Scholarship experience is shaping her development goals.
Bronwyn Mercer, a New Colombo Plan alumna now working as Cyber Security Architect at Microsoft, similarly encouraged female scholars to seek mentors, professional opportunities and relevant networks, citing her membership of the Australian Women in Security Network as being invaluable for her career development. As a practitioner in artificial intelligence, Bronwyn said that companies can support gender equality by ensuring that technology is available to all, closely considering the information that is embedded in artificial intelligence to remove biases and ensuring diversity in teams working on innovation.
Nepali scholars Rakshya Risal and Chanda Devi Sunar, who are each studying a Master of Arts (Women’s and Gender Studies) at Flinders University, shared sobering statistics on women’s rights and the challenges in pursuing women’s empowerment through technology in Nepal.
Rakshya spoke about her experience of fighting against the custom of ‘chhaupadi’, in which menstruating women are forced into isolation. Although illegal, the practice persists in some communities, leading to increased risk of sexual exploitation and psychological hardship. Rakshya noted that the problem was exacerbated by a lack of information and sex-disaggregated data.
Chanda highlighted how unequal access to education, literacy and communication hinders efforts to promote women’s rights. “Technologies and apps like ‘Brave’ in Nepal work wonderfully in protecting women and giving young girls a voice—if they can access the technology,” Chanda said. However, comparatively lower access to mobile phones and the internet for women and girls is a significant challenge in Nepal. Both scholars said they value their Scholarships as catalysts to help them be strong changemakers when they return home.
The panel’s audience appreciated the diversity of subjects discussed. “What great insights,” commented attendee Shanilka Somasundaram of Sri Lanka. “It is interesting to see how different nations are at different stages on this important topic and a lot needs to be done still.”
To further align with this year’s UN Women theme, scholars were invited to apply the technological skills they learnt during recent Development Impact and Linkages Plan workshops and create a video outlining what International Women’s Day means to them. The videos were judged and the winners announced at the end of the panel event. All submissions were of a high quality and prizes were awarded not only to the overall winner, Rakshya Risal from Nepal, but also runners up Munkhzul ‘Zula’ Erdenedagva from Mongolia and Supun Jayawardena Diwelawatte from Sri Lanka.