Gai Brodtmann: Overseas aid is a weapon.

By Gai Brodtmann

As a young woman living with blindness in rural Cambodia, life has not been easy for Chenda.

Cambodia has one of the highest rates of disability in the developing world. It’s also one of the poorest. And people with disabilities are the poorest of the poor.

For people living with disabilities, there is very limited access to treatments, rehabilitation, and vocational training. At every point, life is a struggle – doubly so for women.

Across the developing world, women living with disabilities are two to three times more likely to be physically or sexually abused than women living without a disability.

And faced with such challenges, Chenda would be forgiven for thinking it was all too hard.

But Chenda is not just fighting. She’s winning.

Gai Brodtmann
Australian MPs visiting Cambodia in January. Image: Supplied by CBM Australia

Today, with the support of organisations such as CBM Australia, Cambodian Development Mission for Disability and Handicap International, she is studying psychology at the Royal Phnom Penh University. She is in her final year.

She has learned English, and uses her language skills to advocate for disability rights. She spends every day fighting so that others may access safety, health and education.

The triumph is remarkable, especially considering the opposition.

When Chenda went to apply for an ID card, the assistant at the help desk turned her away. “You don’t need one,” the assistant said. “You don’t go outside.”

Today, Chenda wants to ensure that young men and women living with disabilities in Cambodia aren’t afterthoughts, contained to a life indoors, without identity or autonomy.

Her fight is personal. And it’s one we should do everything we can to support.

I know the label of ‘feminist’ rubs some people the wrong way. But I wear the label as a badge of honour.

It’s a recognition of the debt I owe to those women who forged the path I travel, who proudly wore the label before me.


It’s also a recognition that the fight for gender equality is not complete.

Feminists bear a responsibility to advance the opportunities available to women. It is a responsibility that does not honour national borders.

Now, it’s true that our first responsibility is to the women in our own backyard.

But proximity and priority are not the same thing. Bearing responsibility for promoting the rights of women in Australia does not mean we bear no responsibility for the welfare, safety and security of our neighbours.

What’s more, when we do commit to promoting gender equality for those in the developing world, we’re really, really good at it.

Through the assistance offered by organisations Australia supports with its overseas aid budget, Chenda was empowered to improve her lot in life. She did not ask for an unfair advantage. She asked only for a fair go.

Our overseas aid budget is the tool which gave her that fair go. It helps our neighbours to help themselves.

We can sharpen this tool by directing it judiciously. We can blunt this tool by shrinking its budget.

We know that, when Australia’s overseas aid budget is invested to promote the good we want to see in the world, this tool becomes a weapon.

It is a weapon to combat disadvantage, deprivation and discrimination.

It is a weapon to defend the virtues we regard worthy of defence.

It is a weapon to fight: for those without access to education, health for those without access to healthcare, and independence for those told they needn’t so much as go outside.

It fights for the young women, living with disabilities, who are told that identification is for other people.

Or, at least, that’s what it used to fight for.

This year, Australia will invest less in overseas aid than at any other point in our history. Over the next decade, this government’s cuts will see us fall from below the OECD average towards the bottom of the pack.

A Shorten Labor Government will provide an extra $40 million a year to Australia’s overseas aid budget. The funding will help some of the world’s poorest people, as well as helping our agencies in identifying opportunities to maximise our impact.

Australia is a country with a culture firmly rooted in the principle of the fair go. That’s why our foreign aid spending is so effective, and why it should not be compromised.

When Chenda fights for the rights of women living with disabilities in rural Cambodia, she does so knowing that Australians have her back.

We should be proud of that. We should be proud of her.

Gai Brodtmann is the Federal Member for Canberra and Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Defence.

Feature image: Supplied by CBM Australia

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