Sonali Hedditch is a lawyer, social scientist and social entrepreneur, who is currently leading UN Women’s pioneering Second Chance Education programme in Australia.
Paula Siddle interviewed Sonali to find out about this groundbreaking initiative to grant girls and women equal access to education and income, and how we can support this invaluable cause.
When we are young and full of a fearless mix of idealism and optimism, we all dream of growing up and changing the world. Then our days soon fill with study and work, and immediate needs like changing the baby. Which is why it is truly inspirational when you meet someone like Sonali Hedditch, who is doing all that and more — working, studying, raising children, and changing the future for generations of women and girls.
With a background in law and international development, Sonali spent her early career working on law reform and economic development, with a strong focus on gender equality and women’s economic empowerment.
‘I’ve always been passionate about working around women’s rights and human rights, equity and justice,’ says Sonali. ‘I believe women’s empowerment is a key pathway to a sustainable future.’
Sonali has since gone on to lead innovative programmes to deliver social impact and sustainable economic development in over 20 countries, serve on the board of two International Development NGOs, and even found her own economic empowerment social enterprise. So when Sonali was offered the coveted opportunity of working for UN Women, it was a perfect fit.
‘I’m a mum to three magnificent daughters who came out on top in the birth lottery! They go to a great school and childcare, enjoy extra-curricular activities, and live in a context and environment where they have every opportunity to follow their aspirations. Due to my work, I count their blessings and my blessings every day. It’s really hard to explain to them that there are many girls and women around the world who don’t get to go to school, who are forced into marrying young, and who experience violence and trauma, and struggle to think beyond their daily survival. I believe UN Women’s Second Chance Education programme has the potential to effect significant change for these girls and women on a large scale.’
‘As the Project Manager for UN Women’s Second Chance Education programme in Australia, I’ll be working to benefit Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women in Western Sydney, and refugees and migrants in Melbourne and regional Victoria,’ Sonali explains.
UN Women is the United Nations entity for gender equality and women’s empowerment, with a core focus on ensuring that everybody everywhere, regardless of gender, has equal access to opportunities, education, income and a life free from violence and discrimination.
In Australia, despite progress made in the past two decades brought by favourable policies such as the National Indigenous Reform Agreement and the National Education Agreement, the gap in access to education between Indigenous and non-Indigenous populations remains considerably high. ‘Only 34% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women aged 15 years and over have completed Year 12 or its equivalent, compared with 59% of non-Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women. The impact of this is reduced opportunities for income and self-determination, which can mean poorer health, increased poverty and high levels of family violence.’
Australia also has a significant refugee population, receiving over 12,000 humanitarian arrivals annually. ‘Refugee women are likely to have various forms of vulnerability, including trauma, language barriers, and whether well educated at home or having missed out on an education, their time in a refugee camp or in transit to a new life has disrupted their identity and confidence, which significantly impacts their ability to find their feet in Australia. It’s incredibly difficult right now for refugee women to find work,’ explains Sonali.
Second Chance Education
UN Women’s Second Chance Education and Vocational Learning (SCE) programme intends to provide a viable solution to this issue. ‘We are aiming to develop context-specific, affordable and scalable learning pathways for empowering the world’s most disadvantaged women, and enabling them to realize their aspirations, be that improved life skills, employment, starting a business or becoming a leader,’ says Sonali.
‘The SCE programme offers access to educational services which are tailored not only to women’s needs as learners, but also to their future as earners.’ — UN Women
Aiming to reach 50,000 women across seven pilot countries, the programme’s educational opportunities can improve the health and earning potential of women, lead to an increase in female leaders, lower levels of population growth, relieve related pressures on climate change, and lead to national economic growth.
Through partnering with Australian social enterprises and charities such as SisterWorks and the Real Futures, UN Women is already offering services and support to women through Empowerment Hubs in Melbourne and Bendigo, with others coming soon in Western Sydney and Dandenong. ‘The hubs will offer face-to-face learning and training, as well as blended learning with online content. And this online learning aspect will make the programme scalable within Australia, and to other countries,’ says Sonali.
International Women’s Day
Sharing information about this innovative programme, Sonali will be part of the eminent panel for the 2020 International Women’s Day (IWD) events organised by UN Women Australia (UN Women’s partner in Australia which raises funds for and awareness of UN Women’s work), alongside Founder and CEO of SisterWorks, Luz Restrepo, and CEO and Chairperson of Real Futures, Wendy Yarnold. Their discussion will centre around UN Women’s SCE initiative and how it can change the future for millions of girls and women.
This year, UN Women Australia will host a series of breakfasts (and a lunch in Canberra) in the following locations:
- Melbourne — 28th February
- Brisbane — 3rd March
- Perth — 4th March
- Canberra (lunch) — 5th March
- Sydney — 6th March
‘These are the main fundraising events for UN Women Australia for the year, and we’ve decided that funds raised this year will go directly to the global Second Chance Education programme, which includes support to Australian women,’ Sonali is pleased to announce. ‘It’s an exciting opportunity to demonstrate how we can achieve equality for women that do miss out on education in Australia, and hopefully scale up to see that occurring more broadly in Australia and in other countries.’
The events are a great way for members of the public and corporate groups to celebrate achievements in gender equality, learn about future actions, and support these important initiatives. To learn more about this year’s events and to purchase tickets, visit unwomen.org.au.
The global theme of IWD 2020 is Generation Equality, a campaign to realize women’s rights for an equal future. Sonali explains that 2020 is a milestone year for gender equality, marking the 25th anniversary of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, the most progressive blueprint on women’s rights, and the 10th anniversary of the establishment of UN Women.
In this time, the world has made major strides towards gender equality, but at the current pace of change, the Global Gender Gap Report of 2020 estimates that it could still take 99.5 years to achieve parity. ‘But it doesn’t have to be this way,’ says Sonali. ‘The Report also signals actionable areas to advance gender equality, for instance: upping women’s political representation, providing affordable care infrastructure and enabling equitable sharing of domestic and care work, and teaching young women and girls valuable job skills. Generation Equality is all around how we can accelerate things and what actions we can take — no matter our age, across generations — in order to achieve it within this generation, by 2030.’
With so much groundbreaking work behind her, I wonder what lies ahead for Sonali. ‘I’m thrilled to be attending the UN Commission on the Status of Women in New York this year. It’s essentially where everyone comes together and looks at what they’ve achieved in terms of their treaty obligations, how they’re going to finance gender parity in their countries, and what civil society organisations have been doing. I’m hoping to get more examples of what’s happening globally to add to our own practices in Australia. In particular, I want to see how civil society and governments are approaching questions of environmental sustainability, emissions reduction and climate change resilience with a focus on women and girls, and how we can take these global experiences and bolster the roles of Indigenous, refugee and migrant women in Australia to lead dialogue in these areas.’
When asked how she feels about the reality of achieving gender parity, Sonali says, ‘The focus is always on women and girls and what we can do to progress them. But as yet, there’s still not enough dialogue around what we’re doing to empower men and boys to be in line with this agenda. What are we doing to bring boys and men up to speed on Generation Equality? How can we create a culture in which our men are carrying 50% of the housework, and 50% of the mental load, so women have the space to succeed in their aspirations and be empowered in every sense?’
In this regard, Sonali believes parents can play a key role; educating our children on domestic responsibility, equal rights and equal roles, and modelling this behaviour within the family.
They say that change begins at home, and in fostering Generation Equality within our own families, we too are all able to truly change the future.
If you would like to support this movement and have the chance to hear from Sonali in person, you can find out more about UN Women Australia’s upcoming IWD 2020 events here.