What Gender Reveal Parties Actually Reveal

If the Germans hadn’t invented the term schadenfreude several centuries ago, we would have needed to create it to describe the most 21st century of phenomena: laughing at gender reveal fail videos.

 

These videos are (unintentionally) hilarious not just because when they go wrong, they go very wrong. With people coming up with increasingly intricate and in many cases bizarre scenarios to ‘stand out’, the potential for things to go awry has grown exponentially.

 

They are also deeply funny because the concept of a gender reveal party itself is inherently problematic, which means that laughing at the misfortunate of those involved is usually a guilt-free pleasure.

 

If you’re reading this and still think gender reveal parties are just a bit of harmless fun, perhaps it is useful to consider what exactly it is these parties are revealing – which is far more about the parent(s) than about their child(ren).

 

First, they reveal that some parents don’t seem to understand the difference between sex and gender.

 

Sex is biological (defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as ‘either of the two main categories (male and female) into which humans and many other living things are divided on the basis of their reproductive functions’).

 

On the other hand, gender is identity-based (with the Yogyakarta Principles defining gender identity as ‘each person’s deeply felt internal and individual experience of gender, which may or may not correspond with the sex assigned at birth, including the personal sense of the body (which may involve, if freely chosen, modification of bodily appearance or function by medical, surgical or other means) and other expressions of gender, including dress, speech and mannerisms’).[i]

 

Given it is impossible to know a child’s gender identity before or at birth (and usually for years after that), this means these celebrations should at the very least be renamed ‘sex reveal parties’.

 

Second, they reveal that some parents don’t seem to understand that both sex and gender are much more complicated than just male and female.

 

At its very core, a gender reveal party is an attempt to place an unborn child (or children) into one of two boxes: boy or girl.

 

And yet, in 2019, we know that gender identity is a spectrum, and there is a wide range of other options, including non-binary.

 

We also know that some children will be ‘born with physical sex characteristics that don’t fit medical and social norms for female or male bodies’ (the definition of intersex from Intersex Human Rights Australia).[ii]

 

Gender reveal parties therefore deliberately exclude some of the beautiful diversity of the human experience.[iii]

 

Third, they reveal that some parents are willing participants in a reductivist view of gender.

 

Gender reveal parties simplify the concepts of male and female into blue and pink respectively, as though entire genders can be signified by, even summed up by, a colour. When there is obviously more diversity within genders, and more similarities across people of different genders, than such a basic dichotomy can hope to represent.

 

Somewhat amusingly, these colours are also the exact opposite of those from just a century ago. From US Ladies Home Journal in June 1918:

 

‘The generally accepted rule is pink for the boys, and blue for the girls. The reason is that pink, being a more decided and stronger color, is more suitable for the boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl.’

 

Mush less amusingly, while the colours have changed, some of those gender stereotypes remain and gender reveal parties tend to entrench, rather than question, them.

 

Based on these three factors, gender reveal parties can actually be harmful. By supporting a view that gender will match sex assigned at birth, they can make life much more difficult for trans and gender diverse children.

 

By raising expectations that babies will be born with sex characteristics that are exclusively male or female, they can erase intersex children (and even potentially increase pressure for unnecessary surgeries post-birth to ensure their bodies match these societal ‘norms’).

 

And by entrenching the notion that boys and girls are inherently different, and reinforcing stereotypes about how they will (or should) behave, gender reveal parties place artificial restrictions on all of us, and our behaviours.

 

It may sound like I am unsympathetic to the parents who hold gender reveal parties. I’m not, at least in part because most are simply replicating the actions of those around them (and those they follow on social media), and probably haven’t considered any of the issues described above. They are acting out of ignorance rather than malice.[iv]

 

I’m also sympathetic because, as a society, we seem to be placing an ever-greater emphasis on gender, certainly much more than I can remember as a child growing up in the 1980s. From unnecessarily gendered toys, to unnecessarily gendered toiletries, and even unnecessarily gendered grocery items, heightened expectations of ‘gender conformity’ are all around us – so it is perhaps only natural they will be felt most keenly by expecting parents.

 

The challenge then is what we can do to overcome these norms, especially the emerging norm that parents will hold gender reveal parties in the first place.

 

I have four suggestions to start, from the easiest to the most difficult:

 

  1. Don’t hold a gender reveal party

 

If you are having a child, simply refuse to have one of these ‘celebrations’. Which is easy for someone like me to say (a cis gay man who has decided, with his partner, not to have children, at least in part because of the climate emergency), so let’s move on…

 

  1. Don’t attend gender reveal parties

 

If you are invited to one of these ‘celebrations’, don’t attend. If people all stopped going, parents would stop holding them.

 

  1. Let the person know why you’re not attending

 

This is clearly more difficult than simply not turning up, especially because many of us prefer to avoid confrontation. But if we are to do the hard yards of ending this social norm, then we should take the time to explain to the person who has sent the invitation why you won’t be there.

 

  1. Stop asking ‘What are you having?’

 

Obviously, this is another degree of difficulty again, especially because this is something we’ve been conditioned to ask, usually first, when someone says they are pregnant (and something I have been guilty of, on more than one occasion).

 

But what does it actually matter? And aren’t there more interesting and/or important questions to ask, like ‘What are you looking forward to?’ ‘What are you nervous about?’ ‘Are you prepared?’ and ‘Is there anything I can do to help?’

 

For those having difficulty making this mental adjustment, consider thinking of it this way. When you are asking ‘What are you having?’ what you’re really asking is ‘What are your child’s sex chromosomes and/or genitalia?’ and ‘What gender do you currently intend to raise your child even though you cannot know now their eventual gender identity?’

 

Rationally, an expecting parent who knows the difference between sex and gender could also respond to the ‘What are you having?’ inquiry by saying that they’ll get back to the questioner in five, ten, 15 or even 20 years, when the child decides for themself.

 

Which brings me to the primary exception to my ‘no gender reveal parties’ stance: where trans and gender diverse people announce their own gender identity. This is truly something to celebrate, especially for those who’ve overcome years or even decades of transphobia from families, schools, and society in general.

 

[I suppose I would also make an exception for parents who hold a gender reveal party and then release a colour like green or brown and tell attendees that they’ll let their child determine their identity for themselves.]

 

Other than that, gender reveal parties are a social phenomenon that has risen to prominence incredibly quickly over the past decade – and hopefully will recede just as quickly in the early 2020s.

 

Indeed, that’s the view of the woman whose 2008 post is widely-credited as popularising ‘gender reveal parties’, Jenna Karvunidis. From NPR in July 2019:[v]

 

‘Plot twist! The baby from the original gender reveal party is a girl who wears suits,’ Karvunidis says. ‘She says ‘she’ and ‘her’ and all that, but you know she really goes outside gender norms’.

 

… Karvunidis says her views on sex and gender have changed, especially when she’s talking to her daughter.

 

‘She’s telling me ‘Mom, there are many genders. Mom, there’s many different sexualities and all different types,’ and I take her lead on that,’ Karvunidis says.

 

She says she does have some regrets and understands these parties aren’t beneficial to everyone.

 

‘I know it’s been harmful to some individuals. It’s 2019, we don’t need to get our joy by giving others pain,’ she says. ‘I think there’s a new way to have these parties.’

 

And that idea is as simple as just eating cake.

 

‘Celebrate the baby,’ she says. ‘There’s no way to have a cake cut into it, to see if they’re going to like chess. Let’s just have a cake.’

 

Which is a great idea. And then to eat any leftovers while watching videos of gender reveal party fails because, let’s face it, some of them are funny as hell.

 

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An infamous 2017 gender reveal party fail, which caused a 47,000 acre fire in Arizona.

 

Footnotes:

[i] Yes, I’m aware that both the concepts of sex and gender, and the relationship between them, are far more complex. However, in the context of ‘gender reveal parties’ it’s clear these celebrations are based on biological sex (chromosomes and/or genitalia) rather than identity-based ideas of gender.

[ii] IHRA website, here.

[iii] We should note here that variations in sex characteristics is separate to non-binary gender identities, with many intersex people identifying with the ‘sex’ they were assigned at birth. Again for the Intersex Human Rights Australia website:

‘Some intersex people and some non-intersex (‘endosex’) people use nonbinary terms to describe their identities and sex classifications. Often, however, we encounter assumptions that to be intersex is to be nonbinary, or to be nonbinary is to be intersex. These assumptions are harmful. They fail to recognize the diversity of the intersex population, and in this case even the existence of intersex boys and girls, and intersex women and men.’

[iv] Of course, some parents possibly are deliberately setting expectations that their children will be either male or female, and that they will ‘act accordingly’ (including not identifying as trans or gender diverse), to which I say ‘fuck you’.

[v] Woman who popularized gender reveal parties says her views on gender have changed.

Submission to Tasmanian Law Reform Institute Inquiry into Legal Recognition of Sex and Gender

The Tasmanian Law Reform Institute is currently conducting an inquiry into matters arising from the passage of trans and gender diverse birth certificate reforms earlier this year, as well as issues relating to coercive surgeries and other medical treatments on children born with variations of sex characteristics.

The following is my personal submission, focusing on the latter topic. Submissions are due Tuesday 20 August, and you can find more details here.

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Submission to Tasmanian Law Reform Institute Inquiry into Legal Recognition of Sex and Gender

 

Tasmanian law Reform Institute

Private Bag 89

Hobart, TAS 7001

via Law.Reform@utas.edu.au

Wednesday 14 August 2019

 

To whom it may concern

 

Submission re Inquiry into Legal Recognition of Sex and Gender

 

Thank you for the opportunity to provide a submission to this important inquiry.

 

I make this submission as a long-term advocate for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) community and, particularly for the purposes of this inquiry, as an ally to intersex Australians.

 

In this submission I will respond, generally, to those questions (5 through 9) that are focussed on the question of coercive surgeries and other medical treatments on children born with variations of sex characteristics.
These invasive and involuntary medical interventions, which continue in Australia today, are one of the biggest human rights violations against any members of the LGBTI community.

 

Indeed, given the serious, lifelong consequences of these human rights violations, I believe addressing coercive surgeries and medical treatments on intersex children is one of the most important human rights issues in Australia. Period.

 

Which is why it is so disappointing that so little action has been taken since the ground-breaking 2013 Senate Inquiry into Involuntary or Coerced Sterilisation of Intersex People in Australia.[i]

 

Specifically, in the past six years, the Commonwealth Liberal-National Government has failed to make any progress whatsoever in ending these unjustified and unacceptable practices.

 

In this context, I obviously welcome the additional focus on this issue by the Tasmanian Law Reform Institute.

 

This includes asking relevant questions in terms of what should be done to address this problem, especially in question 5 (which includes consideration of court approvals, legislative prohibitions with possible criminal penalties, independent advocates, independent counselling and advice, and specialist tribunals).

 

However, I also note that the same issues are being considered, at the moment, by the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) as part of its own investigation of this topic. [ii]

 

This has included a public consultation process from July to September 2018,[iii] and ongoing involvement of and consultation with intersex people.

 

I understand that this investigation is expected to conclude by the end of 2019, with a report and recommendations for how these human rights violations should be addressed nation-wide.

 

The AHRC is relevant to this submission in three main ways.

 

First, I reiterate the five recommendations made to that investigation, including:

 

Recommendation 1. Australian Governments must introduce legislation to prohibit deferrable medical interventions, including surgical and medical interventions, that alter the sex characteristics of infants and children without personal consent, including penalties for breaching such laws.

 

Recommendation 2. Individuals who are asked to provide consent to necessary, non-deferrable medical interventions must have access to counselling and peer support, including from intersex people and intersex-led community organisations.

 

Recommendation 3. Australian governments must explicitly prohibit the ability of parents and guardians to provide consent to modifications to the sex characteristics of children born with variations of sex characteristics on the basis of social or cultural rationales.

 

Recommendation 4. That a new independent oversight body be created to review necessary, non-deferrable, therapeutic medical interventions on children born with variations of sex characteristics, comprising clinicians, human rights experts, child advocates and intersex-led community organisations.

 

Recommendation 5. That Commonwealth, state and territory governments provide ongoing funding to intersex-led community organisations, for the purposes of:

  • Peer support of individuals and families to inform decision-making about medical interventions
  • Serving on the new independent oversight body that reviews medical interventions
  • Broader peer support for all members of the intersex community, and
  • Systemic advocacy for all people with variations of sex characteristics.

 

Second, I express my support for the submission made by Intersex Human Rights Australia (IHRA) to the AHRC investigation[iv] (a submission that was also endorsed by the AIS Support Group Australia, Disabled People’s Organisations Australia, LGBTI Legal Service, and People with Disability Australia).

 

I note in particular that on page 66 of their submission, in response to the question ‘Should all non-emergency and/or deferrable medical interventions that alter a child’s sex characteristics, where the child does not have legal capacity to consent, be prohibited by law? If so, should this prohibition be civil or criminal?’ IHRA responded that:

 

We support the Darlington Statement’s call for criminal prohibitions of all non-deferrable medical interventions that alter a child’s sex characteristics [emphasis added].

 

I encourage the Tasmanian Law Reform Institute to adopt the IHRA submission as the primary foundation of its approach to these issues (and, wherever there are conflicts between my own recommendations and the position of IHRA, I defer to them on the basis that intersex people should have the right to self-determination as well as the right to bodily autonomy).

 

Third, given the ongoing AHRC investigation – covering largely the same issues as those featured in questions 5 through 9 of this inquiry – I encourage the Tasmanian Law Reform Institute to consider how it can work together with the Australian Human Rights Commission, and contribute to its efforts. This would potentially avoid any duplication in work (including duplication in the calls on intersex people to make multiple submissions on the same subject matter).

 

As indicated earlier, I welcome the focus provided by the Tasmanian Law Reform Institute to the issue of ongoing human rights violations against children born with variations of sex characteristics.

 

It is my sincere hope that the AHRC process, possibly with input from the Tasmanian Law Reform Institute, can make a series of practical recommendations to end coercive surgeries and other involuntary medical treatments on intersex children.

 

And that ultimately, the Commonwealth Government, and all State and Territory Governments, work together to implement these recommendations as quickly as possible so that these human rights violations end once and for all.

 

Thank you for taking this submission into consideration. Please do not hesitate to contact me, at the details below, should you require further information.

 

Sincerely

Alastair Lawrie

 

Footnotes:

[i] See the Final Report of that Senate Inquiry here and my personal submission to that inquiry here.

[ii] See the Australian Human Rights Commission website.

[iii] See my submission to that consultation here.

[iv] The IHRA submission to the AHRC investigation can be found here, and is attached with this submission.

 

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Submission to AHRC Consultation re Medical Interventions on People Born with Variations of Sex Characteristics

This is my personal submission in response to the Australian Human Rights Commission’s July 2018 Consultation Paper ‘Protecting the Human Rights of People Born with Variations in Sex Characteristics in the context of Medical Interventions’.

This issue – involuntary medical interventions, including surgical and hormonal interventions, that alter the sex characteristics of intersex infants and children – is also the sixth post in a series looking at the unfinished business of LGBTI equality in Australia.

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Australian Human Rights Commission

c/- sogii@humanrights.gov.au

Sunday 30 September 2018

 

Submission in response to the Protecting the Human Rights of People Born with Variations in Sex Characteristics in the context of Medical Interventions Consultation Paper

 

Thank you for the opportunity to provide a submission as part of this important consultation process.

 

I do so not as a person with variations in sex characteristics, but as a member of the broader LGBTI community and as an ally of the intersex community.

 

This includes explicitly supporting the goals of intersex people as expressed in the Darlington Statement: Joint consensus statement from the intersex community retreat in Darlington, March 2017.[i]

 

This submission is informed by that document, as well as The Yogyakarta Principles plus 10: Additional principles and state obligations on the application of international human rights law in relation to sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression and sex characteristics to complement the Yogyakarta Principles.[ii]

 

As someone who is not an intersex person, I do not propose to answer the specific questions set out in the consultation paper. On these, I defer to the lived experience of people with variations in sex characteristics, as well as the expertise of organisations like Intersex Human Rights Australia and AIS Support Group Australia.

 

Instead, I will comment on the overall human rights challenges faced by the intersex community, and the main actions required to address these issues.

 

The biggest challenge is the ongoing practice of deferrable medical interventions, including surgical and hormonal interventions, that alter the sex characteristics of infants and children without personal consent.

 

Indeed, I would classify these acts as one of the two worst human rights abuses currently affecting the Australian LGBTI community (the other being the continuing mistreatment of LGBTI refugees, including their indefinite detention and proposed resettlement in countries that criminalise homosexuality).

 

Consequently, it is very welcome that the Australian Human Rights Commission is providing renewed attention to these human rights abuses through this consultation process.

 

However, this is only necessary because of the five years of inaction, by Commonwealth, state and territory governments, following the release of the seminal October 2013 Report of the Senate Standing Committee on Community Affairs: Involuntary or Coerced Sterilisation of Intersex People in Australia.[iii]

 

Among other recommendations, that Committee recommended that:

 

‘all medical treatment of intersex people take place under guidelines that ensure treatment is managed by multidisciplinary teams within a human rights framework. The guidelines should favour deferral of normalising treatment until the person can give fully informed consent, and seek to minimise surgical intervention on infants undertaken for primarily psychosocial reasons’ (Recommendation 3).

 

It is shameful that even this modest recommendation has not been implemented by Australian governments. In the absence of such intervention, the human rights violations of intersex infants have continued unabated. By some estimates, hundreds of these surgeries occur each year.[iv]

 

The time for a primarily guidelines-based approach is now over. What is needed is an explicit legislative prohibition on the performance of unnecessary and involuntary medical interventions (including both surgical and hormonal interventions).

 

This has been recommended by the UN Committee on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women, which has stated that Australia should:

 

‘Adopt clear legislative provisions explicitly prohibiting the performance of unnecessary surgical or other medical treatment on intersex children before they reach the legal age of consent’.[v]

 

A similar call features in the Darlington Statement:

 

‘7. We call for the immediate prohibition as a criminal act of deferrable medical interventions, including surgical and hormonal interventions, that alter the sex characteristics of infants and children without personal consent. We call for freely-given and fully informed consent by individuals…’ (emphasis in original).

 

Importantly, these prohibitions must include sanctions for people who are found to breach these laws, including medical professionals.

 

Recommendation 1. Australian governments must introduce legislation to prohibit deferrable medical interventions, including surgical and hormonal interventions, that alter the sex characteristics of infants and children without personal consent, including penalties for breaching such laws.

 

It is important to recognise that this prohibition will not end all medical interventions on intersex children, including those that are considered both necessary and not deferrable. However, determining what falls within this definition is likely to be highly contested.

 

In order to ensure children who have the capacity to provide consent are appropriately informed and therefore in the best position to make such decisions, they must have access not just to medical opinions (which have traditionally favoured interventions) but also to independent counselling and support.

 

This was recommended by the UN Committee on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (that Australia should ‘provide families with intersex children with adequate counselling and support’), as well as in the Darlington Statement (that ‘individuals and families hav[e] mandatory independent access to funded counselling and peer support’).

 

Those last two words – ‘peer support’ – are perhaps the most important. Individuals, and especially intersex children who have the capacity to provide consent, should have access to the advice, information and support of intersex people and intersex-led community organisations.

 

Recommendation 2. Individuals who are asked to provide consent to necessary, non-deferrable medical interventions must have access to counselling and peer support, including from intersex people and intersex-led community organisations.

 

The advice, information and support of intersex people and organisations is also vital to assist parents and guardians who are asked to provide consent for necessary and non-deferrable medical interventions on behalf of children who are not in a position to provide their own consent.

 

In particular, this advice is essential to help prevent them from providing consent on the basis of social or cultural reasons. These rationales can involve a number of elements, including gender stereotypes and social norms.

 

On this point, it should be acknowledged that parents and guardians of intersex infants are likely to be subject to significant pressure from others that their children to conform to societal expectations (that they, and their bodies, are easily classifiable by others as either male or female).

 

This pressure can be, and has been, exploited by clinicians offering medical ‘solutions’ to what is not actually a problem in the first place, but rather simply the natural diversity of sex characteristics.

 

There is no valid social or cultural reason to modify the sex characteristics of children born with these variations, and certainly no social or cultural justification to override those children’s rights to bodily autonomy and physical integrity.

 

As part of their overall prohibition on modifications to the sex characteristics of minors in 2015, Malta explicitly prohibited such modifications due to social and cultural rationales. Given ongoing social and cultural pressures on the parents and guardians of intersex children here, Australian governments should introduce a similar prohibition.

 

Recommendation 3. Australian governments must explicitly prohibit the ability of parents and guardians to provide consent to modifications to the sex characteristics of children born with variations of sex characteristics on the basis of social or cultural rationales.

 

Even with the overall prohibition on deferrable medical interventions, the specific prohibition on parental consent based on social or cultural rationales, and the provision of peer support from intersex people and organisations, there will likely continue to be some medically necessary, non-deferrable, ‘therapeutic’ procedures performed on intersex infants and children into the future.

 

As I am not an expert in this area, I am not in a position to offer an opinion of what might constitute definitions of medical necessity or therapeutic (and alternatively, non-therapeutic) treatments. As a result, I defer to the expertise of organisations like Intersex Human Rights Australia and AIS Support Group Australia on these issues.

 

However, I do wish to make a comment on the process that should be adopted to ensure these procedures are indeed necessary, non-deferrable and therapeutic. I strongly support the creation of a new independent oversight body to review these decisions.

 

This body should not, indeed must not, be comprised solely of clinicians – particularly because it is clinicians who have been, and continue to be, the perpetrators of human rights violations on intersex infants and children. Instead, the body should include human rights experts, child advocates, and intersex-led community organisations as well as clinicians.

 

The role of the independent body would be to ventilate and consider the pros and cons of proposed medical interventions. This must include consideration of the lifelong health, legal, ethical, sexual and human rights implications of such procedures.

 

Consent or authorisation for treatment must be premised on provision of all available medical evidence on necessity, timing and evaluation of outcomes of medical interventions, including noting where there is either no evidence, or no clinical consensus, on outcomes.

 

Recommendation 4. That a new independent oversight body be created to review necessary, non-deferrable, therapeutic medical interventions on children born with variations of sex characteristics, comprising clinicians, human rights experts, child advocates and intersex-led community organisations.

 

The recommendations in this submission envisage a significant increase in the functions and responsibilities of intersex-led community organisations.

 

This includes being able to provide advice, information and support to intersex children, and their families, to inform their decision-making about medical interventions, as well as contributing to the new independent oversight body reviewing the pros and cons of medical interventions (alongside other groups).

 

It should be noted however that intersex-led community organisations, including Intersex Human Rights Australia and AIS Support Group Australia, are primarily run on a volunteer basis, with limited resources, financial or otherwise.

 

Therefore, in order to support them to perform these expanded roles efficiently and effectively, governments at both Commonwealth and state and territory level should provide ongoing funding to intersex community groups.

 

Personally, I believe this funding should go beyond the functions nominated in this submission, to incorporate broader peer support to all intersex people, including older intersex people adversely affected by human rights violations earlier in life.

 

Given the significant human rights challenges still faced by members of the intersex community, this funding should also support systemic policy advocacy by intersex-led community organisations (instead of funding to umbrella LGBTI organisations that may not have the same level of expertise or give the same level of priority to these issues).

 

Recommendation 5. That Commonwealth, state and territory governments provide ongoing funding to intersex-led community organisations, for the purposes of:

  • Peer support of individuals and families to inform decision-making about medical interventions
  • Serving on the new independent oversight body that reviews medical interventions
  • Broader peer support for all members of the intersex community, and
  • Systemic advocacy for all people with variations of sex characteristics.

 

Please do not hesitate to contact me, at the details provided, should you wish to clarify any of the above, or for additional information.

Sincerely,

Alastair Lawrie

 

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Footnotes:

[i] From the Intersex Human Rights Australia website: https://ihra.org.au/darlington-statement/

[ii] As adopted on 10 November 2017, via: https://yogyakartaprinciples.org/principles-en/yp10/

[iii] Available here: https://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/Senate/Community_Affairs/Involuntary_Sterilisation/Sec_Report/index

[iv] Intersex Human Rights Australia, ‘Submission to the Australian Law Reform Commission on the Review of the Family Law System – Issues Paper’, 7 May 2018.

[v] Committee on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women, ‘Concluding Observations on the Eighth Periodic Report of Australia’, 20 July 2018.

 

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