This year Liberty Victoria honours Debbie Kilroy, the founder of Sisters Inside, with the Voltaire Human Rights Award.
The Voltaire Award honours a person or group for an outstanding contribution to or action on free speech, human rights or civil liberties, with particular emphasis on progressing freedom, respect, equality and dignity. It celebrates those who speak out, write, campaign, whistle-blow, take action or stand against authoritarianism. Previous winners include Magda Szubanski, Gillian Triggs, Waleed Aly, David Marr, Peter Greste, Baher Mohamed and Mohamed Fahmy.
Debbie has been a tireless advocate for the rights of disadvantaged women and children on a wide variety of issues including violence, homelessness, racism, mental health, substance abuse, poverty, child protection, sexual assault, imprisonment and other systemic failings. She is driven to reduce the criminalisation and imprisonment of women and children and girls, address the serious over-representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and girls at all levels of the criminal legal system, and mitigate the impact of mothers' imprisonment on their children.
After her release from prison in 1992, Debbie Kilroy established Sisters Inside to fight for the human rights of incarcerated women and to address gaps in services available to them and their children. Since then, Debbie has completed four tertiary degrees – in social work, forensic mental health and law – and was the first former prisoner to be admitted as a legal practitioner in Queensland.
Debbie has used her talents, skills and experience to provide support to and advocate for the human rights of women and girls who are caught up in the prison system. She has drawn upon the pain and despair involved in her own experiences with the criminal legal system to bring a deep sense of understanding, compassion and justice to her work.
In early 2019, Sisters Inside launched the 'Free the People' campaign to raise funds to free women in Western Australia who have been jailed or face jail due to unpaid fines. “Single Aboriginal mothers make up the majority of those in prison who do not have the capacity to pay fines. They are living in absolute poverty and cannot afford food and shelter for their children let alone pay a fine.” The program has crowdfunded over $400,000 and has paid 133 women’s warrants for fines so they’re not imprisoned. The program aimed to pay the fines of 100 people who are in this position - most of them Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women. The #freeher campaign has exceeded the goal.
Debbie Kilroy has created programs to improve the wellbeing of some of the most vulnerable women and girls in our community in an inclusive and empowering manner. She continues to advocate for and amplify the voices of women and girls who are often ignored and unheard.
The Liberty Victoria Voltaire Award will be presented at a dinner in Melbourne on Saturday 27 July 2019. Please join us in celebrating Debbie's remarkable work, and that of the Young Voltaire and Voltaire 'Empty Chair' Award winners, who will be announced shortly.