Human rights advocate named top ACT business woman

Media Release, 05 October 2012

A woman who has spent 30 years as a human rights lawyer and audited detention centres for human rights abuses has been named the 2012 Telstra ACT Business Woman of the Year.

Dr Helen Watchirs, an ACT Human Rights and Discrimination Commissioner since 2004 who earlier worked for several Federal Government agencies and five United Nations agencies, also won the White Pages® Community & Government Award in Canberra today.

Growing up in Western Sydney as the youngest of six children, Dr Watchirs was the first of her family to attend university and says her background gave her resilience, tenacity and confidence to fight for what she believes is fair and for people whose voices are not usually heard.

A member of the Federal Ministerial Advisory Council on Blood Borne Viruses & Sexually Transmissible Infections, her work in the area of HIV & AIDS and human rights is recognised nationally and internationally.

Today Dr Watchirs manages the handling of discrimination, vilification and sexual harassment complaints – nearly 1000 cases in the past eight years. Her duties include educating the community about human rights and discrimination law obligations and examining human rights of vulnerable people, including detainees.

She says her most memorable business achievement has been conducting human rights audits of detention centres, where human rights abuses can be hidden if they are not subjected to independent and rigorous oversight.

A 2011 audit of the ACT’s Bimberi Youth Detention Centre uncovered discrimination against women who were bussed between facilities on weekends to relieve overcrowding of males at the Periodic Detention Centre. This resulted in women being subjected to repeated strip-searching when changing locations, missed medical appointments and opportunities to work, and fewer visits from their children and friends.

Other ACT Awards winners were Suzie Hoitink, founder of Clear Complexions Clinics, Emma Luscombe, owner of Antique Salon in Canberra City, Amanda Pulford, who established FitSistas Pole and Fitness Studio, and Jocelyn Parsons, Manager, Salvation and Intervention, with the Australian Maritime Safety Authority,

Kate McKenzie, Group Managing Director Telstra Innovation, Products & Marketing and Telstra Business Women’s Awards Ambassador, said the ACT winners were inspirational business women and leaders in their fields whose achievements were a cause for celebration.

“Helen Watchirs has had an extraordinary career and Telstra Awards judges described her as fearless, robustly independent and a leader of like-minded people. They recognised her advocacy for human rights education to prevent discrimination, her national and international reputation, and her advocacy for organ donation following the sudden death of her husband Terry Connolly in 2007,” Ms McKenzie said.

Michelle Sherwood, Executive General Manager, Strategic Marketing, Sensis Pty. Ltd, said: “As sponsor of the Community and Government Award, White Pages®  has been delighted to celebrate the finalists for the difference they are making to the lives of Australian communities through their work in government departments, statutory bodies and not-for-profit organisations. 

“Dr Helen Watchirs has set an outstanding example by her passion and dedication and she is a fitting recipient of this Award,” Ms Sherwood said.   

Winners of the 2012 Telstra ACT Business Women’s Awards are:

Commonwealth Bank Business Owner Award
Suzie Hoitink - Clear Complexions Clinics, Bruce

Suzie Hoitink founded Clear Complexions Clinics in 2005 and employs 20 staff in three clinics with a fourth clinic on the way. Treatments for skin conditions such as acne, sun damage, ageing, scarring and rosacea are performed by qualified nurses using non-invasive technology.  Telstra Awards judges described Ms Hoitink as inspirational and dedicated to her staff and said she has developed a medical alternative that isn't as confronting as going to a surgeon but more tailored than going to a beautician. The business has strong financial contracts and process documentation that support daily operations and expansion.

Hudson Private and Corporate Sector Award
Emma Luscombe - Antique Salon, Canberra City

Drawing on more than a decade of industry experience and formal qualifications, Emma Luscombe co-founded Antique Salon in Canberra City in 2011, offering a boutique hairdressing experience with green credentials. Judges said Ms Luscombe has significant business achievements as a young business co-owner including a distinct and well considered niche in a very competitive market.  They praised her approach to sustainability, focus on financial results and determination to offer a unique experience.

White Pages® Community & Government Award
Dr Helen Watchirs - ACT Human Rights Commission

Nokia Business Innovation Award
Amanda Pulford - FitSistas Pole and Fitness Studio, Braddon

Amanda Pulford opened her pole dancing and fitness studio in 2007 after being an instructor since 1990. She worked for two years for her business to be accepted as a member of Fitness Australia. It meant creating a product with integrity and quality control and having pole dancing recognised as a legitimate form of exercise. Telstra Judges said Ms Pulford has sound business planning and a genuine interest in helping people regaining fitness and a  healthier lifestyle while focuses on developing her staff’s skills.

marie claire Young Business Women’s Award
Jocelyn Parsons - The Australian Maritime Safety Authority, Braddon

When confronted with a potential disaster, Jocelyn Parsons draws on her 15 years of crisis management experience to avert tragedy. As the Manager, Salvation and Intervention, with the Australian Maritime Safety Authority, she is responsible for the emergency towing of shipping along the entire Australian coastline. Judges said Ms Parsons performs in an enormously challenging environment and is a consultative and caring leader of leading people who are often older. They said her capacity to work with local, State and National authorities was impressive. 

Telstra ACT Business Woman of the Year
Dr Helen Watchirs - ACT Human Rights Commission

The ACT winners proceed to the national finals of the Telstra Business Women’s Awards that will be announced in Sydney on 21 November.  The winners share in $200,000 in cash and prizes split amongst the state/territory and national winners, and become part of an exclusive national business alumni with wide networking opportunities.

More information on the Telstra Business Women’s Awards can be found at