Can I start by thanking you all for joining us here this afternoon at this important launch of our new program, Women in Work.

Our Minister Bandara will be joining us shortly – she is stuck in the traffic as a consequence of the funeral that is happening today, so she will be joining us shortly.

To the CEO of Coral Holdings, Dr Athukorala; to other government, private sector and civil society leaders; ladies and gentlemen.

Australia is at the forefront of efforts to promote the empowerment of women and girls in our region, the Indian Ocean and the Pacific. 

Australia has placed gender equality centrally in its foreign policy, our economic diplomacy and our development agenda.

In fact, we are on track to meet our target of 80 per cent of our International Development Assistance having gender programmes as a key component.

Australia is totally committed to women's leadership participation, economic empowerment and addressing violence against women and girls.

The Australian Government believes that if you empower a woman, you empower her family, you empower her community and you ultimately empower her nation.

We are one of the few countries globally to have introduced the position of Ambassador for Women and Girls, to advance the cause of gender equality in the world.

I am delighted to hear that Sri Lanka also has an Ambassador for the Protection of Women's Rights, Mrs Jayanthi Kuru-Utumpala.

Women already make a significant contribution to the economy; however this is often in the informal sector and it is unrecognized, and of course, without security and unrewarded.

A nation cannot fully prosper if half the population is not given the opportunity to fully participate in that economy.

When more women work, economies grow.

According to the McKinsey Global Institute, advancing gender equality could lead to an extra US$28 trillion in global growth.

And when you consider that women typically invest 90 per cent of their income back into their families and their welfare, the social development impact of promoting gender equality is significant.

Here in Sri Lanka, the combination of steady economic growth and a declining labour force is also expanding opportunities for women.

Workforce participation by women here is very low – 36 per cent, compared to Thailand – 64 per cent – and Malaysia – 45 per cent.

A diversified and inclusive workforce with greater female participation is now vital to help economic growth in this country.

That is why our Women in Work Programme is so important.

The Australian government, in partnership with the International Finance Corporation – and can I particularly acknowledge our visitors who have come all the way from Washington to participate in today's events, and we had the opportunity to have a chat earlier.

We will be in partnership with the International Finance Corporation and we will provide $15 million over the next four years to support private enterprise to improve their performance in employing, promoting and supporting women.

The programme will also increase access to financial services to women, including those starting their own businesses.

As the female Minister for International Development and the Pacific, working with a female Foreign Minister, in a Foreign Affairs Department headed by a woman, we have some experience of the great value of participation of women.

The global research, including from Australia, is indeed compelling.

A recent study of the top 500 companies on the Australian Stock Exchange found that there is a direct correlation between board diversity and company performance.

In short, companies with more women on their boards made more profits than companies with no women on their boards.

Companies with three or more women in senior management also score higher in all dimensions of organizational effectiveness.

And these, of course, are important measures in business – like leadership, direction, and accountability.

This is not surprising, as we know that diverse teams are smarter, more effective, and more creative.

And then there is the multiplier effect when companies have more women in leadership roles.

 It provides more motivation for other women to succeed.

And a motivated workforce is a very, very productive workforce.

Every business looks to maximise its profits – and shareholders demand it.

So the real question for business is – can you afford not to have a more diversified workforce and more women in your leadership roles?

So this Women in Work Program, a four-year partnership with IFC, will promote inclusive economic growth in Sri Lanka by increasing the number of private sector players who adopt gender-smart business solutions and, as a result, see improvements in their performance, [and] will of course add to the economic growth of this country.

The program will have three key areas:

First, we will work with companies to demonstrate the business case for investing in women as employees and to improve their ability to recruit, retain and promote women and men equally.

Secondly, the program will provide increased access to financial and non-financial services for women and women-owned businesses.

And thirdly, the program will increase opportunities for women in selected private sector supply chains.

Importantly, the program will be underpinned by research to demonstrate the business case for investing in women, and build on advocacy network.

Across all three components, there will be a strong focus on addressing gender-based violence and sexual harassment in the workforce.

And we can all make a difference.

Men need to stand together with women to say that gender equality is everyone's business.

In Australia, we have an initiative known as Male Champions of Change. 

This initiative seeks to improve men's understanding and appreciation of gender equality in order to change their attitudes towards woman.

By working together, we can create countries in which women are respected, they are represented, and they have a strong voice, they are financially and economically secure, and they are safe from violence. 

As business leaders, you have a vital role to play – not only in women's economic empowerment, but in creating societies in which women are empowered and respected.

Can I wish you all the very, very best with the program, and I look forward to hearing about its achievements.

Thank you very much for your kind attention.

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