Thank you, Michael, for your kind introduction.

Can I start by also adding my acknowledgement of country.

Thank you all for joining us here this afternoon on a beautiful autumn day at least. This is the end of the New South Wales Parliament, the end that gets the nice view and the sunshine. 

It is my very great pleasure to be joining you this afternoon for the second Australia Awards Women’s Leadership Initiative learning and network event.

Can I add my welcome too to the panel, and I am sure that this afternoon’s panel discussion will be a very good one given the high calibre of our panel members.

Can I thank you for contributing your time and more importantly, your valuable insights to this Initiative.

But can I particularly welcome all of our distinguished Australia Awards scholars and their guests who have joined us here today.  

I have had the privilege of meeting many of you, some of this cohort, many of you, as I have travelled across the Pacific, all of whom who have absolutely amazing track records in their respective fields, as scholars as practitioners, ranging from nursing to engineering to law.

You are an inspiration to our Pacific region and we value the passion, the determination that you bring, most especially, as trailblazers for your countries and for the communities that you come from.

We thank you for your insights, we thank you for standing up and for wanting to be future leaders, but more importantly for acknowledging that there is a younger generation of women coming through that do need your guidance and support, and they are fortunate to have you to look up to.

Australia’s $320 million commitment to Pacific Women Shaping Pacific Development is our major investment in the Pacific to support improved political, economic and social opportunities for Pacific women.

45% of the expenditure has gone towards ending violence against women.  Australia is helping to end violence against women in a number of ways; by expanding services, health and legal and other services for survivors, by strengthening the responsiveness of the law and justice and the law and justice system and making that system stronger but also to help prevent that violence through advocacy and outreach.

More than 60% of the women surveyed across the Pacific have experienced physical or sexual violence.

And we know, that violence against women is a violation of human rights and that has a profound and devastating impact, not only on the victims but on their families, on their communities, and in turn their society.

Sadly, it is an issue that is endemic in all of our countries.

Of course I include Australia in this, because this is an issue that we too are grappling with.

Since I have become Minister, I have made 30 trips to the Pacific, including to outlying islands and small communities.  I have had the opportunity to meet many women and girls. 

And whilst I have heard their stories, often of violence, I have also heard those stories of resilience and strength to combat the challenges that they do face.  And of strong women who have chosen to stand up, who are seeking your support and in turn, they themselves can give their support in their communities.

So this is what our Women’s Leadership Initiative is, it is about equipping our future generations of strong capable women in the Indo-Pacific.

We first launched the Women’s Leadership Initiative in New York in September last year, in the presence of our Pacific leaders.

For more than 60 years, the Australian Government has proudly supported the education of emerging leaders in developing countries.

From the Colombo Plan in the 1950s to today’s Australia Awards, more than 90,000 people have received a scholarship to study in Australia.  

Through the Australia Awards we fund between 3,000 and 4,000 long and short term awards each year—an annual investment of around $300 million dollars.

And we currently have almost 200 Australia Awards scholars from the Pacific studying here in NSW and in the ACT.

And there are also seven New Colombo Plan scholars studying in the Pacific this year from Australian institutions, gaining valuable knowledge and insights from our Pacific neighbours.

Early generations of Australia’s global alumni have gone on to lead governments and major international businesses.

These heads of state, ministers, CEOs and community leaders understand our institutions, our values and our perspectives on the world.

They occupy positions of influence around the region and indeed, on my many travels I have had the pleasure of meeting many alumni and hearing their stories and their great memories of their times spent here in Australia. 

And of course, our Alumni Association, our alumni networks have also ensured that by participating as part of this alumni family, they have maintained those friendships that they have made and their connections to Australia.

And indeed, I was most recently in Manila, and we had a very large gathering of people, of alumni, just to hear their stories, and not only do they continue to interact amongst themselves, but they continue to have friendships, family, friends and all sorts of connections here to Australia which is exactly what we want and what we think is most valuable.

Now, our Women’s Leadership Initiative builds on this success and reflects the Australian Government’s commitment to education and to the empowerment of women and girls—with a particular focus on our partners in the Pacific.

There is no doubt that countries in the Pacific will benefit greatly as women are equally empowered both economically and politically.

Currently in Pacific countries, on average, only 7% of national parliamentarians are women. 

This is the lowest rate in the world, compared to a global average of 23.5%.

Here in Australia we also face challenges, and despite recent gains for women in leadership in our workplaces, in our boardrooms and in government.

At last count, only 11 of the top 200 ASX companies have female CEOs and there are still over 40 top companies that do not have any females on their board.

Societies that protect human rights, promote gender equality and include women in all facets of economic, political and cultural life are much more likely to be vibrant, inclusive, productive and stable.

But we will not achieve gender equality while women are absent from leadership.

Supporting women’s leadership in the Pacific is key to reducing poverty, promoting economic growth and democracy and increasing the well-being of women, girls and their families.

And I always say, you empower a woman, you empower her family, you empower her community and in turn you empower her nation.

Through our investment of $5.4 million over five years, the Initiative will build vital links between emerging women leaders from the Pacific and women leaders in Australia, while building a cohort of mentors to work alongside their Pacific counterparts.

This is part of our hope and our efforts to support women and girls to reach their full potential and to be leaders in their communities, in their businesses and in politics in their respective countries.

It aims to increase the number of female Australia Awards alumni who hold positions of influence in all sectors and spheres of society in the Pacific.

And this exciting Initiative aims to support and enable women to fulfil their leadership potential and drive big ideas and reforms in your communities.

It contributes, we hope, to an environment where women’s leadership can flourish and as I have said, encourage, most importantly, that next generation of girls.

The Foreign Policy White Paper launched in November last year, re-affirmed Australia’s closeness to our countries in the Pacific, our intention to step up our engagement, to be a lot more engaged, at all levels.

And indeed, in our recent budget, Australia’s overseas development assistance to the Pacific, is the highest that it has ever been and part of that is our intention to intensify the work that we do within the region, and a key component of this is the work that we are doing in the gender equality space.

For us, education, training and research exchanges are vitally important to mutual understanding, to economic growth and to the security of our region.

And today’s event represents the second of a series of learning and networking events to be held around the country, where Australian scholars from the Pacific – women and men – I’ve been focusing on women, but we have to, right across the spectrum, and can I particularly welcome the males who are here today, we don’t want you to feel out of turn here today, but our focus, of course, is on women’s leadership and the development impact that it can have on our region.

It is this same exchange of knowledge and wisdom which lies at the heart of our reciprocal program, the New Colombo Plan.

Over the first five years, the New Colombo Plan will have supported more than 30,000 Australian undergraduates to live, work and study in the Indo-Pacific—a practical demonstration of our commitment to learn from our closest neighbours.

Our New Colombo Plan alumni are certainly richer for the experiences that they have been afforded, and I know the same will be true of our Women’s Leadership Initiative scholars.

Australia will continue to work closely with our partners in the Pacific towards our common goals of prosperity, stability and security in our region.

We are delighted to be joined today, as I have indicated, by our panel members who offer a breadth and depth of knowledge on leadership in both Australia and in the Pacific.

And I would like to thank you all for your participation today and I wish you all every success in your fields of endeavour and I know that you are our future leaders in, not just your communities, but in our region.

Thank you for your kind attention.

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