Australia: A stronger voice for women in the world

Announcement of Penny Williams as Australia’s Global Ambassador for Women

Great Hall, Parliament House, Canberra


13 September 2011


Minister Ellis, members of the Status of Women Caucus Committee, parliamentary colleagues, distinguished guests.

I'm particularly pleased to welcome international participants in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s graduate training course, including female participants who have joined us from countries as diverse as Afghanistan, Tonga, Indonesia and Ecuador.


The Minister for Foreign Affairs Kevin Rudd has asked me to convey to you how sorry he is that he could not be here today.

He is passionate about women having a voice in the world, and he was passionate about creating a Global Ambassador for Women and Girls.

He has asked me to read the following message on his behalf:

Travelling as Foreign Minister around the world, I have witnessed first-hand the strength of women and girls in all corners of the globe in the face of huge social, political and economic challenges.

Most recently in July, I travelled to refugee camps in Ethiopia and Somalia and met those most affected by famine in the Horn of Africa including women with their feet cut to ribbons after walking for weeks in search of food and safety for their families.

In Afghanistan in March, I met girls who were going to school for the first time under a program Australia is funding in partnership with Save the Children.

All these stories are testament to the determination shared by women and girls around the world to improve their lot in life.

The status of women has been raised significantly since the early twentieth century, due mostly to the tireless campaigning of women themselves. But there is more to be done.

Having a dedicated Ambassador will give us a stronger voice in promoting women’s rights on the world stage.

And our Ambassador will encourage the world to listen more attentively to its most vulnerable and to those most at risk of being silenced.

By investing in the lives of women around the globe in this way, we are investing in Australia’s prosperity, the prosperity of every Australian family, because women’s progress is inextricably linked to community, national and global progress.

To my female parliamentary colleagues and the development community who lobbied them, it may have taken longer than necessary for us to create this important position if not for your passionate calls.

I thank you all for your hard work on this issue and wish I could have shared today with you.

I've valued our many conversations, which have helped shape my own thinking about a position that I have long regarded as important.

Thank you, Kevin Rudd.

As Minister Rudd has explained, the benefits of empowering women goes past the individual.

In Australia, Goldman Sachs estimates closing the gap in workplace participation between men and women would boost economic growth by at least 11 per cent.1

Similarly, the International Labour Organisation estimates that the Asia and Pacific region is losing up to US$47 billion annually because of women’s limited access to employment opportunities.

And more than US$16 billion annually as a result of gender gaps in education.2

So addressing the global gender imbalance does not just have moral dimensions – it has economic dimensions as well.

As UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon said at the launch of UN Women in February this year, "investing in women is the right thing to do and a smart thing to do – possibly one of the smartest things we can ever do."

Australia has a longstanding commitment to giving women a better deal. Especially through our aid program, where we have a long list of tangible outcomes.

In Afghanistan, we've helped build over 800 schools and train over 98 000 teachers across the country.

Under the Taliban, school enrolments were a dismal one million in 2001 – of whom none were girls.

Today there are over seven million enrolments and over 2.5 million of those are Afghan girls.

In Nepal, we've helped more than 3 000 women set up new businesses through the United Nations Development Program’s Micro Enterprise Development Program.

Last year in Bangladesh, we supported a local NGO, which helped more than 21 000 women in extreme poverty develop sustainable income-generating activities.

Four years after receiving assistance, ninety eight per cent of past beneficiaries have remained above the poverty line.

This demonstrates the difference this program is making.

And in Papua New Guinea, we've helped boost the number of women village court magistrates from 10 in 2004 to 500 by the end of 2010 through increased recruitment and training.

We were one of the first countries to pledge multi-year core funding for the UN Women, recognising the important work that the United Nations does to improve gender equality and empower women.

As Parliamentary Secretary for the Pacific Islands, I am pleased to say that our advocacy for women and girls in the Asia Pacific will be a particular priority not just because this is the region where we believe we can be most effective but because this is the region where we need to be most effective.

Two thirds of the world’s impoverished currently live in the region.3

In one of the world’s poorest nations, East Timor, girls are more likely than boys to drop out of school.

Mothers in Papua New Guinea are on average 80 times more likely to die in child birth than in Australia.4

In some Pacific countries, two out of three women and girls experience physical or sexual violence in their lifetime, which is a truly horrifying statistic.

And of the 10 UN Members with no women represented in their parliament, 6 are in the Pacific.5

Penny will have a significant focus on our immediate region and will be meeting with women and girls in South East Asia and the Pacific in coming months.

It’s quite an agenda.

But Penny brings to this role a wealth of international experience as a career diplomat and a strong commitment to gender equality both at home and abroad.

Ms Williams has represented Australia’s interests all over the world – including in Asia, the Middle East and South America.

She speaks three languages, and is adept at international negotiation - no doubt a skill she gained as the mother of four children.

I encourage the young women and girls who have joined us today to regard Penny as their spokesperson on the world stage, ensuring that their views, concerns and hopes are shared beyond our borders.

It is my great pleasure to introduce Australia’s newest Ambassador today. Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome, Ms Penny Williams.

  • 1. Goldman Sachs JB Were Research (2009) Australia’s Hidden Resource: The Economic Case for Increasing Female Participation
  • 2. ILO and ADB (2011) Women and labour markets in Asia: Rebalancing for gender equality 2011
  • 3. UNDP Asia Pacific Regional Centre, "Poverty Reduction and Achievement of MDG"
  • 4. Source: Based on a comparison of lifetime risk of maternal death in 2008. World Health Organisation, "Trends in maternal mortality: 1990 to 2008", pp 23 & 25
  • 5. UN data: Countries with no female politicians

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