Address to Gender Equality Roundtable – Post forum dialogue, Pacific Islands Forum

Cook Islands

Speech, E&OE, check against delivery

31 August 2012

The symbolism is rather lost with me delivering this rather than our Prime Minister, but events at home and the tragedy in Afghanistan are such that Prime Minister Gillard really needed to be back in Australia.

My mother was the first Equal Opportunity Commissioner in the state of Victoria. During the 70s and 80s, she was one of the leaders of the women's movement in Melbourne and Victoria. So, I feel like I grew up in rooms just like this, in rooms full of very strong and very determined women who had an utter sense of confidence that they were able to change the world and I have watched them do it. And I have no doubt that's exactly the kind of room I'm in today.

I also have three much older sisters, so I often say that I was raised by a tribe of women, but in fact we're all raised by a tribe of women. It says something about the significance of women in society, the plain and obvious fact – in terms of family, but in terms of leadership and in terms of the economy. What it also says is that while women's equality is very much one of the great, if not the greatest human rights issue in the world today, it is a development issue. Where you see a country which empowers women, you see a country which has empowered itself.

The gender declaration made at this Pacific Island Forum is an historic declaration and a step forward for this region in terms of the empowerment for women. It's not an easy thing to do. It does involve cultural change, and I want to commend the leadership of Prime Minister Henry Puna in bringing forward that declaration at the Pacific Island Forum with our Prime Minister Julia Gillard.

But I want to say, Madam Secretary, you have provided global leadership on the question of empowerment of women. There is a glass ceiling which clearly still exists, and it still exists here. But when, at the end of your presidential campaign four years ago, you declared that there are 18 million cracks in that ceiling, I think what you really did was show the importance to the world of listening to women's voices.

It's why this dialogue is so important, the Rarotonga dialogue. We're really pleased to be a part of it – bringing together governments, civil society, the private sector, multi-lateral organisations, academia, regional organisations in a dialogue of this kind is exactly what we need to do, because this kind of conversation really makes a difference. We're really pleased to be able to support this initiative with the East West Centre, with my good friends Charles and Gerry, in providing funds for leadership training for women at the East West Centre.

We're also pleased to work with the US in the Pacific Women's Empowerment Initiative, which so far has had three dialogues. I was pleased to be a part of one which occurred last year around preventing violence against women. Hundreds of Pacific women attended that conference at Parliament House in Canberra, along with somebody I think you know well, Tina Chen, the executive director of the White House Council on Women and Girls. It was fantastic to have Tina at that event.

That initiative helped us formulate the Pacific Women Shaping Pacific Development Initiative, which we've announced at the Pacific Islands Forum. This is a $320 million initiative which seeks to assist women in promoting their role in leadership, promoting their role in a very practical way in the economy, and also making sure that campaigns against violence against women are at their loudest and most forceful. It's an initiative which we hope strengthens the voices for change for the empowerment of women in this region. Not just women's voices, but men's voices adding to those calls as well. It is an expression of the Australian Government's commitment to ensure women are central in all the development assistance work that we do. In health, in education, whatever we do, one of the very first questions we ask about a development assistance project is how is this going to improve the role of women?

This is, of course, a campaign which will run over generations. Prime Minister Gillard made that point herself. But there has to be a starting point in this. I think this week with Prime Minister Gillard being here, with the Gender Initiative that Australia launched and with this, Madam Secretary, the Rarotonga dialogue and your presence here, I do believe that this is an enormous step forward and perhaps not the beginning of the road, but a very important step along the road.

Thank you.

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