Launch of Gender Equality and Women's Empowerment Strategy

  • Speech, check against delivery

Good morning ladies and gentlemen. I am delighted to see this level of support demonstrated by your presence here today for the launch of this Gender Equality and Women's Empowerment Strategy.

I thank Richard Bell for his gracious Welcome to Country, Ewen McDonald for all for the work he does as the head of our Aid Section, Secretary Peter Varghese, my dear friend and now ministerial colleague, Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, who has just been appointed as Minister for International Development and the Pacific and I know she'll bring the enthusiasm and energy to this role as she has to her other ministerial duties.

Our Ambassador for Women and Girls, Natasha Stott-Despoja, who has been doing an extraordinary job advocating on behalf of the Australian Government around the world, I see a number of my parliamentary colleagues here today, including Sharman Stone, who also has worked very closely in this particular area, and there are so many senior diplomats and Heads of Mission here, I'm absolutely delighted to see you all; perhaps I'll only mention Charles Lepani, the Dean of the Corps, but I can see Ambassadors Berry and Nadjib and so many of you, thank you very much for being here.

I am passionate about this issue and I believe it is utterly fundamental to the success of our aid program. In 2014, when we announced a new approach to Australian Aid, a re-calibrated, re-focused effort, gender equality was very much at the heart of it. Yes, we focused on other issues such as our region, we brought our focus for our aid work, our development assistance work, to our region, the Indian Ocean, Asia-Pacific, but particularly the Pacific. Let's face it, it's an extraordinarily challenging area, it is prone to natural disasters like no other region in the world, and I've just signed off on another tranche of support to Fiji, currently going through the terrible aftermath of Tropical Cyclone Winston.

So Australia focuses our efforts in our region, not exclusively but most certainly in our neighbourhood, where we believe we can make the biggest difference, where we believe we have a responsibility, a primary responsibility to support the development of countries in our region.

We also focused on engaging the private sector in a rather creative and innovative way; getting the private sector involved in the programs and initiatives and policy outcomes in the development assistance and aid sector. Of course the private sector are involved but we wanted to align our efforts and see some pretty amazing results.

We also embraced innovation, creativity, new thinking, not doing the same things over and over again and getting the same results which just were not good enough. This is manifested in the establishment of what we call the innovationXchange, a separate location, separate staffing, separate focus, driving innovation in our aid program, and if you haven't visited the innovationXchange, I suggest that you take up the opportunity. It's a very different approach to delivering public policy anywhere in the Government but let alone in a rather traditional area such as development assistance and foreign aid.

Finally, and I think most importantly, we have put an unrelenting focus on gender equality, women's empowerment and as Ewan indicated, I've mandated that at least a minimum of 80% of our aid program ensures that the issues of gender equality and women's issues and their empowerment is a part of it. I see Matt Thistlethwaite here – good to see you Matt – on behalf of the Opposition, so I'm sorry I didn't notice you earlier. This is a focus that is embraced across the political divide.

So today we are launching a Gender Equality and Women's Empowerment Strategy, and this is to bring it all together, all of the work we're doing together under one umbrella, not just in the aid section of the Department but in our diplomacy, in our international engagement, in our trade; wherever Australia is engaged, we want to ensure that our Gender Equality and Women's Empowerment Strategy is at the heart of it.

Here we are a century on from the fight for economic and political inclusion for women, and we still have a long way to go. In a developed country like Australia, where it is against the law to discriminate based on gender, we still see the manifestation of gender inequality: there's a 19% pay gap between men and women doing the same work. We know that women are less likely to have the same employment opportunities as men even if you take out the peak child-raising family responsibility period, women are less likely to be in employment and that challenge continues even more so as we age.

The UK, the United States, European Union all face this challenge of ensuring that women can participate equally in the economy, in the labour force, and that they get the opportunities that men also take as a matter of course.

So it's not just a challenge for Australia, it's a challenge across the globe; but it's much more focused in developing countries and hence where the focus of this strategy lies.

Education is a key, it's utterly essential to give girls the opportunity to get an education, and that's been the focus of much of the work that we've been doing. The statistics don't lie: about 70% of countries around the world have gender parity in preschool, that drops to about 65% of countries having gender parity in primary school, then in lower-secondary it's down to 50%, and then upper-secondary it's down to 30%.

So we know that if you educate women they will have greater opportunities, and they'll have a greater opportunity to be economically empowered. Financial literacy is one of the fundamental pillars of our program, our aid program, giving women the opportunity to work to gain an income, access to resources. We know that globally, there's serious money involved. If we were able to provide gender parity, it would add about 2% to GDP, about USD $1.5 trillion, and the wage gap between men and women doing the same work is valued at something like USD $17 trillion, so the economic case is there.

Health is another fundamental and I was pleased to meet with Mark Dybul this morning before we came to this Launch, the Executive Director of the Global Fund, because they're doing amazing things in the area of HIV AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis. Australia is a great supporter of the Global Fund – our current commitment is $200 million and the replenishment is coming up this year – and I've wished Mark all the very best as he visits countries around the world advocating for greater commitment to this Fund that is doing such amazing work.

We were talking about how the burden of disease falls so unfairly and inequitably on women; just take HIV AIDS, I understand from discussions with Mark that 80% of new infections in the adolescent demographic is on young girls, 80% of new infections amongst adolescents is on young girls, 7000 new cases of HIV AIDS a week.

So this is an area where we need to focus our efforts and another area connected to education, to economic empowerment, to health, is violence. Violence against women. We are tackling it domestically, no country is immune. We are certainly putting a huge emphasis on it. We've seen from the last two Australians of the Year, and the focus that they have given to ending domestic violence, but it's also very much a part of our aid program. It's insidious, it's endemic in some parts of our region and we have done a great deal to shine a light on it and to find ways that we can tackle it and change the attitudes and flaws that underpin it. I want to thank Natasha Stott-Despoja for the work that she has done in that regard.

Of course we've made some gains. Afghanistan is a pretty tough place to be a woman or a girl, and yet through our support in the education area we've hardened our effort that has seen girls education go from zero under the Taliban to over 3.2 million young women and girls being educated in Afghanistan today.

We've focused on the issue of domestic violence and women's rights in Afghanistan. I recall very well a meeting in Kabul with a group of female parliamentarians, they were complaining that they had only four women in Cabinet and I remember at the time we had less than that, but I now sit in a Cabinet with six women and other women in the Ministry so I know what a difference it can make, believe me!

Wherever I travel, I like to meet with women's groups or I ask our host to gather a representative group of women together so I can hear from them directly about the challenges – political, economic, social – and you often hear a very different story from a group of women than you might otherwise hear from official briefings. So whether we're in Myanmar or Port Moresby or Fiji in Suva, I like to hear from women. Invariably the issues are those that this strategy is going to address: it's about changing attitudes, it's about ensuring that we can end poverty by putting in place sustainable economic growth – you cannot have sustainable economic growth in a country who ignore half the population. So it's embracing the power of the women – and ensuring that prosperity can come from an educated participating workforce. So that's what we're aiming to do.

This strategy is a roadmap. It will set out how we seek to achieve the objectives that are reflected in the G20's agenda, the Sustainable Development Goals in the UN, in the regional architecture. We all know that women's empowerment, educating women, addressing women's health issues, women's economic issues, addressing domestic violence, these are all fundamental to sustainable economic growth, to prosperity, to ending poverty and ensuring that there's peace and stability.

So our focus is on three pillars.

First, leadership: giving a voice to women, whether it's in their parliaments, whether it's in their communities, whether it's in peace negotiations, a particular focus of the United Nations. Giving women a voice; giving women the opportunity to be leaders in their families, in their villages, in their towns, in their parliaments.

Secondly, the economic empowerment of women, and there are so many things we can do: giving women access to finance through microfinance, through MOUs with banks as we have with Westpac and ANZ in the Pacific; to ensuring that they have access to resources, to agricultural assets, to markets. There are so many initiatives underway.

Third, ending violence and discrimination against women.

We have a $50 million Gender Equality Fund and we are looking for the kind of initiatives that really make a difference; and as I've said so many times, empowering women is not just the right thing to do, it's the smart things to do.

So ladies and gentlemen, thank you very much for being here. I know we have a number of speakers but I just wanted to assure you that this Strategy has support at the highest levels in the Government and I'm very proud, that we are able to launch a Strategy that brings it all together today and sends a very powerful message around the world that Australia will be part of the fight for gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls.

I now launch this Strategy.

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