Women’s Economic Empowerment Event

  • Speech, E&OE

Good morning everybody. I particularly want to welcome my ministerial colleagues from the Indian Ocean Rim, the representatives from the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry Tracey Horton and Kate Carnell and thank you Diedre Wilmott for hosting this morning. To our Governor designate Kerry Sanderson and to the panellists and speakers this morning, to all our guests, from the Indian Ocean Rim, across this great nation, and from here in Perth.

I am absolutely delighted to have the opportunity to take part in this Women's Economic Empowerment event because it is associated with the ministerial meeting of the Indian Ocean Rim Association. Tomorrow I will host ministers and senior representatives from the 20 member nations of the Indian Ocean Rim Association. This is the only ministerial level meeting focussed entirely on the Indian Ocean – the world's third largest ocean but one that is too often overlooked.

The Indian Ocean Rim Association was first established in 1997 and it has now grown to 20 members and 6 dialogue partners. It is an extraordinary part of the world – the Indian Ocean Rim – the 20 member nations' shores are lapped by this great ocean but they also share many interests, as well as have so much diversity amongst the membership. The members comprise over 30 per cent of the world's population – about 2 billion people are in the Indian Ocean Rim Association membership – about half of the world's container cargo goes through the Indian Ocean, about a third of the world's bulk cargo, about two thirds of the world's oil shipments, so this is a very important sea lane.

Among the members from South East Asia, South Asia, the Gulf, the East Coast of Africa, Australia – such a diverse group of countries, politically, culturally, economically, there are some of the least developed countries and G20 economies among the membership. But we do have many common interests and in recent years we have identified six areas where IORA can really make a difference to our region.

This fits exceedingly well with the Australian Government's focus on what we call the Indo-Pacific – the Indian Ocean Asia-Pacific. This is our region, our neighbourhood, this is where we live. These six issues are maritime safety and security, trade and investment, fisheries management, disaster risk reduction, the academic, scientific and technological exchange and tourism and cultural exchange.

Last year when Australia was chairing the Indian Ocean Rim Association I suggested to the gathering of Ministers that we should introduce a cross-cutting issue and that is the empowerment of women. I have to say that there was immediate enthusiasm from the other 19 ministers in the room because the Indian Ocean Rim has some of the lowest labour force participation of women anywhere in the world.

The UN tells us if you increase labour force participation of women you can increase GDP enormously – it can be worth billions to a region. In fact the UN estimated that increasing labour force participation in the Asia-Pacific equated to about an additional $90 billion a year in earnings. I think a similar figure could apply to the Indian Ocean Rim. Goldman Sachs recently identified 15 major developing countries and if you are able to achieve greater gender equality in terms of labour force participation you could lift per capita income by about 20 per cent within about 15 years.

So empowering women economically is not only the right thing to do, it is the smart thing to do. Equality means business.

The Australian Government's foreign policy is focussed upon what I call 'economic diplomacy'. Just as traditional diplomacy aims for peace, economic diplomacy aims for prosperity. We have sought to introduce the notion of 'economic diplomacy' in our foreign aid and trade policies. In aid – overseas development assistance – we are focussed on assisting countries develop sustainable economies because that is the best way to alleviate poverty and lift standards of living. So under our umbrella of 'economic diplomacy' we have recast our aid program and our aid budget to ensure that we are not handing out dollars, we are building economic capacity for self-reliance to ensure that growth can be sustained.

Under our new aid program we have focussed particularly on women and girls in three specific area. The economic empowerment of women and girls, in other words, ensuring that the hurdles to stop them from taking part in the formal labour markets and taking part in the economy are removed - they can be educational and health barriers. We are focussing on leadership for women whether it's in their families, in their communities, in their villages, in business, in politics – we want to see more women having a say in the running of the family, the community, the businesses, the country. We are also focussing on the issue of combating violence against women – this is not only social but also an economic issue. So in these three ways we have put the empowerment of women at the heart of our foreign trade and overseas aid policy.

We also appointed former Senator Natasha Stott Despoja as Australia's Ambassador for Women and Girls. Natasha had a very high profile as a former leader of a political party – not the same party as mine which just goes to show that women's issues cross all political boundaries – and Natasha has been doing a fabulous job advocating for women and girls overseas as part of Australia's foreign aid program.

We don't have all the answers in Australia but we can share our experience and we support ideas that work. We can tell others what we have tried to do in Australia and see if it can work elsewhere and we can provide support in response to specific concerns that countries have about developing their economies.

For example I was in Mauritius recently – and I am delighted that my friend Jean-Paul Adam the Foreign Minister of Seychelles is here because he also met up with me in Mauritius – and we provided funding for classes for women in a very poor village in Mauritius to undertake animal husbandry courses and in that way they learned to care for cows and other farm animals so that they could be self-sufficient and self-reliant. It was a very small amount of money but the difference it made to these women's lives, to be able to care for their animals in a sustainable way, is just heart-warming.

In Bangladesh we are providing financial support for women so that they can get small grants and loans to set up small businesses, be involved in local markets, get into local supply chains. In this way this small program which doesn't involve a lot of money, reached about 90,000 households and we are continuing to support women in this way.

Recently we announced more funding – about $12 million – for programs to help combat violence against women in Afghanistan and Pakistan. So it doesn't take a lot of money but if you can target your funding to specific areas, to give women the power to succeed, the investment returns are enormous.

So what I hope that we can do today is share experiences, talk about the benefits of empowering women and recognise that one of the best investments you can make is in ensuring that women take an equal role in societies across the globe. We are particularly focussed on it in the Indian Ocean Rim Association and I look forward to our discussions tomorrow, continuing along this path. We have quite a journey but together – Government in partnership with the private sector – we can make a real difference to the lives of others. Thank you so much for being part of this event this morning.

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