I'd like to thank Shamima and the Fiji Women's Crisis Centre for the invitation to speak to you this morning at this important conference.
It's such a privilege to spend time with women from around the region and to share experiences, especially on issues as challenging and as sensitive as gender-based violence.
I feel as if I'm amongst old friends, having met several of you during my visit to Fiji in March and others in Australia around this time last year during the Pacific Women's Empowerment Policy Dialogue: Stopping Violence Against Women.
We're still here, talking, because the problem of violence against women is still very much with us. We can only hope that one day we have other, more uplifting reasons to gather together.
But while the problems remain, the solutions, I believe, are expanding and gathering momentum.
Pacific Women Shaping Pacific Development
At the Pacific Islands Forum in the Cook Islands, in August, Pacific Leaders made their historic declaration on gender and pledged to act to end violence against women.
They committed to progressively implement a set of essential services to women and girls who are survivors of violence, and to enact and implement domestic violence legislation to protect women from violence and impose appropriate penalties for perpetrators of violence.
I think we will look back at this declaration in years to come and regard it as a milestone, and also as a vital foundation underpinning much of future work to promote the political, economic and social empowerment of Pacific women.
Certainly it is pivotal in terms of Australia's partnership with the region on gender issues.
Australia has demonstrated over many years its commitment to working with Pacific island Governments, civil society groups, churches, and other development partners to support gender equality in the Pacific.
But at the Pacific Islands Forum in August, a new era in that partnership began when Prime Minister Gillard launched the Pacific Women Shaping Pacific Development Initiative.
The initiative commits up to $320 million over 10 years to help shift entrenched barriers to women's social, economic and political participation across Pacific Island Forum countries.
It builds on the sustained work of many Pacific women and organisations to provide much needed services for women affected by violence and to advocate for policy and service delivery reform.
The Initiative will make a practical difference in the lives of Pacific women, their families and their communities and this change will be driven by Pacific women and men based on what is important to them.
In its initial stages, the program broadly aims:
- to provide mentoring and training to female members of parliament and candidates to help them influence national and local level politics and successfully run in elections
- to improve Pacific marketplaces to offer safer and better facilities such as lighting, water supply, sanitation and waste disposal; greater women's participation in market place management
- to expand services for survivors of violence, including increasing the number of health services, crisis centres and shelters
- and to challenge current social attitudes and behaviours towards women.
The initiative recognises that issues of political empowerment, economic empowerment and violence are interconnected.
Because, if we are serious about securing human rights and national security, we must be serious about stopping violence.
If we are serious about achieving gender equity and the empowerment of women and girls, we must be serious about stopping violence.
If we are serious about delivering effective aid programs we must be serious about stopping violence.
The initiative recognises that there are local variations in context and that gender equality issues need to be addressed at different levels and within different groups.
Most importantly, it focuses explicitly on supporting women's groups across the Pacific – it envisages full participation by Pacific women in their own futures as well as the future of the region.
Women such as yourselves know through direct experience what works and what doesn't, and you will be central in the coming decade as the initiative is implemented, assessed and refined.
We will conduct a consultation process with government, private sector and civil society to identify what the major causes and outcomes of gender inequality are; what is already being done; and what can best be supported through this initiative.
In this context, I, and my colleagues from AusAID, would welcome your views over the course of this workshop.
The initiative is likely to support a range of activities to prevent violence against women and support survivors. These include:
- expanding access to services for the survivors of violence (such as medical, psycho-social, legal counselling, justice and safe shelters)
- piloting or expanding promising violence prevention practices
- and policy engagement and legislative reform around the passing and enforcement of appropriate domestic violence legislation.
The first four workplans under the initiative will be developed in PNG, Solomon Islands, the Cook Islands and Fiji. Drafting of these plans will begin by the end of the year with work to commence in other countries in early 2013.
Given the importance of a Pacific-led program, we want to build on Pacific experience and support existing successful approaches. Where possible, workplans will evolve out of existing country-level gender strategies.
Country work plans will need to carefully prioritise and identify a small number of preliminary activities. The workplans will continue to be updated over the 10 year lifespan of the initiative.
However, we also have the opportunity to be bold. Ten years gives us the opportunity to trial new approaches, to expand those programs which are already showing an impact and to add new dimensions to existing partnerships.
For example, Australia works closely with UN Women in the Pacific and has funded the agency's Pacific Fund to End Violence Against Women.
We anticipate that UN Women will be a key partner to the new Pacific women's initiative.
Coincidentally, Both Australia and the Solomon Islands will take up positions on the UN Women Executive Board from January next year.
This will provide a unique opportunity to increase the profile of issues facing women in the Pacific, in particular the prevalence of violence against women.
Australia's existing commitments to combat VAW in the region
The Pacific Women Shaping Pacific Development initiative builds on Australia's existing commitments.
In mid-2011, Australia committed $25 million over 4 years to address violence against women in the Pacific, including in Papua New Guinea.
The funding is expanding and improving the quality of services to women including counselling, crisis accommodation and legal support.
It's strengthening country health systems so they can identify cases of violence and provide an appropriate response and referral service.
And it's helping change community attitudes to violence and expand support to NGOs working to end violence against women.
Understanding the problem and knowing the extent of it are other critical aspects of the gender-based violence programs Australia is supporting.
Australia has supported prevalence studies in Solomon Islands, Kiribati, Tonga and Vanuatu. These studies show that two out of three or more than 60 per cent of Pacific women have experienced domestic violence or sexual assault.
If we really want to help more girls and women, then we must make it a priority to gather and analyse the data that tell the tale.
When we're making the case for elevating the roles of women, we can't just rely on moral arguments, as important and compelling as they might be. We have to make a rigorous case, backed up with solid evidence and data.
Data not only measures progress, it inspires it. Once you start measuring problems, people are more inclined to take action to fix them because nobody wants to end up at the bottom of a list of rankings.
So data are critical on both sides of the question – knowing what needs to be done, and knowing how to do it. If our investments aren't helping us meet our goals, we need to change our approach.
As Pacific Islands Forum Leaders recognised in their Gender Declaration, strong policy regimes and legislative protections are crucial to combat violence against women. Australian support has made the governance and law and justice sectors a priority.
We have assisted with the passing and implementation of the Vanuatu Family Protection Act, which gives better protection to women survivors of violence.
And we've assisted with the development of national policies and action plans in Kiribati and the Solomon Islands.
Shortly after I was appointed as Australia's first Global Ambassador for Women and Girls last year, I attended the Pacific Women's Empowerment Policy Dialogue co-hosted by Australia and the United States in Canberra.
The gathering of roughly 120 people from the region to discuss gender-based violence was a sobering, moving event where the challenges of the issue were clearly and, often, painfully articulated.
But it was also inspiring as participants shared the extraordinary work they were doing to prevent violence, to protect women and girls and to prosecute the perpetrators.
Experiences were learned from, to the benefit of women and men across the region.
Even more now, as we develop the Pacific Women Shaping Pacific Development initiative, these sorts of conversations are invaluable.
I wish you well for this conference and look forward to hearing the outcomes of your discussions.
I hope it is a useful occasion to remind each other that while women still face tremendous violence, the long arc of the moral universe bends towards justice.
With the active investment and involvement of each of us, conditions will improve for the lives of the region's women and girls.