Less than a year ago, in November 2011, a bare two months after my appointment as Australia's Global Ambassador for Women and Girls, I participated in a policy dialogue on gender-based violence in Canberra, co-hosted by Australia and our American friends, whose partnership on this issue we value highly.
The Pacific Women's Empowerment Policy Dialogue: Stopping Violence Against Women, was attended by women from across the Pacific. It was a sobering, moving and inspiring event where the challenges of gender-based violence were clearly and, often, painfully articulated and where the extraordinary work to prevent violence, to protect women and girls and to prosecute the perpetrators was shared and experiences were learned from, to the benefit of women and men across the region.
Opening that dialogue, Australia's former foreign minister said, "We're here to talk about a very ugly subject: violence".
And here we are again, in the geographic context of the Lower Mekong Region, to talk about the very ugly subject of gender-based violence.
The conversation today may have different cultural, social and economic underpinnings from the Pacific one, but as we are all acutely aware, the costs of gender-based violence – to individual, families, communities and countries – are the same, wherever we are in the world.
Although Australia has zero tolerance for violence against women, in Australia and internationally, we - like every country represented at this dialogue – have confronting records.
Our national research shows that over 1.2 million women and girls over the age of 15 in Australia have experienced domestic or family violence, usually at the hands of a male partner and Australian women with disabilities are abused at least twice as often as women without disabilities.
There is nothing remotely excusable about violence against women anywhere, at any time.
But while there is no shortage of good work being done to remove the scourge of violence against women and girls, the statistics remain perturbing and the personal stories – which all of us here have come across in our personal and professional lives, and which some of us may even have direct experience of – are shocking.
One in three women globally has experienced some form of gender-based violence and one in five have experienced rape or attempted rape.
As the Executive Director of UN Women, Michelle Bachelet, said just last month at a General Assembly event devoted to the work of UN Women to eliminate violence against women, "We can no longer accept, excuse or tolerate violence against women and girls. We can no longer afford inaction. The costs of this - in human suffering and in threats to peace and development, are far too high to pay."
No one can quantify the personal pain of any form of abuse – such damage is incalculable. But we can put a price on health costs, including a greater risk of HIV, on medical bills, legal costs, lost wages, lower productivity. A World Bank report on gender-based violence suggests that lost wages alone due to family violence amounted to potentially 1.6 to 2 percent in developing countries.
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.
None of us alone can end violence against women, all of us share responsibility and our collective efforts are needed to achieve profound and lasting change.
For this reason, the 57th Session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women, to be held in New York in 2013, will focus on the Elimination and Prevention of All Forms of Violence Against Women and Girls.
With a more region-specific focus, dialogues such as ours in Siem Reap inform and unite us in our determination to put an end to violence against women.
Gender-based violence has many faces. Domestic violence, child marriage, sexual exploitation, forced abortions for example because a child is female, the refusal to educate a girl child – whatever form the violence takes, it is an appalling violation of human dignity.
And it can happen anywhere: in the family home; in armed conflict where rape is used as a weapon of war; in any place where women and girls are devalued simply because of their gender.
As there is particular expertise on issues of trafficking in persons in our panel, a focus of our discussions today will be the intersection of gender-based violence and trafficking.
Domestic violence, for example, has been identified as a push factor for women to undertake risky migration leading to trafficking.
Traffickers use various tactics to intimidate and overpower victims including violence and sexual assault, debt bondage and threats to harm the victim's children and family.
And trafficked women, on returning home, can encounter further discrimination for having performed sex work, or in some cases, for returning with HIV/AIDS.
At the heart of our discussions this afternoon is the question: How can we as governments and civil society work together to respond to the issue of violence against women?
Given the scale of the problem, we need to work on a number of fronts.
We need to ensure that the needs of women who have experienced violence are met, and that no woman is forced to live in fear because she has nowhere to turn.
We need to ensure that no woman who has survived violence is denied justice and healthcare. We must end impunity.
We need to deploy a range of strategies to prevent violence. We need to change the attitudes, behaviours and social norms that perpetuate violence. In particular, we need to work with men and boys as well as women and girls. No girl or boy should grow up thinking that violence against women is acceptable or normal.
We need to address gaps in knowledge about the extent of violence and its causes.
We are fortunate to have such a distinguished panel of experts in this field to shape our discussions today; but I know that all representatives at this dialogue are working tirelessly, in often difficult circumstances, to promote gender equality and to eliminate violence against women and girls.
I encourage all of you to participate actively in this discussion and share your experiences, including the promising approaches to addressing violence against women and girls that you have developed which we can apply across our region.