Skip to main content

Address to the YWCA SHE Leads Conference

News, speeches and media


Speaker: Speech by The Ambassador for Women and Girls, Natasha Stott Despoja (check against delivery)

Adelaide Wine Centre, Adelaide

Speech by The Ambassador for Women and Girls, Natasha Stott Despoja (check against delivery)

I begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land, the Kaurna people.

I'm honoured to join my fellow keynote speakers, Deborah Cheetham and Gala Mustafa in speaking to you today.

I enjoy working with the YWCA and always have.

This year, we have had a number of opportunities to work together.

From the Commission for the Status of Women at the UN in New York in March and, more recently, the World AIDS Conference in Melbourne in July.

I am also looking forward to seeing the results of the YWCA event coming up on 6 September at Gay's Arcade.

This is your chance to 'bid for equality' by joining me and other Adelaide women for the YWCA's Equal Pay Day Handbag Auction.

I want to commend the YWCA for its ongoing advocacy for young women.

YWCA is taken seriously by the Australian Government, as shown by the Government's ongoing commitment to funding many of the YWCA's programs.

To single out two – the World YWCA's program, Mobilising Young Women's Leadership and Advocacy in Asia and the Pacific, is building the capacity of young women to exercise leadership in their communities and advocate for their rights.

And YWCA Australia's Every Girl Program is assisting girls aged 9 to 14 from disadvantaged communities to achieve positive change by providing girls with opportunities to engage with their communities and find the power in their own voices.

I share YWCA's passion to support young women's leadership.

The concept for today's conference – SHE Leads – is a hugely valuable one.

It's about giving young women the tools and information to form views on how to improve the world around them.

And also encouraging them to take all the opportunities they can to show leadership – in their families, their communities, their workplaces and – a personal hope – their governments.

No one country has got gender equality right.

No country or community, regardless of its circumstances, can reach its full potential while drawing on the skills of only half its population.

Women bring new ideas and different decision-making and communication styles to a leadership group, which diversifies and improves workplaces and work practices.

An increased number of women in leadership roles has been shown to have a positive effect – right down to measures as simple as profit and loss.

More women in government can lead to improved distribution of resources, and the maintenance of public infrastructure.

You may be familiar with this story from the Half the Sky movement.

After India's constitution was changed to specify that one third of village chiefs must be women, research showed that those living in villages run by women (both male and female constituents) were less satisfied with their leader's performance.

This was despite evidence that performance by men and women chiefs was largely equal – save for infrastructure projects and maintenance, which tended to be superior in villages run by women.

But by the time a village appointed its second female chief, performance and satisfaction were more evenly matched.

This story shows that even in the face of evidence, it takes time to change the cultural perceptions around women's leadership.

We have seen a lot of progress for women and girls over the past few decades.

But sadly, we know that many girls around the world are still faced with a very grim reality:

65 million girls across the world are out of school.

150 million girls (and 73 million boys) under the age of 18 have

experience rape or other forms of sexual violence.

Every year, 10 million girls are forced or coerced into marriage – that's another girl every three seconds.

One in three girls in the developing world is married by the age of 18 and one in seven marries before they reach the age of 15.

The leading cause of death for young women aged 15-19 in developing countries is pregnancy – a girl in Southern Sudan is more likely to die in child birth than she is to finish primary school.

But we also know:

An extra year of a mother's schooling cuts infant mortality by 15-25 per cent.

An increase of only one per cent in girls secondary education attendance, adds 0.3 per cent to a country's GDP.

In fact, the recently released 2014 UN Human Development Report described educating women as 'the closest thing to a silver bullet in human development'.

And the ILO has reported that if barriers to women's access to employment opportunities were removed, the Asia-Pacific region would gain up to US$47 billion annually and more than US$16 billion per year if the region closed gender gaps in education.

I'm glad that Australia has recognised the challenges and opportunities facing women around the world, and has made gender equality and women's empowerment a priority in its foreign policy and overseas aid program.

I've seen Australia demonstrate leadership as a vocal international advocate on gender equality issues.

During our two year term as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council, we have pushed for women to be considered across the council's peace and security work.

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop is a Champion of the UK's Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict Initiative.

I was proud to lead a delegation alongside Australia's Chief of Army, David Morrison, to the PSVI Summit in London in June.

We are also continuing to promote women's economic empowerment through global forums including the G20, APEC and IORA.

Australia has set a target requiring at least 80 per cent of aid investments, regardless of their objectives, effectively address gender issues in their implementation.

I've seen the results of the work Australia is doing to support women leaders in our region.

In July, I was in Tonga to host the Pacific Women Policy Makers Dialogue – a program supported by Australia's ten-year, $320 million Pacific Women Shaping Pacific Development initiative.

Through this initiative, we are aiming to improve the political, economic and social opportunities for Pacific women.

At the dialogue, I witnessed the huge reservoir of talent and energy in our women leaders that we are so far failing to access.

So Australia is playing a part in the broader global efforts to achieve gender equality and women's empowerment.

The standalone goal on gender equality in the Millennium Development Goals, MDG3, played a key role in increasing international support for gender equality and women's empowerment.

It has highlighted that achieving gender equality is crucial to reducing poverty.

And annual reporting on MDGs has helped to demonstrate areas and regions where progress is being made and where greater efforts are needed.

As we near the end of the Millennium Development Goals, Australia is involved in discussions for what the post-2015 development agenda will look like.

The Australian Government is in total agreement with civil society (such as the YWCA) on the importance of gender equality in the Post-2015 agenda.

We are pushing for a standalone goal on gender equality, and for gender equality to be considered across all other goals in the post-2015 agenda.

Our efforts benefit greatly from our cooperation with organisations like the YWCA to keep gender on the agenda, including the YWCA's publication on the post-2015 global development agenda Her Future: The Future Young Women Want – A Global Call to Act.

Governments, solely, can't drive change. The efforts of civil society and individuals to advocate for, and in fact demand, change are indispensable.

We've come a long way, but many challenges remain.

Looking at this wonderful gathering of smart, passionate and committed individuals, I know change is afoot.

I wish you the best of luck for this conference, and for your future efforts to drive change.

Last Updated: 13 November 2014
Back to top