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Pacific Women Business Conference

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"making the connection – challenges and solutions, opportunities and options, buyers and sellers, entrepreneurs and leaders of the pacific" – keynote address


Speaker: Penny Williams, Australia's Global Ambassador for Women, E&OE

Nadi, Fiji

Mereia Volavola, Chief Executive Officer, Pacific Islands Private Sector Organisation

Business women and men of the Pacific


I am delighted to be in Nadi, participating in this conference on Women in Business and I'm very grateful to the Pacific Islands Private Sector Organisation for the invitation to be here.

It's always a privilege to meet with women from around the region and to share experiences regarding the challenges we are all facing, specifically today – the promotion of women entrepreneurs in our countries.

It's also a pleasure to catch up with old friends. I was last in Fiji for International Women's Day in March this year and enjoyed spending time with partners of Australia's Pacific Leadership Program during that visit. How lovely to see some familiar faces here.

To be making a return visit reminds me that time is moving on quickly, even though it sometimes feels as if it was only a few months ago that I was appointed as Australia's first Global Ambassador for Women and Girls.

The work of a Global Ambassador for Women and Girls

Australia takes very seriously its responsibility to contribute to women's empowerment globally and to be a strong and persistent voice on behalf of the world's women and girls.

My appointment as Ambassador for Women and Girls in September last year signalled the Australian Government's strong commitment to advance gender equality globally, but with a special focus on the Asia Pacific region.

The commitment is evident across the spectrum of Australia's international work on gender issues.

We are a founding supporter of UN Women, the UN entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women and one of the primary funders of the agency's work

  • And we look forward to joining the Executive Board of this agency in January next year;
    • at a time when the Solomon Islands is also joining the Executive Board.

We work energetically within our other partnerships too – with the Commonwealth, with ASEAN, with the East Asia Summit, APEC and the Pacific Islands Forum to name an important few.

With the recent success of our bid for a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council, there will be new opportunities for Australia to pursue our 'gender agenda' and this will include work on Women Peace and Security which has been a priority for more than a decade already.

Specifically for me in my role as Australia's Ambassador for Women and Girls, the 14 months since my appointment have been very busy and equally rewarding.

I have been working closely with women and men across the Pacific, in Asia, and the Caribbean to promote women's political, economic and social empowerment.

I have engaged with diplomats at the Commission on the Status of Women in New York, with business and government leaders in APEC meetings on Women and the Economy, with civil society in Australia, and with young women through organisations such as the YWCA.

And I have travelled extensively throughout the Pacific to expand Australia's cooperation with our Pacific partners on gender issues.

In our common endeavour to promote women's empowerment, I have a particular appreciation for the approach taken by business representatives such as yourselves.

There's a pragmatism which is very specific to business women, a determination to solve longstanding problems as efficiently as possible and with the minimum of fuss.

We need more of this approach because the list of challenges is long. Together we must continue our work:

  • to encourage a world where women and girls are free of violence and the fear of violence
  • free of forced marriage, servitude or of being trafficked
  • free of discrimination
  • where women participate equally in their countries' political and economic lives
  • and participate equally as leaders of peace.
  • We must work to promote a world where women and girls are involved equally in reconciliation processes
  • where women and girls have equal access to education and necessary access to healthcare – including sexual and reproductive health services
  • and, importantly in the context of today's gathering, to promote women's equal access to jobs, to markets and to finance.

In short, our common goal is that all societies are characterised by equality of aspiration and equality of opportunity.

The catchcry of leaders around the world on this topic will be familiar to many of you: gender equality is not just the right thing to do, it's smart economics.

We simply can no longer afford to deny the full potential of one half of the world's population. The world needs to tap into the talent and wisdom of women.

Whether the issue is economic progress, food security, sustainable development, health, or peace and security, the participation of women is needed now more than ever.

Women's economic empowerment

One of the enormous challenges of our time - the challenge that you will be addressing for the three days of this conference - is to grow our economies and ensure shared prosperity for all people.

Our aim is to give every citizen – women and men alike – greater opportunities to find work, to reach their potential, to save and spend money, and to provide for their families.

When it comes to this challenge, no person should be overlooked, and certainly not because they are female.

There is a growing body of evidence that proves bringing more women into the workforce spurs innovation, increases productivity, and grows economies. Families have more money to spend. Businesses expand their consumer base and increase their profits. When women participate more fully in their economies, everyone benefits.

Conversely, across the world, economies are suffering because of women's limited access to employment opportunities.

The International Labour Organisation (ILO) estimates that in the Asia-Pacific region alone this equates to a loss of $47 billion annually.

Looking forward, the ILO estimates that 865 million women will be of working age by 2020 but will lack the fundamental prerequisites to contribute to their national economy. Either they won't have the necessary education and training, or they simply won't be able to work due to legal, familial, logistical and financial constraints.

In the Pacific, as we gathered here are acutely aware, there is a significant and persistent gap between men's and women's participation in economic activities.

Only twenty per cent of Pacific entrepreneurs are women.

Men outnumber women in paid employment outside the agricultural sector by approximately two to one.

Even in the informal sector – where women dominate the work – they are often not involved in decision-making, nor do they have control over land and other assets.

These are sobering facts, but there are useful foundations to build from.

For example, in the largest agriculture-based countries of the Pacific region – Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and Fiji – women vendors have long been keeping their families and communities afloat. The Honiara Central Market in Solomon Islands, for example, turns over around $10-16 million a year and 90 per cent of this market activity is conducted by women.

And importantly, the will for progress is flourishing – as is evidenced by your presence here and by the support that development partners wish to give to this agenda.

Policies and programs to promote the active participation of women in business are increasingly part of the development work undertaken by donor agencies such as Australia's Agency for International Development, AusAID.

Australia's Pacific partnership

The Pacific matters deeply to Australia.

Australia's interests are intimately tied to those of our near Pacific neighbours. Our geography has dictated that we have a shared destiny.

All of our interests are best served by a stable, prosperous and growing Pacific.

The force of globalisation has meant these interests are more aligned now than ever.

We are connected by a deeply rooted network of personal, business, sporting and community ties.

Australia is the region's major security partner.

We are the region's key economic partner.

As part of Australia's broader ongoing commitment to the Pacific, the Government is working with other Pacific Islands Forum members to pursue greater regional trade and economic integration as a means of contributing to Forum members' prosperity.

Trade, investment and economic reforms are important drivers of economic growth. So is democracy and the rule of law. Countries that are stable, adopt trade-enabling policies, and invest in the health and education of their people tend to be more successful.

Australia remains a strong supporter of the 2009 Pacific Islands Forum Leaders' decision to commence negotiations for a new regional trade agreement, known as PACER Plus. We also support the recent decision by Pacific Islands Forum Leaders encouraging increased engagement and rapid progress on PACER Plus.

PACER Plus should be seen as a long term opportunity to promote jobs, private sector growth and economic growth.

Our approach to PACER Plus goes beyond a traditional trade agreement defined solely by our commercial interests. Australia's primary objective for the PACER Plus negotiations is to promote the economic development of Forum Island countries through greater regional trade and economic integration.

Australia has provided more than $7 million to support Forum Island countries' engagement in the PACER Plus negotiations to date. This includes support for an Office of the Chief Trade Adviser to advise Forum Island countries in the negotiations and support for the training with the Institute for International Trade.

Australia relationship as a development partner in the Pacific is another crucial element of our engagement. We are the Pacific's leading aid donor.

In fact almost a quarter of our aid budget is expected to flow to the Pacific in this financial year.

This translates to half of the world's development assistance to the Pacific coming from Australia.

Over the next four years, Australia anticipates increasing assistance to the Pacific Region by around 37 per cent, from an estimated $1.17 billion in 2012–13 to an indicative level of $1.6 billion in 2015–16.

Australian aid – gender focus

Australia's aid program identifies gender equality as a critical and cross-cutting issue.

To deliver real results and improve the lives of women and men, their families, and their communities, AusAID is organising its work on gender equality and women's empowerment around four pillars.

  • Advancing equal access to gender-responsive health and education services.
  • Increasing women's voice in decision-making, leadership and peace-building.
  • Empowering women economically and improving their livelihood security.
  • Ending violence against women and girls at home, in their communities, and in disaster and conflict situations.

In 2011-12, 52 per cent, or AUD 2.16 billion, of all ODA expenditure by Australia's aid agency, AusAID, was on activities with a primary or secondary objective of improving gender equality and empowering women.

Existing Australian support for women entrepreneurs

Australia already supports a number of programs that aim to address many of the constraints faced by Pacific women in business.

The AusAID-funded ADB Private Sector Development Initiative has helped create single shareholder companies and community companies in the Solomon Islands. These innovative reforms are significant for women in that they

  • enable women to establish companies on their own
  • and they enable community groups – including women's groups - to promote a community interest or objective through a legally registered entity and to increase the profile of their work within their communities.

Through the International Finance Corporation (IFC), a member of the World Bank Group, and the UN Capital Development Fund, Australia is supporting "mobile" access to finance for rural communities and the poor, with a focus on the needs of women for a safe and discrete mechanism to receive and transfer money in their homes.

AusAID has also partnered with the IFC in the production of Gender and Investment Climate Reform Assessments for Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Timor-Leste, Tonga and Vanuatu.

These assessments examine the constraints faced by women in business and provides recommendations for the IFC to incorporate into its investment climate reform programs to reduce the gender specific obstacles.

Flowing from this work, additional women in business organisations have been established such as WISE (Women In Sustainable Enterprise) in Tonga.

Building on these foundations, Australia recently announced a major new avenue of cooperation with the Pacific on gender issues.

Pacific Women Shaping Pacific Development

The Pacific Women Shaping Pacific Development Initiative, launched by Prime Minister Gillard at the Pacific Islands Forum in August, 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.

The Initiative will support commitments made by Pacific Island Forum Leaders in the Gender Equality Declaration made at the 43rd PIF, in the Cook Islands.

This Declaration committed leaders to a set of policy actions, including adopting measures that "eliminate all barriers preventing women from participating fully in the economic sphere, consistent with the decisions made by Forum Economic Ministers in July 2012".

Specifically, the leaders committed to advocate for increased representation of women in private sector boards and committees, including produce market committees.

They committed to remove barriers to women's employment and participation in the formal and informal sectors, including in relation to legislation that limits women's access to employment opportunities or contributes to discriminatory pay and conditions for women.

They agreed to improve the facilities and governance of local produce markets and to encourage women's safe, fair and equal participation in local economies.

And they committed to targeted support for women entrepreneurs in the formal and informal sectors - such as financial services, information and training - and to review legislation that limits women's access to finance, assets, land and productive resources.

Undoubtedly, the Leaders Gender Declaration is a strong foundation for the Pacific Women Shaping Pacific Development Initiative.

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 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.

In all these areas, there will be an explicit focus on supporting women's groups across the Pacific. The initiative 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.

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.

In addition to our close cooperation with women's groups around the region, 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 and UNDP will be key partners to the new Pacific women's initiative. We will also be working with women's organisations, civil societies organisations, governments and the private sector in delivering the initiative.

An initial area of cooperation includes work to expand UN Women's Partners Improving Markets program in the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu and their Safe Cities program in Papua New Guinea.

Elizabeth Cox, who has worked for over 30 years in the Pacific on women's issues, will be talking in some detail about the challenges to doing business in city and town markets later this morning.

It's a significant and exciting area of work – and one where the impacts on women entrepreneurs are immediate and real.

Only last month, I noticed the Fiji Times reporting that women vendors from Fiji's highlands and remote areas now have a safe places to stay overnight at the Rakiraki Municipal Market thanks to the Partners Improving Markets program. The overnight accommodation facility and also a "Millennium Market Learning Centre" both opened in October with the support of UN Women and UNDP support.

Barriers to women's economic empowerment

We know all too well that women still face obstacles. According to the World Bank, there are more than 100 countries where laws are different for women than men who wish to participate in the economy.

In some countries, women cannot open a bank account or sign a contract. In other countries, women are restricted as to what professions they can enter and what hours they can work.

In still other countries, women are not permitted to be the head of her household, and they are not permitted to make decisions for their own good and the good of their children.

These rules undermine women's economic participation and women's dignity and rights while reinforcing the damaging idea that women should be treated differently because of our gender.

Even where there are no legal barriers, social or institutional restrictions often hold women back.

In Australia, for example, we are still grappling with issues like equal pay. So in my country, too, women's economic empowerment remains a priority, requiring ongoing momentum in our domestic agenda.

Economic empowerment for Australian women

In Australia, as in the rest of the Pacific, we are learning that if we really want to achieve parity for women in the workforce -both that they participate and how they participate -then we must remove structural and social impediments that stack the deck against them.

A new Bill was introduced into Australia's federal parliament earlier this year, proposing significant reform to existing legislation governing employment participation.

Once passed, the new Act – called the Workplace Gender Equality Act - will help increase women's participation in the workforce and their economic empowerment with a new focus on the unequal burden of caring responsibilities.

The new Act will help ensure that both women and men have equal options to balance their paid work and caring obligations.

It will also focus on equal remuneration, recognising that closing the gender pay gap is central to achieving equality.

Another important legislative reform – the Fair Work Act – has resulted in an historic pay equity decision. Social and Community sector workers – the majority of whom are women – will benefit from substantial pay rises based on a finding by Fair Work Australia that their work had been undervalued on gender grounds.

In 2011, the Government introduced a Paid Parental Leave scheme providing up to 18 weeks of Government-funded Parental Leave pay at the National Minimum Wage for eligible parents of newborn or recently adopted children.

And, from next year, Dad and Partner Pay will give eligible fathers and partners two weeks' paid parental leave. This sends another strong signal that taking leave to care for children is part of the normal course of work and family life for both parents.

Australia's experience is that if we want to see opportunities for women improve, we must begin with sound economic policies that explicitly address the unique challenges that limit women.

So, too, in the Pacific.

We must ensure women are given access to capital so women entrepreneurs can turn their ideas into the small and medium enterprises that are the source of so much growth and job creation.

We must examine and reform legal and regulatory systems so women can avail themselves of the full range of financial services.

We must improve women's access to markets so those who start businesses can keep them open. We need to inform women about trade and technical assistance programs that are available.


Let's not underestimate the difficulties of ushering in an age where women are equal participants in their economies. Legal changes require political will. Cultural and behavioural changes require social will.

All of this requires leadership by governments, civil society, and by the private sector. This is why the Pacific Islands Forum Leaders Declaration on Gender was such a historically important milestone.

But even when countries pursue aggressive structural reforms to get more women into their economy and enhance their productivity, they don't always produce the results that we would like to see. So we have to persevere. Persistence must be part of our long-term plan.

And economic orders do not perpetuate themselves. They are made and remade through countless decisions, small and large, by economic policymakers, political leaders, and business executives.

Economic orders may be hard to change, and policy strategies – no matter how good – can only get us so far.

We all have to make a choice, not simply to remove the barriers but to fill this space with active investment and involvement from each of us.

I wish you all a successful conference, and I look forward to the outcomes of your discussions and to working with you into the future.

Thank you.

Last Updated: 20 November 2012
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