Speech by The Hon Tanya Pibersek MP

Address to the Australian Council for International Development

Location: Parliament House, Canberra

****Check against delivery****

I acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we meet today and pay my respects to their elders, past and present.

I also acknowledge Margaret Reid, the President of the Australian Council for International Development and Dame Dr Carol Kidu, the Minister for Social Development in Papua New Guinea.

UNICEF’s State of the World’s Children 2009 contains the following anecdote:

“In 1631 a beautiful Empress died giving birth to her 14th child. Her husband built a monument to her honour which is one of the best known buildings in the world.

The Taj Mahal’s domes and spires are instantly recognisable.

But there is far less global awareness of the tragedy that inspired their creation.

Nearly 400 years after Mumtaz Mahal lost her life in childbirth, a woman still dies from causes related to pregnancy or childbirth every minute of every day – more than 500,000 a year, 10 million per generation.” 1

Our own region accounts for more than 44 per cent of these deaths.2

In Australia, a woman has just over an eight in 100,000 chance of dying of child birth and pregnancy related causes.3

Just across the water in East Timor, the chances are 80 times worse, 660 in 100,000.4

And in Papua New Guinea, they are 90 times worse, 733 in 100,000.5

Last year the Prime Minister dedicated $250 million over the next four years to help reduce the truly alarming disparity in maternal deaths in our region.

We have major bilateral maternal and child health initiatives underway throughout the region – and programs to strengthen health systems more broadly.

This support will help reduce maternal deaths, including through the improved training of nurses.

In March, the Government announced $15 million over four years to support family planning activities to help reduce maternal deaths.

While these initiatives are vital – lasting improvement may only really come when women themselves are more empowered across the region.

Australia has a strong commitment to gender equality, both at home and abroad.

Report after report has demonstrated that gender inequality inhibits economic growth and social progress.

Conversely, empowering women boosts prosperity and social reform.

Plan International puts it this way:

“Give a girl the skills and opportunities she needs in life and as a woman she will pass them on to her children.

They are more likely to survive, she will spend her money on them and send them to school.

That investment in a healthier, better educated, more economically capable generation, will, multiplied, have a massive impact on the productivity and economic viability of the country that invested initially in just one girl.” 6

On International Women’s Day this year, the Minister for Foreign Affairs Minister Stephen Smith and I announced that Australia would provide more than $17 million over four years to UNIFEM.

The funding will support UNIFEM’s work in over 100 countries to reduce women’s poverty and promote inclusion.

Education is critical to this change.

Take a Bangladesh study reported in the medical journal, The Lancet.This study found that a woman who attended school for at least eight years was less than a third as likely to die during pregnancy or childbirth than a woman who never went to school. 7

And we know that just one extra year of secondary school for girls can increase their future wages by 10 to 20 per cent. 8

US President Barack Obama said it all in his Cairo address in June:

“…it is no coincidence that countries where women are well-educated are far more likely to be prosperous…” 9

Despite the global recession, the last Budget saw a 36 per cent increase in Australia’s education aid – to a total of $700 million.

Quality education for girls is a major plank of this program – in keeping with the first target of Millennium Development Goal 3 to eliminate gender disparity in education.

The Australian Council for International Development plays an essential role representing well informed and active non-government organisations pursuing the MDGs.

I welcome the efforts of the Council and AusAID to support better development outcomes by signing a partnership agreement in March.

The partnership recognises the central role of gender equality in effective development approaches.

This Government takes the same unequivocal approach within Australia.

We intend to have a nationally agreed plan to reduce violence against women in place next year – and have a similarly strong commitment to assist our neighbours.

The seminal report, Violence Against Women in Melanesia and East Timor, found violence against women in this part of the world severe and pervasive.

Australia’s comprehensive framework for action includes improving women’s access to justice and knowledge of their rights. 10

And continued support for centres such as the Fiji Women’s Crisis Centre and its formidable coordinator Shamima Ali.

Shamima’s inspiring work includes establishing a highly successful male advocacy centre that engages men in the reform agenda.

As she explained in a newspaper interview:

“Empowering women is a key part of the equation, but to permanently end domestic violence, it is essential that men change their behaviour, too.” 11

Shamima is one of many outstanding leaders among the women of our region, not least of whom is our guest from Papua New Guinea, Dame Dr Carol Kidu.

Women such as Dame Carol and Shamima give cause for hope and optimism.

I understand that AusAid and the Council held a joint workshop last month to discuss possible ways forward in implementing the Government’s response to violence in Melanesia and East Timor.

I very much look forward to hearing of your progress.

Violence against women perpetuates suffering in many ways.

World Bank reports detailing the effects of violence on women’s productivity and earnings for example show a substantial inter-generational effect on women’s economic empowerment. 12

Australia is helping to identify barriers that restrict the economic empowerment of women in the Pacific.

A new four-year initiative in collaboration with the International Finance Corporation and the World Bank to support Pacific women in the private sector began last year.

We are also partnering with Westpac to pilot a program to improve financial literacy and enterprise development skills.

Some of our most impressive work has been done amongst the poorest of poor women.

Among women who have absolutely nothing, women beyond the reach even of most regular aid programs.

In Bangladesh, Australia has a strong partnership with BRAC – the largest NGO in the world – delivering an innovative program for extremely poor women.

Under the Challenging the Frontiers of Poverty Reduction scheme, more than 68,000 women have received a cow, or goat, or some poultry or vegetable seeds.

Together with intensive training, a small cash stipend to help them develop a basic livelihood and health and social support, this program will reach out to 3.5 million of the poorest people in the country.

On a visit to Bangladesh recently, I understand that one of our Aid officers was accosted by a proud beneficiary of the scheme intent on showing her a new house.

This woman had been given a cow.

The cow had a calf.

By selling the milk, she bought some goats, and then she built herself a house, and moved out of the cow shed which had been her home.

This woman was intensely proud of her home and her business.

And she was beginning to speak up loudly in her village.

Something she once never had to confidence to dare do.

If women are to be their own agents of change, their voices need to be heard.

The Australian Government is committed to promoting and supporting women’s leadership in every sphere.

An Australian funded community empowerment program in Aceh has become a widely regarded best practice model for engaging women to drive development and equality at the community level.

More women are moving into leadership positions in local government in Aceh as a result

Thinking of Aceh I cannot help but reflect on the extraordinary period that you in the development sector, and we in Government, have been through with both natural and economic crises and disasters.

On the economic front at least, the worst may be over.

We in Australia, thanks to the resolute actions of the Government, are bouncing back strongly.

And the developing countries in our region are recovering faster than Europe or the United States of America.

But that optimism must be tempered with the task before us which has been made more challenging by the series of natural disasters in our region.

I conclude with this observation from Plan International’s Because I am a Girl report:

“The world over, a continued lack of investment in girls results in increased poverty.

This must change: the global recession provides us not with an excuse but with a powerful reason.

Poverty may have a woman’s face, but sustainable economic prosperity has the face of a girl.” 13

With those words of inspiration and hope to guide and inform your deliberations on women and children as the foundation of development,

I have great pleasure in opening the Australian Council for International Development annual meeting.


  1. Her Majesty, Queen Rania Al Abdullah of Jordan, UNICEF, State of the World’s Children, 2009, p 11.
  2. Investing in Maternal, Newborn and Child Health. The Case for Asia and the Pacific. Partnership for Maternal Newborn and Child Health.
  3. Monitoring maternal mortality and morbidity in Australia [PDF 120kB]
  4. Improving maternal newborn and child health Timor-Leste [PDF 700kB]
  5. PNG Demographic Health Survey, 2006.
  6. Plan International, Because I am a Girl, p 21
  7. The Lancet, Women Deliver, October 2007
  8. Plan International, Op. Cit., p 11.
  9. Remarks by the President at Cairo University
  10. AusAid, Stop Violence: Responding to violence against women in Melanesia and East Timor, 2009.
  11. Australian Voice of Revolutionary Feminism
  12. World Bank, Global Monitoring Report 2007: confronting the challenges of gender equality and fragile states, p 111.
  13. Plan International, Op. Cit., p 15.