Thank you Lily for your MC duties today and thank you Kata for your very warm introduction and congratulations to you on this initiative, the Solomon Islands Professional Women’s Network.

Thank you for also sharing your story with us, because this is what a network is all about. The opportunity to exchange ideas and information, share experiences, support each other, and ensure that other women learn from your experience, other women gain from what you have to offer them.

I am delighted to be here today because there are so many women here that are assuming leadership roles in Solomon Islands, and I’ve spoken to, I hope, each and every one of you. You’re involved in the public sector, the private sector. Many of you have been to an Australian University and are Alumni of our higher education institutions. Some of you are Australia Awards recipients, and all of you have a passion and a desire to help other women, and therefore Solomon Islands, to be a peaceful and prosperous nation.

As Foreign Minister I’m delighted to be joined by a delegation from Australia, now it just so happens that it’s all female. I’m here as Foreign Minister, my colleague and friend Concetta Fierravanti-Wells is a Senator, and she’s the Minister for International Development and the Pacific.

From the Opposition, Senator Penny Wong is the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate, and she’s the Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs. Connie’s counterpart is Senator Claire Moore, who’s the Opposition spokesperson for International Development and the Pacific. So the major parties in Australia have foreign affairs, international development and the Pacific in the hands of women, and I think that that’s a very appropriate outcome.

Australia and Solomon Islands are very close, firm friends and partners. My first visit here in 2003 was at around the time of the conflict, the tensions, and a difficult chapter in Solomon Islands’ history. This is before RAMSI was established. We were in the early stages of bringing peace and stability to a troubled nation.

Alexander Downer was the Foreign Minister at the time, he went into the Parliament and he had a meeting with the all-male Members of Parliament. I hung around outside, and I came across a group of women, Solomon Island women. And we began a discussion on what had gone on in Solomon Islands. They said, ‘until such time as the women are involved in the peace-building, and the peace-keeping, there won’t be peace in the Solomon Islands’.

This afternoon we’ll be going to the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force headquarters, and, as you know, RAMSI will come to an end, the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands, will come to an end in about six months, because the Royal Solomon Islands Police force will be taking on the policing and security responsibilities from RAMSI.

I am delighted to learn that of the new police recruits, who are making up the new faces in the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force, fifty per cent of those recruits are women. So the women will be involved in the peace-keeping.

I know there’s a way to go in the Parliament, fifty members, one woman, but we’re working on it. You’ve got an election in 2018, and I’m hoping that some of the women in this room will see an opportunity to be part of the political process here in Solomon Islands.

Australia is also, as Kata said, a significant partner in overseas development assistance, and all up it’s about $ 62 million we provide in support to Solomon Islands.

One of our main priorities in the aid program is gender equality and gender empowerment, under three pillars: First, encouraging women to take leadership roles, in their families, in their communities, in civil-society, in government, in business, in industry, and this network is precisely the type of initiative we look to support in our aid program. This aligns so much with what we are seeking to do.

We want to encourage more women in Solomon Islands to take on these leadership roles, but there are cultural and social barriers, so we need the women in this room to encourage others to step up and take on these roles. Kata said that I’ve always been involved in mentoring. I firmly believe that formal and informal mentoring programs do support women to achieve better outcomes and so if this network is able to provide that level of mentoring, it will be a huge success.

I’m delighted that the Women’s Professional Network is being supported by the International Finance Corporation, an arm of the World Bank, and the Australian Government, with the Solomon Islands Chamber of Commerce and Industry. This partnership will deliver results and on the economic front, this evening I’ll be announcing a $50 million-dollar Growth Program, for Solomon Islands post-RAMSI, so that we can engage the private sector, and ensure that Solomon Islands’ private sector is sustainable, and driving growth and providing economic opportunities.

We know it’s difficult for women to access the labour market, about 54 per cent of women are in the labour market, compared with about 80 per cent of men, but if we can get the private sector to thrive and flourish here there will be more opportunities beyond those that are in the public sector.

There have been some great examples. In recent times the Australian Government has supported SolTuna, with the International Finance Corporation, to work on policies and programs that will not only hire but train and retain and support women workers in what is already the second largest employer in the private sector in Solomon Islands.

We’ve got a partnership with ANZ Bank on mobile banking, and I know Julie is here because she’s part of the delivery of this program. ANZ Bank has committed to rolling out banking across Solomon Islands and last year, with $5.5 million of support from the Australian Government, 33,000 new customers were connected to mobile banking. Now about 63 per cent of those had previously not held a bank account, they were what is called ‘unbanked’, but 57 per cent of the customers were women for their small business and enterprises.

I know a number of you here today are involved in the tourism industry. The Australian Government entered into a memorandum of understanding with Carnival Cruises. Australians are mad on cruising, about three hundred and fifty thousand Australians travel to the Pacific on cruises every year, and Carnival Cruises has now scoped out Solomon Islands as a destination.

In 2016, seven cruise ships will be coming to Solomon Islands, or have been here. They bring in about $265,000 worth of business per-ship. So enormous opportunities for women businesses, women entrepreneurs to be involved in the travel and cruise industry.

Now the third pillar of our program to support women’s equality and women’s empowerment – leadership, economic empowerment- the third is reducing the unacceptable incidence of violence against women, in Solomon Islands and in the Pacific. No country is free from violence against women, but the Australian Government, through the aid program, is determined to do what we can, to support the women and the men in Solomon Islands come to terms with this issue, the cultural sensitivities and reduce violence, and eliminate violence.

I was so pleased to meet with Ruby and with Aggie, who set up an organisation called ‘Sons of Solomon’ to do precisely that: work with men, have male champions, to change attitudes, to change behaviours, and ensure that women are safe, women are protected, and men are educated. That it is not only the right thing to do, to stop violence against women, it’s the smart thing to do, because women that are subjected to violence can’t take part in the workforce, are prevented from certain roles. It’s a strong economic case as well as a moral and ethical case.

We are very pleased to be part of the development of legislation, but also policies and initiatives that will help deal with this scourge in Pacific societies.

I’m absolutely delighted to be here with Connie and Penny and Claire, and our High Commissioner Andrew Byrne, to congratulate you on the establishment of this network. I wish you all the very best. I’m honoured to be your first guest speaker, and I’m looking forward to Penny Wong adding some words as well. So congratulations, I’m sure it will thrive, and this will be the beginning of a wonderful outcome for Solomon Islands, as the women take their rightful place across society.

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