Policy Dialogue on Healthy Women, Healthy Economies

Melanne Verveer
Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues 
Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea
May 31, 2011

Secretary Hillary Clinton came here last November to underscore the commitment of the United States government to the people of Papua New Guinea and the South Pacific region. She recognized the critical importance of investing in women and girls and announced that a Pacific Women’s Empowerment Initiative policy dialogue would take place in PNG. She also announced that I would come. So here am I and all of you! I want to extend a very special welcome to each and every one of you. You come from 15 countries, and you represent government, business, and civil society. You are all leaders and experts in your field.

Today we begin a journey together for “healthy women and healthy economies” in the South Pacific region. Together, we will develop effective programs and policy recommendations, and together we will continue the hard work of implementing the efforts that begin here and build on what so many of you have done over the years.

So many people brought us to this day. It took a village!

I want to thank our co-hosts. The government of PNG joined with the U.S. government and the World Bank to lead this policy dialogue. I want to thank especially Dame Carol Kidu for her inspired leadership and commitment and for the work of her colleagues. I also want to thank the World Bank and IFC -- and especially Laura Bailey and Carolyn Blacklock. This project has also had the strongest commitment from the U.S. government, especially the Office of Global Women’s Issues. I want to thank our embassy staff here in PNG and those coming from Manila and Suva for their on-the-ground assistance. And I want to thank Ambassador Taylor for his leadership and for hosting the reception last night and CDC and USAID for joining us here today. I also want to acknowledge the presence of the Asian Development Bank, the UN, the Secretariat of the Pacific Community and Pacific Islands Forum.

The recommendations of this policy dialogue will be supported in the months ahead by an array of programs that will further our work together. The United States – through the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor – will underwrite an initiative through the International Foundation for Electoral Systems to further the political participation of women in PNG and the Solomon Islands. It will train women for effective advocacy with their governments.

During Secretary Clinton’s trip here and to Australia and New Zealand, she and her counterparts announced additional new support. The U.S. and Australia will collaborate with the World Bank to co-host a policy dialogue in Australia on effective means to combat gender-based violence and promote women’s empowerment in the South Pacific in Canberra in November. In February, the New Zealand government hosted a policy dialogue and, as a result, New Zealand has agreed to support Vital Voices to conduct a leadership training to strengthen women’s political participation and empowerment. It will take place in Vanuatu in August. We hope that some of you will join as mentors.

In addition, we are so pleased to see that the government of Australia announced a grant to the GSM Association to support the mWomen initiative to increase women’s access to mobile technology in the Pacific region. This builds on the U.S. commitment to close the gender gap in mobile technology made by Secretary Clinton last year.

Much progress has been made on behalf of women and girls, thanks to the hard work and commitment of so many citizens and government leaders – thanks to all of you. Effective partnerships have been forged among donor governments, the UN and other multilateral agencies, the private sector and NGOs. We know that when women make progress, everyone makes progress -- all of society benefits.

Today, there are many converging studies from the World Bank to the World Economic Forum showing that investing in women is a high yield investment. Data show that development investments in women and girls correlate positively with poverty alleviation, better health, and a country’s general prosperity. Educating a girl is the simple most effective development investment that can be made with high yield dividends for her and her future family.

In countries where men and women are closer to being equal in economic participation, political empowerment, access to education and health survivability, these countries enjoy greater prosperity and economic growth. Simply put – no country can get ahead if half its people are left behind. Gender equality is a key condition for a country’s prosperity.

We know that when women bring their talents, perspectives and experiences to bear in the political arena, they are far more likely to invest in the public good. The number of women serving on village and city councils in India (the panchayets) – as a result of the quota adopted by the Indian parliament – are a well-documented case of the difference women are making in elected office. The women are investing in safe drinking water, education, sanitation and other community needs. We also know that as women’s participation in parliament goes up, corruption goes down. Yet women are still significantly out-numbered in the parliaments, provincial councils, local governments, and ministries around the world. The South Pacific region has extremely low levels of representation of women in government decision making. Together we must make greater progress in advancing women in politics. There is no shortage of talent, but women’s opportunities in politics are too often circumscribed. Democracy without the participation of women is a contradiction in terms.

Gender equality is also smart economics. Women are too often under-represented in the workforce. Women as entrepreneurs running small- and medium- sized enterprises (SMEs) offer so much promise. It is a fact that women-run SMEs drive economic growth and create jobs. Moreover, women’s work has a multiplier effect because women invest most of their income in their families and communities – in what makes for better societies. Yet women face barriers that hinder their ability to start or expand businesses. They often confront lack of training and mentors, access to finance and markets. They confront discriminatory laws, regulations or customs, and lack of land rights. Financial inclusion – the full range of services of credit, savings, and insurance are critical elements for women’s economic progress and must be supported.

According to a UN study, it is estimated that the Asia Pacific region is shortchanged between 42 and 47 billion dollars a year in GDP because of the untapped potential of women. Women’s contributions to the formal and informal economy are not to be under-estimated. Together we must make greater progress in ensuring women’s economic participation.

Women’s health is important for her and for her family’s well being, yet women so often put themselves last in addressing their own health care needs. Available statistics for the region show that women are dying prematurely from natural health causes as well as from infections and pregnancy and childbirth-related complications. The Millennium Development Goals that address ending maternal mortality and child mortality are significantly behind their targets, yet we know from the decreases that have taken place over the last decade that progress is possible. Voluntary family planning is one of the most effective public health interventions and prevents both maternal and child deaths. Government officials need to recognize its importance and the health care priority that women represent. There is much that needs to be done if we are to see progress on women’s health.

Violence against women is a global epidemic and we know from studies that this region has among the highest rates of domestic violence in the world. This is not a private family matter, nor can it be dismissed as cultural. Gender-based violence is criminal and needs to be prosecuted. It also means that police and judges need to be trained, laws need to be implemented and enforced and programs need to be put in place to keep women safe. Violence against women is a very serious challenge. It is a fundamental violation of human rights. It is a serious health issue. It also affects a country’s productivity and its economic prospects. It destabilizes societies and undermines security in the long term. Together we must make combating violence against women and girls a policy priority and engage men and boys in being part of the solution.

You have achieved much, but no one knows better than you how much remains to be done. Each of you is helping to chart a path to a better tomorrow in the South Pacific region. Women are the greatest untapped resource on earth.

Working together, we will make a difference!