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3 April 2012
Address by Her Excellency Ms Quentin Bryce AC CVO
Governor-General of the Commonwealth of Australia
Women Leaders Forum
National Parliament of Solomon Islands, Honiara
Mr Speaker, distinguished guests. women leaders of Solomon Islands
I am delighted to join you today in this very special archipelago at the heart of the Pacific. As a little girl I remember our Country Women’s Association and our churches encouraging us to support our Island neighbours.
I first met people from your Islands when I was at boarding school in Brisbane.
At the time, I used to listen in wonder to their stories of culture and tradition, their beautiful singing in perfect harmonies.
They spoke with respect of ‘Kastom’, shell money, spirits and taboos. My imagination was fired up and I thought how exciting it would be to be surrounded by sparkling sea and tropical palms. This idea was enchanting to someone like me living in the Australian bush, far away from the ocean – the waves and sands.
My friends, we women enjoy sharing our stories with each other, talking, listening, learning from our experiences across our lives. So I thought I might begin by telling you a little bit about mine.
I can’t tell you how much I appreciate learning about yours. My grateful thanks to our four distinguished speakers this afternoon.
I am here as Australia’s Governor-General. But I am also a wife, mother, and grandmother, and a community volunteer. I’m 69 now, so it’s a long time ago that I grew up in a little town in the centre of Queensland, in sheep country.
My mother was my first teacher, and my lessons were sent in the mail from the Primary Correspondence School in Brisbane. My mother and father cared for me and my sisters with great love and affection. We were very lucky to have parents who were dedicated to giving us a good education and training for a profession.
I’m talking about the nineteen fifties, when that wasn’t the case for most girls – in those times most young women in Australia were expected to have a job for a few years after school, then to marry and have a family, and devote the rest of life to looking after them, and being involved in the community.
My teachers and my parents gave me a clear message that girls could do anything. They didn’t use those words, but that was what we understood.
So when I went to university I was amazed to discover that there was only one woman professor, and to see how few women there were in many faculties like Law, Veterinary Science – none in Engineering.
I was shocked to find out how obvious discrimination was against women in the workplace; that they were paid two-thirds of men’s wages and that their job opportunities were very limited.
As a young mother in my neighbourhood I linked up with other women to work for change in our community.
Together we developed the confidence to stand up and speak out at meetings about the services we wanted for our children and our families.
The lessons of those years have served me well all my life – I was energised and inspired by the power of women working together with a plan, a vision and lots of hard work and determination.
That is the story of the women’s movement in my country, in yours, and around the world. I have learnt again and again that whoever we are wherever we come from whatever our backgrounds women share powerful bonds across language, culture, race, religion.
Bonds that go deep, that are strong, that speak a universal language.
We find these connections in our shared commitment to the next generation, to our children and grandchildren, to giving to their futures the best that we have to give.
Opportunities for a decent life to fulfil their potential in a world of equality, development and peace.
A world in which every woman is treated with respect and dignity, every girl and boy is loved and cared for equally.
And every family has the hope of a strong and stable future.
Friends, I was heartened to read in the most recent People’s Survey (funded by the Australian Government through RAMSI) that Solomon Islands women are becoming increasingly confident - speaking out about issues of concern here in your own community. This Survey shows that the education gap between men and women in your country is closing.
I am proud of the Australian Government’s work in this regard through AusAID – in particular the scholarship program that gives young women the chance to complete university degrees in Australian and regional institutions.
I congratulate your government on signing up to the United Nations “Say No to Violence against Women” campaign. Violence is the greatest obstacle to social harmony in our communities. In my own country and here in Solomon Islands.
We must continue our work to eliminate violence -- wherever it occurs.
I have been a long-time supporter of the International Women’s Development Agency – Australia’s only development organisation entirely focused on women’s rights and gender equality. They have done important work in Pacific Island communities for more than thirty years.
Two weeks ago, on International Women’s Day, UN Women Australia announced that it will focus its fundraising on supporting the Partners Improving Markets Program to make marketplaces safe for women here and in other areas of the Pacific.
To encourage women traders to take a stand against bullying and harassment.
To demand safe and clean workplaces.
Here again, AusAID’s Pacific Leadership Program has supported women’s economic empowerment and leadership through the Solomon Islands Women in Business Association.
The Association’s research shows the annual turnover of the Honiara Central Market is estimated at more than 80 million Solomon dollars. Women are responsible for 90 per cent of this essential economic activity.
I look forward to launching two booklets on women’s financial literacy this afternoon.
Friends: women’s voices must be heard.
We have so much to contribute to every sphere – to economic, social, political and cultural life. Experiences, views, opinions that are valuable and important in solving problems and planning for the future.
Recently in Canberra I had the honour of swearing in the eighth woman Minister in the cabinet of our first female Prime Minister Julia Gillard. It was a memorable occasion.
In fact the Prime Minister encouraged me to make this trip as part of her determination to build and strengthen the already close engagement we have with our Pacific neighbours.
My friends, I am pleased to be addressing you today in this place, and I hope that in future, women will sit in this chamber as Members of Parliament.
I encourage you to continue to be wise and inspiring leaders of your community.
I have enormous faith in the power of women to connect -- to put down the roots of hope and trust. To provide the best possible environment for our children and grandchildren – and future generations.
Australia will always be beside you. You may sometimes feel remote and physically distanced – but you are not remote from our hearts. I came here today to listen to your stories. To express my admiration and respect for all you have achieved. And to encourage you in your next steps.
Friends, Kristina Fidali was one of four Solomon Islanders awarded an Australian Leadership Awards scholarship this year. She says that it is an opening of a lifetime:
‘But it’s not just about me and my family, it’s about what I can do when I return to Solomon Islands to help my country’.
Kristina, and other young women like her, are your future. Let us do everything we can to help them on their way. Thank you.