On this International Women's Day, with its focus on eliminating and preventing violence against women and girls, I recall and applaud anew the significant commitments made by Pacific leaders in 2012 to make their countries safer for women.
At the Pacific Islands Forum held in Rarotonga in August last year, the milestone Pacific Leaders Gender Equality Declaration was launched. Leaders expressed their deep concern that despite gains in girls' education and some positive initiatives to address violence against women, overall progress in the region towards gender equality was slow.
In particular, they noted that violence against women remained unacceptably high and they observed that gender inequality was imposing a significant personal, social and economic cost on Pacific people and nations. Conversely, they said that improved gender equality would make a major contribution to creating a prosperous, stable and secure Pacific for all current and future generations.
To support leaders' commitments at the 2012 Pacific Islands Forum, Australia launched the Pacific Women Shaping Pacific Development initiative, a program of cooperation with the region to help shift entrenched barriers to women's social, economic and political participation.
Under the initiative, Australia will provide up to $320 million over 10 years through its aid program to improve the lives and livelihoods of women and, therefore, their communities — because women's progress is inseparable from community, national and global progress.
When half a country's population is denied the opportunity to reach its potential, to contribute fully to national life, the whole country suffers.
The International Labour Organisation estimates that the Asia Pacific region is losing up to $US47 billion ($F83.78b) annually because of women's limited access to employment opportunities. A further $US16 billion ($F28.52b) is forfeited annually as a result of gender gaps in education.
Addressing gender inequality does not just have moral dimensions — it is also smart economics. Empowering women is not just good for them, it's good for everyone.
Underpinning the Pacific Women Shaping Pacific Development initiative is the recognition that issues of political empowerment, economic empowerment and violence are interconnected.
So the initiative brings new resources to increase the proportion of Pacific women in leadership and decision-making roles both nationally and locally. It will increase economic opportunities for women through improved access to financial services and markets. And it will improve safety for women through better services, violence prevention and access to justice.
The initiative builds on solid foundations. A cornerstone is the growing network of Pacific leaders — women and men in government, in civil society, in private enterprise, at the national level and in grassroots organisations — who are working to advance equality in the region.
An important forum to develop this network, the Pacific Women's Parliamentary Partnership Forum, was held in Sydney in February, bringing together female parliamentarians from across the region to plan future cooperation on promoting women's political participation.
Australia is a longstanding contributor to regional and international efforts to improve the status of the world's women and girls. This International Women's Day we'll be working alongside our Pacific partners at the UN Commission on the Status of Women in New York to achieve new global commitments to the elimination of violence against women and girls.
The commitments and declarations are vital but so too is the translation of these aspirations into action.
In the Pacific, Australia is walking the talk. And we are walking in the best possible company: a Pacific leadership which compellingly demonstrated its political will for this journey at the Pacific Islands Forum.
We are walking with committed partners in development. Most importantly, we are walking with Pacific women themselves.
* Penny Williams is the Australian global ambassador for Women and Girls. The views expressed are hers and not of this newspaper.