U.S., Papua New Guinea, World Bank Host Women's Regional Policy Dialogue

Posted by Brian Asmus
July 29, 2011
Ambassador Taylor Poses for a Photo With Ambassador Verveer
Two Pacific Islands Women Delegates Pose for a Photo With Ambassador Verveer
Pacific Islands Women Delegates Pose for a Group Photo

During her visit to Papua New Guinea (PNG) in November 2010, Secretary Clinton announced the Pacific Women's Empowerment Initiative. She said, "Giving women access to education, health services, economic opportunities, and the structures of power is critical to alleviating poverty and disease in every part of the world. The United States is committed to working with you."

From May 31 to June 1, Embassy Port Moresby hosted Healthy Women, Healthy Economies. The State Department, including Embassy Port Moresby and the Secretary's Office of Global Women's Issues, teamed up with the PNG government and World Bank Group to organize the event.

We knew that logistics would be problematic. Flying anywhere in the Pacific takes time, effort, and money. Getting the women representatives to Port Moresby would involve lengthy stopovers in major transit hubs like Suva, Wellington, and Sydney.

As early as May 26, delegates from 12 Pacific Island countries, including those from Papua New Guinea, and key resource people from the U.S., Australian, and New Zealand governments, the World Bank Group, Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC), Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat (PIFs), U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), U.S. Center for Disease Control (CDC), and Asian Development Bank (ADB) began to arrive.

The policy dialogue identified effective means to improve women's lives and livelihoods, including advancing maternal health, increasing economic opportunities, and leadership training. The participants underscored the importance of addressing gender-based violence, investing in education and literacy for women and girls, and supporting women's entrepreneurship, including issues involving land rights and tenure, as well as access to capital and credit.

Many advocated engaging men and boys as champions for change, as well as the importance of supporting women in political and institutional leadership positions, and of nurturing the next generation of emerging young women leaders. The importance of connecting to key government agencies outside of the women's ministry and with the ministries of planning and finance is critical. Some also looked to the transformative potential of information technology and mobile telephony, as well as its potential to support economic activities.

Key among the findings are the desperate need for a better evidence base for both advocacy and action on key issues, ranging from data on gender-based violence to reliable information about land rights and tenure to updated statistics on women's access to capital and credit.

The event was our crowning achievement given that Embassy Port Moresby's primary mission strategic resource plan (MSRP) goal is Empowering Women. In the Pacific Islands, women face appalling levels of gender-based violence. PNG's maternal mortality rate of approximately 750 per 100,000, for example, is the second highest in the Asia Pacific after only Afghanistan. The statistics in the rest of the region are not much better. Many forget that these island paradises with their beautiful beaches and reefs have socioeconomic indicators that are as bad, if not worse, than those in much of Africa.

I am, however, proud to say that we are fighting back. Embassy Port Moresby has a number of initiatives in place, including a $40,000 grant to mentor girls aged 11-18 to ensure that they are aware of the full range of educational and employment opportunities. The Embassy is also coordinating a $670,000 grant from the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) to foster awareness and provide training to ensure that women in PNG and Solomon Islands understand how to register to vote as well as increasing their understanding of how to organize politically and to advocate for policies that benefit women and girls.

The Embassy is also implementing a $76,000 Youth Challenge grant to increase awareness of work-place rights and responsibilities in Vanuatu, while providing women and girls with a resource center to prepare resumes and cover letters, and find out about job opportunities. We have also arranged to send eight women from PNG, Solomon Islands, and Vanuatu to the United States on Fulbright scholarship and International Visitors Leadership Programs (IVLP).

While the challenges are many, the dedication and determination of the Pacific Island women should give all cause for hope. It is going to be a long, hard struggle but when we all work together, the results can truly be amazing.

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