Tackling hidden poverty: there's still progress to be made for women in the Asia Pacific region.

Australia is committed to making a change to the lives of thousands of women and children.





Peter Baxter is the Director General of AusAID. This week he gave this speech at the Women Deliver Conference in Malaysia, and we thought it was so fantastic we published it so you could have a read, too.


Today I’m going to talk about poverty.

But not poverty as we think we know it.

I’m going to talk about poverty that, in some cases, has been masked by fast-growing economies.

I’m going to talk about the poverty experienced by women and their children in this, the Asia Pacific region.

And I’m going to reflect on some of the lessons that Australia, through our aid program, has learnt from our decades of working in this region.

Though there are many lessons that I would like to share, I’m going to focus on two.

The first is that we need to invest in maternal health as well as women’s education and empowerment.

The second is that we need to be smarter and more innovative in the way that we support women and children in this region.

I’ll also discuss how we plan to tackle these challenges in the future, so that we can empower governments to make lasting change, and help lift families out of poverty.

My message is simple – Australia, through our aid program, is committed to making a change in the Asia Pacific region, and what we need now are political champions to lead this effort.


A forgotten region:

For decades, aid flows have broadly reflected the notion that countries with the lowest GDP need the most help.

In our collective consciousness, the map of the world has been roughly divided into three tiers of countries – the lower, middle and higher income countries– and our aid resources have flowed accordingly.

In Australia, we see the world differently.

We see an Asia Pacific region that has been transformed through strong economic growth, increasingly stable democracies and rising incomes.

Where child mortality has been reduced by a third over the last ten years.

Challenges in the region:

The average woman is or has been pregnant by the age of 21.

However, we also see millions of poor people, many of them women, who have become invisible.

Around 900 million people in the Asia-Pacific still live in poverty and nearly 20 million boys and girls do not attend school.

We see an Asia-Pacific region that has nearly two thirds of the world’s poor but only receives around one third of global aid.

Let’s take Indonesia for example.

Despite Indonesia’s rapid growth, the contraceptive prevalence rate remains at 57 per cent.

The average woman has become a mother or is pregnant by the age of 21.

And 36 per cent of children under five are stunted.


At current projections five countries in the Asia Pacific region – including the Philippines and Myanmar – won’t reach the child health targets of MDG 4 by 2015.

And ten countries in our region won’t achieve MDG 5 targets for maternal health.

So how is AusAID responding to these challenges?

Maternal and child health:

First, we are helping to build strong health systems to keep women and children well, and prevent families falling into poverty.

A big focus of AusAID’s program in Indonesia is in the 14 districts of the Nusa Tenggara Timur (NTT) province, where our program has assisted in reducing the maternal mortality rate by 31 per cent.

In 2012, this program directly supported over 27,000 women to have a skilled birth attendant at delivery.

Education should be available to all who want to learn.


We are also investing in girls’ education, recognising that an educated girl is more likely to live longer, have healthier children and be able to decide how many, and when, she has those children.

Since 2006, Australia has built or extended over 2000 junior secondary schools, creating around 330,000 new school places in some of Indonesia’s poorest and most remote areas.

Women’s empowerment:

AusAID is proud to say that over half of our aid budget is spent on programs which support gender equality and women’s empowerment.

This means that we are working to prevent violence against women and investing in women’s economic empowerment and leadership.


In Timor-Leste, since 2008 Australia has supported around 5,500 women to gain access to microfinance services.

And in Afghanistan we have provided training on legal rights for 13,000 home-bound women in two rural provinces.

Smarter interventions:

We know that supporting women and girls through our aid program is the right thing to do.

What we’ve learned is that we need to prioritise smart interventions like family planning, which are cost-effective and promote an economic return.

We know that investing $1 in family planning can save $6 of government expenditure on social services like health care.

So last year, at the London Family Planning Summit, Australia committed to doubling our family planning expenditure by 2016.

This will give approximately 4.8 million additional women access to contraception – many of them in the Asia Pacific region.


But being smarter is not just about cost-effectiveness.

The unique situation in the Asia Pacific region calls for innovative solutions, including the use of technology, to improve maternal health.

In Bangladesh, we are supporting mobile phone technology to help community health workers provide a smooth referral to the hospital for women in need of emergency services.

There’s still work that needs doing.

New initiatives:

There’s much more for us to do.

Australia will spend $1.6 billion on maternal and child health through the aid program between 2010 and 2016.

This will enable us to immunise 10 million more children and provide support for skilled attendants at one million births.

Part of this funding will be spent under our most recent initiative, a $390 million four-year initiative entitled Enhancing Australia’s Commitment to Development in the Asia Pacific Region.

This funding will assist:

  • over one million people to improve their access to quality nutrition
  • 1.2 million children to reach school
  • 900,000 women to access maternal and child health services.

Role of national governments:

But donors and money alone cannot effect the change that is necessary.

While some national governments in the Asia Pacific have increased their investment, expenditure on health remains low in countries across the region including Myanmar, Cambodia and Papua New Guinea.

AusAID understands that the real drivers of sustainable change need to come from political leadership, understanding and commitment within countries.

I’d therefore like to conclude my remarks with this message.

Australia, through our aid program, is committed to helping governments in our region make long-term, sustainable change for women and children.

I call on political leaders and champions for development across the region to work with us to put women and girls at the forefront of our development efforts.

AusAID is the Australian Government’s Overseas Aid Program. Visit their website to find out more.