On Africa, women & the future

My friends, we are here today for the same reason we gathered then: to remember Jessie Street, and her extraordinary life and contribution.

She accomplished so much for so many - the scope and breadth of her passions were astonishing. They are the legacy that your Trust preserves and perpetuates.

I think about her being present as the foundations of modern international co-operation were laid: as the only woman in Australia's delegation to the very first conference in San Francisco, 1945, to establish the United Nations.

As we know, she was very largely responsible for including the language of sex equality in the United Nations' Charter - a document that still defines our human rights principles.

She later wrote that 'together, 51 nations had framed the new international Charter and opened the way to a new society where each person might be free to contribute gifts and capacities for the good of all humankind.'

These thoughts were very much in my mind last month when, at the request of the government, I was proud to represent Australia in nine African countries.In Mauritius, Namibia, Botswana, Zambia, Mozambique, Tanzania, Kenya, Ethiopia and Seychelles. And briefly South Africa, where we met Mr Mandela, and Graça Machel Mandela.

I felt the freshness of hope and the power of friendship. I was there to deepen and broaden Australia's engagement with the continent and nation states of Africa, to offer our support and aid, and build strong relationships with African leaders and community workers.

I can't tell you how enriching and rewarding my days were. I met with presidents and prime ministers who spoke warmly and eloquently about their countries.

I visited many humanitarian and aid programs, nearly all supported by Australian money and goodwill. We had many sobering experiences; we saw deeply etched poverty and disadvantage.

I nursed a small boy in a paediatric hospital in Maputo, suffering such severe malnourishment that his skin was falling off his little bones. He was one of Africa's 12 million AIDS orphans, being raised by his grandmother who sat beside me. I looked into her face strained with anxiety and exhaustion.

A senior nurse nearby quietly noted that this grandmother had no income at all, and no hope of one, and that the baby was probably being fed on leaves.

At the Kawangwa School in Nairobi, I gave the children two spoons of steaming golden peas out of a big pot - their only meal of the day, served at school in a bowl they bring from home. They stand and wait.

What would they eat at the weekend? I asked. No one could answer.

We also saw unquenchable joy and exuberance - we were met everywhere with singing and dancing, such fabulous rhythm, such smiles.

Children waving our flag and theirs - reaching out to touch us. Many kisses on cheeks as I bent to thank them for being there. We saw the promise of a new Africa.

My friends, it has been said that the face of poverty is a woman. What I have learned is that the face of the future leadership of Africa is also a woman.

Jessie Street wrote in her autobiography: 'All my experiences made me confident that women who have the chance to develop their abilities and self-confidence can make an indispensible and valuable contribution to building a better life for their whole society.'

In Africa, this is profoundly true. Today I thought I would share a few snapshots of some of the inspiring women I met: women who filled me with respect and admiration; women who are the creators and nurturers of a hopeful Africa.

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