THE DARK CLOUDS THAT HANG OVER the lives of many women and girls in the developing world have been witnessing recent bursts of sunshine from Australia.
In recent months, the Australian government has made a series of major announcements to support and promote equality for women and girls in developing countries such as Afghanistan, Indonesia, Myanmar, Cambodia and Ethiopia.
Australia has doubled its family planning commitment to assist safe births to $50 million a year by 2016. Our aid is supporting more programs to prevent violence against women. And we're redoubling our efforts to ensure that all girls receive a quality education.
These positive steps forward are due, in part, to the government's acceptance of an independent aid review finding last year that Australia should make gender equality ''mission critical'' in order to achieve development outcomes in the region and beyond.
But last week in the Cook Islands at the Pacific Islands Forum, prime minister Julia Gillard went one big step further. She announced a $320 million initiative phased over a decade to promote women's rights in the Pacific by getting more women in parliament, increasing economic opportunities and reducing violence. The Australian aid sector has uttered a collective shout of ''hooray''.
Despite the overwhelming evidence that investing in women and girls is an essential requirement for effective development, the Pacific remains one of the least progressive regions in the world in terms of gender equality.
The Pacific comprises a diverse and proud set of complex cultures. But it has the lowest proportion of women in parliament in the world at just 3.5%. The recent elections in Papua New Guinea saw 135 women stand but just three elected - Dellilah Gore, Loujaya Toni and Julie Soso, the first woman to ever win a Highlands seat.
Women in the Solomon Islands and PNG experience some of the worst economic conditions in the world. According to the International Labour Organisation, the Asia-Pacific region loses up to $45.6 billion annually as a result of women's lack of access to employment opportunities.
Moreover, 60-70% of women in four Pacific countries - PNG, Solomon Islands, Fiji and Vanuatu - report physical and sexual abuse.
Australians probably think of Afghanistan, Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo as some of the worst places in the world to be a woman. Aid workers know that the PNG Highlands, so close to Australia, is just as bad, especially in terms of violence.
Do these announcements mean that Australia will now use its strategic position and diplomacy in the region to focus on women's rights? Has Australia finally understood that the future of our region is bound up in promoting gender equality as much as investing in defence, trade or immigration?
For far too long Australian foreign policy has ignored the deep inequality around us and focused on the agendas of elite males in the political or security domain.
While the aid program has supported gender issues, such as funding the Fiji Women's Crisis Centre, the strategic foreign policy lens has been missing. This is why Australian non-government organisations lobbied so hard for the position of the Ambassador for Women and Girls, a role that is already having a positive influence on government policy.
Perhaps Australia's recent focus on women's rights has been influenced by the leadership of the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who also attended the Pacific Islands Forum. She has made women's rights the signature issue of the Obama administration's foreign policy.
''Transformation of the role of women is the last great impediment to universal progress,'' she declared in 2010. This year Clinton told a summit in New York ''from around the world, from Iraq and Afghanistan to Sudan to the new transitional democracies in the Middle East and North Africa, we're expecting our embassies to develop local strategies to empower women politically, economically, and socially.''
Is this something Australia could emulate? Certainly Michelle Bachelet, head of UN Women and former president of Chile, received a rousing reception in Australia last week.
The Australian government's decision to invest in women in the Pacific is both a reflection of Australian values and priorities, as well as an expression of solidarity with our neighbours. And the Pacific initiative will undeniably provide hope to many young women and girls who aspire to be leaders in our region.
But we need to give them more than just hope. We need to put women's rights at the heart of Australian foreign policy and support it with the data, analysis and long-term funding necessary to transform not only women's lives, but the peace, security and prosperity of our region.
Dr Burgmann is the president of the Australian Council for International Development, the peak body for Australian aid and development agencies