Reuters International

By Belinda Goldsmith

COPENHAGEN (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - As one of a handful of ambassadors for women globally, Australia's Natasha Stott Despoja is hoping other countries will put aside politics and appoint a champion for women's rights to ensure issues impacting women and girls are put centre stage.

So far about six countries have appointed ambassadors for gender equality - starting with the United States and followed by Australia, the Seychelles, Norway, Sweden and Finland.

Stott Despoja, a former politician who at 26 became the youngest woman to sit in the Australian parliament, said women's issues were easily overlooked without someone advocating for them to be addressed at national and international levels.

This can be to ensure that girls get equal access to education and the job market, to push for investment in women's health care, or to tackle violence against women.

"These appointments send a message to the country, the region, and globally that these are matters of priority," Stott Despoja told the Thomson Reuters Foundation at Women Deliver, the largest women's health and rights conference in a decade.

"You need to take the politics out of this issue ... I think you will find countries coming on board and recognising the high level advocates are worth appointing."

Stott Despoja, 46, the former leader of the Australian Democrats, was appointed Australia's ambassador for women and girls in 2013, five years after quitting politics.

She said her role had three aims: to promote women's economic empowerment, to promote women's leadership, and to eliminate violence against women and girls.

Ending violence against women is a major challenge in the Pacific region on Australia's doorstep which has some of the world's highest levels of violence against women.

Studies show 90 percent of women in Papua New Guinea and two-thirds of women in Fiji have suffered some form of violence.

Stott Despoja said Australia helped fund shelters for women, crisis centres, and supported the introduction of legislation and policies to outlaw domestic violence as well as seeking measures to prevent such violence.

"I get to see the best and worst aspects of humanity in my job and the most confronting images and stories comes from women who have experienced violence," said Stott Despoja, who regularly liaises with the other ambassadors for women globally.

"On the flip side the work we do does transform lives."

Stott Despoja, whose appointment ends in December this year, said the time was right to advance the campaign to improve women's rights, with the 193 United Nations member states agreeing last year to aim for gender equality by 2030.

"There is a very strong understanding among legislators and powerbrokers and ministers and civil society and NGOs that women and girls and gender equality is where it is at," she said, flatly ruling out a return to politics when her term ends.

"We have to invest in women and girls if we want a world that is stable, secure and prosperous and one that grows."

(Editing by Ros Russell; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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