Julia Gillard's first visit to Papua New Guinea as prime minister, starting tomorrow, is loaded with symbolism. Following on from the April visit of Australia's first female Governor-General, the Prime Minister can demonstrate to Papua New Guineans that women can effectively and confidently occupy the highest offices in the land. 

This is the first visit by an Australian prime minister to our nearest neighbour since Kevin Rudd in early 2008. Papua New Guinea has experienced rapid change in the five year interregnum, and Gillard's visit is important also because it will recognise Papua New Guinea as an increasingly significant economic partner rather than as Australia's second biggest aid client. Like Australia, Papua New Guinea has been in the grip of a resources boom, driven in part by rising demand from Asia and super-charged by the $19 billion Exxon Mobil LNG investment. Average annual GDP growth from 2008 to 2011 was an impressive 7.3%.

Then Prime Minister Sir Michael Somare departed due to illness in 2011 and was replaced by the much younger and highly regarded Peter O'Neill. Elections in 2012 confirmed a generational shift in political leadership. Prime Minister O'Neill is determined to improve Papua New Guinea's poor education and health services and crumbling infrastructure and to tackle the country's endemic corruption. He has declared 2013 the year of implementation to realise his ambitions for the country.

Members of an emerging middle class, thought to number 150-200,000 in a country of 7 million people, are starting to assert themselves and are demanding better government. Young Papua New Guineans are increasingly networking on social media platforms enabled by better mobile phone connectivity and have bright ideas for transforming their country.

But an unwelcome change has been an increase in violence against women

The challenges faced by women in our nearest neighbour are unfathomable to the vast majority of Australians. They face severe obstacles in the way of achieving equal opportunities to men and in accessing health and education services and even personal safety and basic survival. Two-thirds of women in PNG are exposed consistently to domestic violence. Médecins Sans Frontières has estimated that 70% of women will be raped or physically assaulted in their lifetime.

Fortunately, Prime Minister Gillard herself is keenly aware of the problem, informing high school students on ABC TV's Q&A program audience on 6 May of the appalling levels of violence experienced by women in Papua New Guinea. The Prime Minister announced last year a new Pacific Women Shaping Pacific Development aid strategy to support women's rights in the region.

A record three women were elected to Papua New Guinea's parliament in 2012. Loujaya Toni, Minister for Community Development, Delilah Gore and Julie Soso, also the Governor of Eastern Highlands Province, are under pressure to meet the impossibly high expectations of several generations of women as well as delivering on the demands of their electorates. 

The Australia-Papua New Guinea relationship is multi-faceted. The $493 million aid program was for many years the main focus of the relationship, but relations have broadened to focus more on the economic and trade relationship. Australian investment in Papua New Guinea is almost on a par with our investment in China, at over $16 billion. Bilateral trade is worth almost $6 billion. An Economic and Cooperation treaty has been finalised. Australia has been assisting PNG with the establishment of a sovereign wealth fund. Business to business links have deepened.

But in managing this broad agenda, Gillard's most important responsibility should be to Papua New Guinea's women. She can not only set a visible example of a strong female leader but she can speak out in support of Papua New Guinea's women to a wide audience of men who will listen to her because she is the Australian Prime Minister.  This is not an issue which the Australian Prime Minister should take up only in private meetings. Women in Papua New Guinea need Australian support and Prime Minister Gillard can be a very effective advocate for them.

Photo by Flickr user World Bank Photo Collection.