HONOLULU — Rarely does Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton venture abroad without pushing the case for "women empowerment," a signature issue of her nearly one-year tenure as the top U.S. diplomat.
On Wednesday, Clinton was flying across the Pacific to the tropical nation of Papua New Guinea, where women's rights will be high on her agenda.
After consulting on the Haitian earthquake with President Barack Obama, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and others in Washington on Wednesday morning, Clinton told reporters at her Honolulu hotel that she intended to carry through with her Pacific tour but would find a way to compress the schedule. She made an unscheduled stop at U.S. Pacific Command to extend her consultations on the disaster.
On numerous other overseas trips, Clinton has made a point of meeting with women who symbolize the promise of improving education, health and employment prospects for women. For example, in March she met with a group of female students in Ramallah, in the West Bank, to discuss women's achievements, including those of astronaut Sally Ride, the first American woman in space. On other stops she has highlighted programs – some supported by U.S. funds – promoting small business opportunities for women.
In Papua New Guinea, Clinton will be meeting with Prime Minister Michael Somare, who three years ago named Clinton's husband, former President Bill Clinton, an honorary tribal leader. And she will attend an environmental protection event featuring mangrove replanting.
Papua New Guinea, which last saw a visiting U.S. secretary of state in 1998, is a collection of islands between the Coral Sea and the South Pacific Ocean. It includes the eastern half of the island of New Guinea.
Because she will be crossing the international dateline in flight, she won't arrive in Port Moresby, the capital, until Thursday afternoon local time, after a refueling stop in the Marshall Islands. She planned to spend about five hours there and move on to New Zealand in the wee hours of Friday.
Clinton spent two days in Honolulu, meeting Tuesday with her Japanese counterpart and delivering a speech on Asia-Pacific cooperation. In a question-and-answer session after the speech, Clinton was told by a Papua New Guinean woman that of the 109 seats in her country's parliament, just one is held by a woman. She asked Clinton how women could overcome cultural biases in male-dominated countries like Papua New Guinea.
"The barriers that restrain women's rights and responsibilities are legal in many places still; they are definitely cultural and to some extent political and social, and they are not easily removed unless there are enough women exercising leadership so that the barriers begin to just dissolve, and women see what is possible," Clinton said.
Clinton said that in Port Moresby she would meet with a group of female military officers and security officers.
Clinton told reporters traveling with her that the visit will be her first to the South Pacific island, whose first sighting by a European was by English Captain John Moresby in 1873. During World War II, thousands of Allied troops were based on Papua New Guinea.
The Obama administration is making a push to strengthen U.S. influence in the Asia-Pacific region.