There is only one women leader among the presidents and prime ministers of the 15 countries at the Pacific Islands Forum this year - but three high-powered international women are attending to try to ensure that changes.

Prime Minister John Key is among the leaders arriving in the Cook Islands today to attend the male-dominated Pacific Islands Forum. The attendees include its most influential line-up of women ever, including Australia's Prime Minister Julia Gillard, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and the head of UN Women, former Chile President Michelle Bachelet.

Mrs Clinton's planned visit has given the forum a boost - Centre of Strategic Studies director Robert Ayson said it would give credibility to a forum which had been criticised as being ineffective.

However, Mrs Clinton will also help the cause of her female counterparts. Ms Gillard is due to announce a multi-million dollar 10-year programme to boost the number of women in leadership roles across the Pacific.


It will be Ms Bachelet's first visit to the Pacific since she was appointed to the role of UN Women executive director in 2010. She said recently the Pacific region - excluding New Zealand and Australia - had the "dubious distinction" of having the lowest rate in the world of women in Parliament. Only 3.5 per cent of parliamentarians were women, compared to the global average of 20 per cent.

There had been progress - three women were elected to Papua New Guinea's Parliament this year - the first time since 1975 there had been more than one.

Samoa's Prime Minister Tuilaepa Aiono Sailele Malielegaoi also mooted a 10 per cent quota for women in Samoa's Parliament.

New Zealand's Prime Minister John Key will have one-on-one talks with Ms Gillard and Ms Bachelet today and tomorrow. He said Ms Gillard was expected to make women in the Pacific a focus at the forum.

"And she has a point. They tend to be male-dominated leaderships and Cabinets, and of course, it is a very positive and necessary step for more women to be involved in the leadership of these countries."

Mr Key said it was "highly likely" he would meet Ms Clinton. He expected them to cover a range of topics, from the proposed withdrawal from Afghanistan to an update on the United States election.

He would also be seeking her views on the "hot spots" of the world. "Hillary Clinton is in a very privileged position, she goes round the world and has contact with the hotspots, so it is always fascinating to get an update of how she thinks things will play out."

Mr Key said he also expected leaders to discuss Fiji after an agreement by New Zealand, Australia and Fiji to restore full diplomatic links and for New Zealand and Australia to soften travel sanctions.


Mr Key said it was a "small shift" in response to Fiji setting up an independent Constitutional Commission and a voter registration system.

The theme of the forum, which will end on Saturday with post-forum talks, is the ocean, and New Zealand's aid announcements are expected to be economically focused - including energy and fisheries.