A pledge by political leaders two years ago to accelerate efforts towards closing the gender gap in the Pacific Islands has been boosted with the announcement that three women will take the helm of the regional intergovernmental organisation, the Pacific Islands forum secretariat, headquartered in Suva, Fiji.
At this year’s Pacific Islands forum leaders’ summit in Palau, the former Papua New Guinea (PNG) diplomat and World Bank official, Dame Meg Taylor, was named secretary general, taking over from the outgoing Tuiloma Neroni Slade. Taylor, who will hold the post for three years, joins two female deputy secretaries general, Cristelle Pratt and Andie Fong Toy.
The appointment is a significant breakthrough for women in the upper echelons of governance. According to Pratt, the Pacific leaders gender equality declaration made at the 2012 leaders’ summit in the Cook Islands has galvanised leadership action.
“A positive change has been the indirect creation of a peer review process on gender at the highest level,” Pratt told IPS, adding that gender equality is “slowly gaining traction at the central policymaking level”, as high up as the prime minister’s office in some forum countries.
Raising the status of women in the Pacific Islands is an immense challenge. The region has the lowest level of female political representation in the world at 3%, compared with the global average of 20%.
Furthermore, violence against women is endemic and they are poorly represented in formal employment. PNG has a gender inequality index of 0.617 and Tonga 0.462, in contrast to the most gender equal nation, Norway, at 0.065.
Fiame Naomi Mata’afa, Samoa’s minister of justice, said: “What is significant about the declaration is that leaders have taken it on board as a priority, and I believe our leader took it seriously and followed it through with a law change in Samoa.”
Last year, a law was passed in Samoa reserving 10%, or five, of a total of 49 seats in parliament for women. Mata’afa said: “It is a significant step in that it provides a ‘floor’ as opposed to a ‘ceiling’, and there will never be less than five women in any future parliament.
“It is important that women are in parliament to be seen and heard, and to serve as evidence that it can be done.”
Women’s low political representation ranges from 2% in the Solomon Islands to 8.7% in Kiribati. There is no female political representation in the federated states of Micronesia and Vanuatu, with populations of 103,000 and 247,000 respectively.
Contributing factors include entrenched expectations of a woman’s place in the domestic sphere, low endorsement from political parties and the greater difficulties women have in accessing funding and resources for election campaigning.
There has been incremental progress in other countries. Last year, the first woman was elected to the parliament of Nauru – the smallest state in the south Pacific – in three decades, and three women won seats in the Cook Islands national election last month.
Signs of progress
Women’s participation in local governance received a boost in Tuvalu after a law requiring female representation in local councils was passed. Blandine Boulekone, president of the Vanuatu council of women, noted that women gained five of a total of 17 seats in the municipal elections held in the capital, Port Vila, in January.
Statistics show that gender parity in education, which is necessary for improving women’s status in all areas of life, has been achieved in most Pacific Island states, except PNG, Tonga and Solomon Islands, with girls outperforming boys at the secondary level in Samoa and Fiji.
Nevertheless, the Pacific Islands forum reported last year that “higher education for young women does not necessarily lead to better employment outcomes due to gender barriers in labour markets”, with most countries reporting that less than half of women are in non-agricultural waged jobs.
Last year, Samoa passed legislation against sexual harassment and discrimination in the workplace, while similar draft legislation is being developed in Kiribati, Vanuatu and Tonga.
Pratt says there has been good progress with the enactment of domestic violence legislation in Palau, Samoa, Tonga, Kiribati and Solomon Islands. Last year, domestic violence also became a criminal offence in PNG following the passing of the family protection bill.
About 60-75% of women in the region experience family and intimate partner violence. Their vulnerability is exacerbated by early marriage, lack of financial independence, inadequate access to justice systems and the concept of “bride price”, where a groom pays a token amount of money to his bride’s family.
However, Shamima Ali, coordinator of the Fiji women’s crisis centre, said: “As practitioners on the ground, we can say that while all these policies and legislations look great on paper, implementation is another matter. One also needs to invest financially to ensure new legislation and policies are effective.”
Fiji has had a domestic violence decree since 2009, but Ali said: “While most magistrates and judges deal well and follow the new decrees, there are many who still display traditional entrenched views regarding rape and domestic violence, and often injustice is meted out to survivors, particularly for sex crimes.”
Law enforcement is a challenge too, especially in rural communities. “Women, girls and children in rural and maritime areas have little recourse to justice for crimes of violence committed against them, due to lack of police presence and resources in these areas,” Ali added.
Pratt agrees that the road to genuine change in the lives of ordinary Pacific women is a long one. “The declaration is still new and there is a need for more awareness, advocacy and accountability toward meeting the goals,” she added.
SOURCE: THE GUARDIAN