The women of the Pacific region are amongst the most discriminated against in the world. I am talking about the 14 tiny island states that dot the Pacific Ocean…islands such as Fiji, Samoa, Nauru, Tuvalu, Kiribati etc. The women of these nations suffer shockingly high domestic violence and maternal death rates, do most of the work for a fraction of the male wage and have virtually no representation in public office.
Just under 3% of all elected leaders in the Pacific are women. It is the lowest percentage in the world. The Pacific region is now officially far worse on women’s parliamentary equality than the Gulf states. In fact, half of the Pacific island states feature in the bottom 20 countries in the world for women’s participation. Seven of the bottom twenty are from the Pacific and two (Vanuatu and Micronesia) are equal last, with no women representatives at all. Others such as Tonga, Tuvalu and the Solomons only have one.
Former UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon during a visit to Australia for the Pacific Islands Forum recently became disturbed by the issue of women’s representation. In my brief conversation with him he acknowledged that he had needed to be speedily backgrounded on the issue and that Papua New Guinea (3 out of 111) in particular disturbed him.
The problem for women seeking public office is complex. Certainly there is overt discrimination and the refusal of men to vote for a good woman candidate is well documented but the endemic corruption is also a factor. Women with little access to wealth (or pigs) are in no position to offer the traditional feast that a successful candidate is expected to provide. We can’t propose solutions that border on corruption but what is the answer?
The women who I have worked with in Bougainville, the Solomons, and PNG are all articulate, intelligent and hard working. They are seemingly perfectly equipped to run a powerful campaign and become great MPs but without intervention this will never happen.
Julie Bishop, the Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs acknowledges the need for greater support for women in these areas. Writing about the Solomons she agreed with an OECD report that concluded that “investment in gender equality yields the highest returns of all development investments”. She also put her finger on one of the main problems for women’s representation in the Pacific, the corruption of the political system… “the greater the influence of women in public life in developing countries, the less corruption exists”.
The creation of the UN Global Ambassador for Women position has been the result of a sustained campaign by women’s organisations and development agencies. The Australian Council for International Development, the peak body for non government aid and development agencies was heavily involved with the campaign. We urged that the position be modelled on the hugely successful US Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues appointed in 2009 by Hillary Clinton.
For those of us in the development sector, we are particularly keen that the Ambassador act as a champion for the role of women in the aid programme. Recent aid effectiveness reviews show us that aid delivered to women is the most effective mode of delivery.
The previous Australian Labor Government announced that “an immediate practical priority will be working with the US and our Pacific partners on domestic violence in the region” but was unable to get much done before electoral defeat. With 60% of the Pacific countries having no domestic violence legislation and two in three women having reported physical and/or sexual violence at the hands of their spouse or partner, such support is long overdue.
Then the next step is to get some more women elected to the Parliaments of Vanuatu (0), Micronesia (0), Tuvalu (1), Tonga (1), the Solomons(1), Palau (2), Nauru (2), Nauru (2) and Palau (2).
Dr Meredith Burgmann is the former President of the Legislative Council of NSW; and The Australian Council for International Development, the peak body for non government aid agencies. She has been involved in training women candidates in Bougainville, PNG, The Solomons and TimorL’Este.