Cook Islands - Women in parliament – what are the chances?

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15 November 2010

What are the chances for female candidates in this week’s General Election?  Of the 70 candidates in the election vying for the 24 seats in parliament, just nine are women – that’s 12.8 per cent.  Each of the nine female candidates is running for different seats -- this means that before we even go to the polls, 15 seats will be won by male candidates. That’s 62.5 per cent of the seats in parliament going to male candidates.  This leaves the women with a chance at securing a total of 37.5 per cent of the seats in parliament.  It’s quite a lot of seats given that just three women are in the current parliament – just 12.5 per cent of the house. The other 87.5 per cent of seats (21) are held by male MPs.

Since self-governance in 1965, women have run for parliament 39 times either in general elections, snap elections or by-elections and from that been elected 10 times. However, just seven women have ever been elected to parliament.  This election five of the nine female candidates are standing for seats in Rarotonga, one for the northern group island of Manihiki, two are standing in Mangaia and one is standing in Aitutaki. Three are independents, another three are Democratic Party candidates and current MPs, one is a CIP candidate and two are from Te Kura O Te Au.

Matavera MP and cabinet minister Cassey Eggelton believes the reason there are not many women in parliament is because they are already busy with home and work commitments.  “I think the reason we don’t have many women in politics is because it’s a huge commitment, a lot of sacrifice of precious family time, and women are already so busy at home raising and working to support their families. It’s also expensive to run a campaign. If we are serious about more women in politics, then men will have to step up and take more responsibility for raising the family.”  She says she is in politics because she has a strong family.  “My husband cooks a bit more since I became a minister. My kids are adults now and so I am not taking care of their everyday needs. But there was a time when my life was all about school lunches, doctor’s visits and netball games,” says Eggelton.

The two-day Cook Islands consultations on advancing women’s representation in decision making processes held in June this year concluded that there is a real need for a more co-ordinated and strategic approach to address the gross under-representation of women in our Parliament.  “This is not just a matter of women’s rights. Increased balance between the sexes in decision-making goes hand in hand with good governance as it ensures consideration of a diversity of perspectives and direct attention to issues that may otherwise be overlooked,” said the report.

Despite the sexes being pretty even by population – women represent 49 per cent (9637) and men 51 per cent (9932) (2006 Census), there hasn’t been much headway on supporting more women getting into parliament.  The consultations concluded with the aim of seeing a minimum of at least 7 women (30 per cent, up from the current 12.5 per cent) in parliament by 2015.  Former cabinet minister, Nikao MP and election candidate Ngamau Munokoa is looking at her fifth election after first winning the 1996 by-election – her second attempt at running for parliament. She is the only woman to have been elected three times to parliament in general elections.  When elected she became the sole woman in parliament until 1999 when the late Maria Heather was elected as the CIP MP for Ruaau – a seat that was later won by former CIP Vaine Wichman in 2004.

Marguerite Story was the first and only woman speaker for parliament (until 1979), although in 2007 Eggelton was appointed deputy speaker. Story was also the first woman elected to parliament under the CIP – but she was a proxy for her brother, the late Albert Henry, first premier, who took over the seat once he met residency requirements two months later.  The CIP’s Fanaura Kingstone was elected in 1989 and lasted eight weeks as the first woman in cabinet.

One of the most well-known candidates to run was Johnny Frisbee who stood for Pukapuka/Nassau in 1994.  Parliament Gender champion, current Atiu MP Nandi Glassie presented a paper at this year’s consultations saying that the current representation of women in parliament is a good start.  He quoted former NZ politician Marilyn Waring on her views on women in politics.

Waring once said, “Every women in every country are interested in politics and being in parliament, but they find the corruption and the boys’ games an environment that is distasteful, and they want to ‘transform’ the organisation, not ‘join’ it and become part of it”.  Cook Islands Disability Council president Tuki Wright also presented her views at the consultations in June.  She said we haven’t developed as far as we would have liked in terms of getting women into parliament.

“I recall that a few elections ago I was asked to stand as a candidate for my home island Pukapuka. I discussed this with my family. At that time, I had just formally started my business, Tuki’s Pareu, my family asked me not to stand. Like any other business that starts, the family felt that we should focus on this – and so I declined and focussed on the business,” she said.

Wright said women and youth are interested in politics but the timing always seems wrong.  “The problem is that we are too busy in our own lives, starting businesses, looking after children, making sure that we have our bases covered for the future and having a conscience. Yet it is these reasons why we should be in politics.”

[Cook Islands News - Helen Greig] 

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