A day for the women - Publication launch: 'Utilising Temporary Special Measures to Promote Gender Balance in Pacific Legislatures'

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22 March 2009

International Women's Day was celebrated on March 8 this year and the week-long advocacy work on the development and changing roles of women in society have been highlighted by different media organisations in the country.  For the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat and the United Nations Development Program Pacific Center, the international day was an opportune time to launch a new guide aimed at providing policy-makers and advocates with concrete ideas on how to promote more women in Pacific legislatures.

Titled Utilising Temporary Special Measures to Promote Gender Balance in Pacific Legislatures: A Guide to Options, the publication was co-authored by Dr Lesley Clark, a former member of the Queensland Parliament and Charmaine Rodrigues, the UNDP Pacific Centre's regional legislative strengthening expert.  Dr Clark works with the Australian Labour Party's International Unit on programs to advance women's political empowerment in the Asia Pacific region.  The publication is designed as a reference for governments, members of Pacific legislatures, political parties, women candidates and civil society advocates who want to understand possible options for temporary special measures that could be introduced in the Pacific.

"The fact is we have very low rates of women representatives in our parliament. When we were doing the research for the guide, we found we had 4.2 per cent women parliamentarians in the 14 forum island countries," said Ms Rodrigues.  Speaking from Papua New Guinea, Ms Rodrigues said there has been a lot of work internationally on how to promote women in parliament through temporary special measures.  "We looked at that work but we saw that it was written quite technically and wasn't written for our region.

"We have special issues, we have our own cultural challenges so we wanted to take the global knowledge and make it relevant for our local context.  "That's why we decided it might be useful to write a book talking about the Pacific issues and then suggesting some ideas how that could work in our country.  "We have quite different parliamentary systems in terms of our size, our political parties, the way we elect people and we felt we needed to talk about issues taking note of that particular context."

Ms Rodrigues said they wanted the publication to be participatory and even though it took six months to complete she was content with the outcome.  The publication is a first of its kind for the Pacific although there are various materials available that focus on women in parliament the book specifically focuses on how to promote women in Pacific legislatures using temporary special measures.

"In part two of the book, you have country by country discussion about possible options. The time was right for its publication now," she said.  "In the past, we've talked about these issues but it's taken some time to get this on the agenda. It's been mentioned in international agreements, CEDAW recognises this, but in the Pacific we've had to have our own discussions and it's been in the last few years that you've really seen people start to talk about using temporary special measures to get women into parliament.  "We thought this was the right time to try and get this information out so that when people are advocating at home for more women, they have a technical resource that will help inform those discussions."

According to Ms Rodrigues, one of the reasons for the low representation of women in parliament is the Pacific Island's status as a new democracy.  She said some countries have gained independence some 30 to 40 years ago and in that time have evolved the concepts of what a good leader is and identifying who leaders should be.  "Culturally, that has often been male leadership that's been recognised. That is one of the biggest reasons why it may have taken women longer to get recognised as national leaders in their parliaments," she said.  "The book tries to go through some of the arguments that we so often hear raised across the regions about why we shouldn't use temporary special measures but that discussion still needs to be had because there is a lot of value in looking at new options now.

"Unfortunately, the number of women represented in parliament in these Pacific Island countries has been incredibly slow.  "The inter-parliamentary union did a study which found in 1993, representation in the Pacific was at 2.5 per cent.  "15 years later, we're at 4.2 per cent. It's a very stark statistic especially in terms of progress at a time when the global average of women is sitting around 18 per cent.  "We're sitting at four per cent. That's an improvement of only one and a half per cent in 15 years."

She believes a radical solution needs to be considered to jumpstart the process while raising voter awareness and encouraging the election of women on their merit.  While the process might be slow, Ms Rodrigues believes the only way to ensure women's voices are heard is to consider some form of temporary special measures.

[Fiji Times - Geraldine Panapasa]

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