Islands Business ‘...there is proof that reserving seats has worked in the French Pacific...'

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01 February 2012

‘...there is proof that reserving seats has worked in the French Pacific. It is high time other Pacific leaders take a leaf out of this book and live up to their male dominated society’s faux belief that women really have a pride of place in their societies’

The Pacific Islands region continues to lag behind the world in gender parity in almost every aspect of life. The region has one of the most skewed gender ratios in both the private and public sectors as well as in government.

Despite the oft quoted contention of male Pacific islands leaders down the years that Pacific culture has respect for women ingrained in it—one senior Polynesian politician has repeatedly said that Pacific women are always placed on a pedestal in Pacific islands society—facts, figures and statistics relating to women’s affairs indicate the exact opposite.

Both Pacific islands society and institutions have done little to encourage women to take up careers in public life despite many of its cultures having had charismatic queens and women rulers throughout their histories, not to speak of stories and legends of brave women who were instrumental in bringing in change in their societies.

In modern times, especially since the islands became independent states, women have remained largely invisible in public life and from decision-making roles in government and administration. This is despite the improvement of gender parity in other aspects of life like education. Now more Pacific women are educated than ever before but that has not translated into more Pacific women landing in legislatures and senior administrative positions.

Studies and reports down the years indicate that the highly male dominated power structures in Pacific society have paid only lip service to the importance of women in society by quoting cultural mores and beliefs. Unfortunately, these have absolutely no bearing whatsoever on the real state of affairs as regards women’s affairs in the region. In terms of legislative representation, the Pacific islands region lags behind even some regions that fare far worse in development indices. For example, the collective representation of women in Pacific islands legislatures is worse than that in sub Saharan Africa, which lags behind the islands in several human development indices.

While some islands governments have never had a female legislator, large and important players like Papua New Guinea have just a single woman people’s representative in its parliament, which after thirty six years of independent rule is indeed a crying shame.

That single woman legislator is on her way out and if no woman is elected in the next poll later this year, there will be no woman parliamentarian in the Pacific Islands region’s most populous democracy—an extremely unfortunate circumstance indeed.

At long last though, there are indications this scenario may be changing—but only just. In the past few years, especially after loud and shrill calls from both Pacific and global women and gender parity advocacy groups, some countries of the Pacific islands region have begun investigations on how to become pro-active in getting better representation from women in their legislatures.

Though progress has not been impressive by any means, the fact that the need has been recognised by the male dominated political setup is seen as progress in many quarters. Activists in Papua New Guinea, for example, have repeatedly staged protests in and out of its parliament down the years to press for greater women’s representation in political and administrative affairs. Successive governments have flip flopped on the issue. On November 23 last year, however, the PNG Parliament passed a constitutional amendment to guarantee 22 seats for women.

But last month, Dame Carol Kidu, the country’s only female Member of Parliament, said she had little hope of the new bill reserving 22 women’s-only electorates being passed any time soon, despite the present Prime Minister’s contention that he has the numbers to do so. The O’Neill Government requires 73 out of 109 votes to pass the bill, which it is believed the Prime Minister cannot do on his own unless he receives the support of Sir Michael Somare, the man he eased out in a move that nearly precipitated a crisis in the country late last year.

“The good majority of members in this government support the bill. Somare must show his good faith…and allow his members to come and vote for it,” Prime Minister O’Neill told the media last month. So, the future of women’s-only electorates in one of the world’s worst examples of parliamentary gender parity is therefore unfortunately reduced to just so much political squabbling. It may well fall victim to this tug of war game and not see the light of day until at least after the upcoming elections in the middle of this year.

Over in Polynesia, Samoa is also experimenting with a similar policy. A bill guaranteeing seats for women in its parliament was tabled last month. Called the Constitution Amendment Bill 2012, it proposes to guarantee women 10 percent of parliamentary seats.

If passed, five of parliament’s 49 seats would be guaranteed for women, starting with the next election. If, however, no woman is elected, five women candidates who get the highest number of votes would be allocated seats and will be called additional members. The Opposition has already criticised the bill as a political ploy of the ruling party, setting the scene for a fierce debate of the bill in the next parliamentary session due in March. It will come as no surprise if it is scuttled because of petty politics.

Meanwhile, the Kiribati elections last month saw three women elected to parliament including Teima Onorio, who has been elected Vice President of the country. She will also handle the internal affairs portfolio.

While this indeed is a welcome development, the re-elected President Tong publicly raised doubt of the idea of reserving parliamentary seats for women: “… I just wonder whether it would be democratic to put as a matter of law that women must have reserved seats. I think what we must always be careful of is that culture and tradition must be ready to accept that,” he told the media.

Despite his contention, there is proof that reserving seats has worked in the French Pacific. After new laws reserving places for women in parliament were adopted in New Caledonia and French Polynesia, women’s electoral representation has seen a rise from 17% to 46% in the former and from 12% to 48% in the latter.

It is high time other Pacific leaders take a leaf out of this book and live up to their male dominated society’s faux belief that women really have a pride of place in their societies.

[Islands Business  ]

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