State of women in politics in the Pacific - Sharon Bhagwan

Email Print
05 March 2010
Fuimaono Tei
Fuimaono Tei

Pacific parliaments remain notoriously under-represented by women.  While electoral systems such as New Zealand’s MMP system are entry points for women in a country which gave women the vote in 1842 and has already boasted two female prime ministers, in other parts of the Pacific, the difficulty of introducing temporary special measures remain. These were the issues raised in a Pacific panel event at the UN Commission of the Status of Women, in New York. It featured the Minister of Women from Samoa, Fiame Naomi Mata’afa and Pansy Wong, Minister for Women’s Affairs and Minister for Ethnic Affairs, New Zealand.

“There are quite a few things that the Pacific is famous for,” said Fiame.
“But one thing that we are infamous for is being the least represented by women in the world.” 

Fiame said that while there are several reasons for the low numbers, campaigns dating back to the Decade for Women (1975-1985) to improve the numbers in parliament have certainly worked to address the gap.
“I know that the issue of women in decision making, women in politics was one of the concerns, and at that time, there was a problem with data, as we still have,” she said.

“But the writings at the time suggested that there might be a correlation between the level of development of a country and the rate of representation by women.
“I would think that is a fair comment in terms of what is happening in the Pacific, and the level of development in our respective countries.”
Fiame noted, however, that indeed the experience in the Pacific is varied.

There had been consistent increases in representation by women in parliament in Fiji, up until the last coup there, noting there had been two entry points since the 1970s, including the appointment of women to the Senate (Upper House) which complemented the election of women into the House of Representatives.
During the past few years, significant achievements have been made in the Pacific in advancing gender equality through increased women’s representation in the political sphere.

With the initial pioneering example of the creation of three reserved seats for women in the Constitution of the Autonomous Region of Bougainville, and more recently the proposed legislation for reserved seats for women in the national parliament of Papua New Guinea, we now have beacons of lights, showing the way forward for other Pacific Island Countries to fulfil their commitments to advance gender equality.

Discussions for introducing similar measures in Federated States of Micronesia and Solomon Islands are further sources of inspiration and hope for change. These leading governments and progressive gender equality advocates working from within government and in civil society are to be congratulated.
Pacific Island Countries are ranked lowest in the world on women’s representation in national parliaments and local governments.
Only 4.1 percent of Pacific parliamentarians are women despite governments signing up to international commitments to advance gender equality through the ratification of the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and the Beijing Platform for Action (BPfA). 

These and other commitments made by Pacific Governments stress that the percentage of either men or women should be at least 30 percent to allow for meaningful representation by gender and the contribution of men and women’s values and perspectives to national debates, decision-making and legislating in parliament.
In Samoa, there are four women in parliament. Fiji elected six female MPs last elections, but ground gained was lost again when parliament was dissolved in 2006.

There is only one woman out of 109 members of parliament in Papua New Guinea. In Vanuatu, Cook Islands and Kiribati, only two women are in parliament, and the numbers are even lower for the other countries, with one woman in parliament in Tonga and the Marshall Islands, and zero women represented in Nauru, Palau, Federated States of Micronesia, Solomon Islands and Tuvalu. At the world scale, only 18.8 % of members of parliament are women, even though they represent half of the world’s population.

Women’s active participation at all levels of politics and governance is critical to the achievement of the Millennium Development Goal 3 (MDG 3) promoting gender equality and the empowerment of women, and this participation and contribution of women is fundamental to the achievement of all other MDGs.
Furthermore, international evidence shows that a higher number of women in politics contributes to bringing different values, perspectives, knowledge and experiences into policy development and legislation.

Rita Taphorn, UNIFEM
UNIFEM's Regional Programme Manager in the Gender Equality in Political Governance Programme (GEPG),says that increased representation of women in politics could provide “transformative leadership” by shaping new priorities and agenda for Pacific Governments, and by ensuring progress in achieving gender equality in all areas of policy-making, and ideally applying principles of gender response budgeting.

Increasing women’s political representation is also a fundamental principle of democracy and respect of human rights.
Fast-tracking women’s representation in parliament can be supported through Temporary Special Measures (TSM) such as the introduction of reserved seats for women or political party quotas for women to be nominated as party candidates.

“UNIFEM’s GEPG is providing technical assistance on the adoption of such measures, to increase the dismally low representation of women in Pacific parliament as well as other strategies of mass and multi-level education, advocacy and lobbying to strengthen women’s contribution as active citizens and leaders in the Pacific,” says Taphorn.

UNIFEM’s Gender and Governance programme is conducting workshops and trainings to provide information and education in democracy, governance and elections, and is working together with parliamentary bodies, NGO’s representatives, electoral bodies and women’s departments in the Pacific Island Countries, with the objective of sensitizing on the importance of women’s leadership and participation.

Except for the French territories which have adopted the parity law to increase women’s representation in parliament, the Autonomous Region of Bougainville is the only place in the Pacific where seats are reserved for women in the assembly (parliament). Bougainville is the first place in the Pacific having a specific clause in its Constitution for three reserved seats for women in the Bougainville Assembly.

Other countries in the region are already following this example or are planning to do so. In Papua New Guinea, the only woman currently sitting in Parliament – Dame Carol Kidu, Minister for Community Affairs and Women’s Desk – has been advocating for many years for strategies to change the situation, such as TSM. After years of advocacy, lobbying, research, discussions and debate, hopes are now high for PNG to make a national level breakthrough.

The PNG Cabinet finally gave support for tabling the proposed bill for establishing 22 reserved seats for women in the next two years, before the next national elections in 2012. If the initiative is approved by Parliament in April 2010, 17% of seats in PNG’s Parliament will then be guaranteed for women. This landmark legislation would have to be voted by an absolute majority of 83 out of 109 MP’s votes.

Discussions on the adoption of TSM are also taking place in Federated States of Micronesia, Marshall Islands and Cook Islands to sensitize governments about such catalytic strategies to introduce more women into political and legislative bodies. In Solomon Islands, advocates for an increased representation of women in parliament will soon restart the discussions, after a first setback when their Cabinet rejected the proposed Bill for reserved seats for women, largely because they wanted time to understand it better themselves first.

All Pacific Island Countries have been encouraged, are now aware of the existence of TSM and have been reminded of their accountability to make these changes, based on their national commitments to gender equality.
Reasons for women’s participation in governments remaining low vary from entrenched patriarchal attitudes systems, social and cultural prejudices and corruption in politics to economic dependence of women and a lack of exposure training opportunities for women and.

All Pacific Island States – except Nauru, Palau and Tonga – have ratified CEDAW and endorsed the Beijing Platform for Action (BPfA), and therefore are accountable to advancing equal rights for women and men, and the empowerment of women. The most critical factor in bringing about change is the gap between commitments and implementation by Pacific Island Governments.

Taphorn stresses that promoting and increasing women’s participation in the public life won’t be achieved without setting clear strategies and priorities at the national level or without a coordinated lobby and action across the region. “A united call for more concrete actions, legislations, policies, budgetary allocations to support women’s entry in politics are needed”, she adds.

In the Autonomous Region of Bougainville, three elected reserved seats guarantee a minimum of three women being represented in parliament. At the upcoming elections, Bougainville could, once again, serve as an example for the rest of the countries in the Pacific. It is important that everyone understands that more women can alsoSstand for elections in the remaining open seats, in addition to competing for the three reserved seats.

[Samoan Observer - Sharaon Bhagwan and Secretariat of the Pacific Community; see also Fiji Times Online]

Return to top