Women stirring the political current in Chuuk

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01st February, 2017

By Silvia Cosier (https://chuffed.org/project/women-stirring-the-political-current-in-chuuk)

Growing numbers of women may be taking their places in political life around the world, but in many parts of the world, their numbers are woefully small. Women in politics are a rarity in the Pacific, and non-existent in Chuuk in the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM).

Women make up only 6% of MPs in national Parliaments, compared to the world average of 23%. The view that politics is for men is pervasive in the FSM and the wider region. And in 2017 in the FSM, there is not a single female member of the national legislature, and only one in all of the four state bodies. Gardenia Aisek and Cindy Mori aim to change that.

They want to give women in Chuuk political representation, to swell the tide of change needed for political, social and economic reform, and to support other women to makes their voices heard. They will stand as senate candidates in the Chuuk state election on March 7th. What a statement to make the day before International Women’s Day!! Especially when IWD’s theme this year is: Be Bold for Change!

Campaigning is challenging and expensive

Campaigning in Chuuk presents unique challenges. It involves covering a lot of territory, much of it across water to small islands. Radio and TV advertising doesn’t exist and Chuuk doesn’t have a newspaper. There’s Facebook of course, but that doesn’t reach everyone. The most effective campaign strategy is ‘face-to-face’ meetings and door knocking for reaching out to prospective voters.

Meetings are the mainstay of political campaigns in Chuuk and there’s an expectation that attendees will be catered for with morning or afternoon refreshments and lunch. It’s the Chuukese way. A political candidate who ignored these customs wouldn’t get off the starting blocks. And the only way to get to the islands for meetings and ‘door knocking’ is by boat. We’re not talking flash, cushy boats – just boats with an outboard motor, a couple of planks for sitting on and no canopy. But they use fuel and cost money to hire; and campaign materials also need to be produced to get the message to voters.

There’s no political party or organisation in Chuuk to help Gardenia and Cindy fund their campaign – to date they’ve been funding it themselves by turning their not very deep pockets inside out, and gratefully accepting whatever help they’ve been able to muster from family. Kitty is looking very empty.

But it’s critical to keep the momentum going. Gardenia and Cindy need to be out and about and visible, getting their message across, and winning voter support right up to election day. After the election, whatever the outcome, Cindy and Gardenia must make return visits to thank supporters and keep support and hope strong.

Why it matters

Like so many of the Pacific’s island nations, the FSM has a long history of forced occupation and exploitation. First settled by the ancestors of the Micronesians over 4,000 years ago, the islands are only now emerging from centuries of colonisation. Between the early 16th century and WWI, the islands were visted by the Portuguese in the 1520s in search of the “spice islands”, then occupied by the Spanish in 1565, and then the Germans, at which point the area was incorporated into German New Guinea. During WWI, the islands were captured by Japan, and administered under the South Pacific Mandate of the League of Nations. From the end of WWII to the 1980s they were part of the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands administered by the US under charter from the UN. In 1986, the FSM signed a Compact of Free Association with the US, but not until 1990 was independence formally concluded under international law.

And like all developing nations, FSM faces ongoing challenges in relation to health, education, economic growth, employment, and both women’s needs and their potential to play a critical role in the development of the nation, are often the last thing to be addressed.

The 2013 Pacific Regional MDGs Tracking Report notes that FSM is off-track in achieving MDG 1 Eradication of Poverty. There is evidence of growing hardship with Chuuk having the highest proportion of its population below the Basic National Poverty Line, a state of affairs exacerbated by FSM being one of the nations most directly threatened by long-term global warming, particularly vulnerable to accelerated sea-level rise, and to more frequent, intense, or longer-lasting El Nino cycles.

Women’s economic participation remains low and, in comparison to all other members of the Pacific Islands Forum, FSM has the lowest percentage of women in paid employment in the non-agricultural sector. (www.forumsec.org/…/2013_Pac_Regional_MDGs_Tracking_Report_FINAL.pdf)

Rates of violence against women are high. “Despite the attention given to domestic violence at those times when a woman is maimed or killed, women leaders argue that it is not generally acknowledged as a community problem. “We live with domestic violence every day in the FSM,” one of the women remarked, “but people’s general response is silent acceptance.” In the eyes of another woman, it is “a hidden shame and a secret.” (http://www.micsem.org/pubs/conferences/frames/domviofr.htm)

Chuukese women are generally expected to be submissive and defer to men when it comes to public debate and political decision-making. For example, women who are high-level public servants are expected to speak softly, and in a deferential manner, when attending events such as parliamentary committee briefings or statutory board meetings. Women are expected to respond to questions, not ask them. Speaking assertively or out of turn or correcting, or expressing a contrary view to a Senator, a Representative or male Board member is frowned upon as being disrespectful and not in keeping with ‘our culture’.

It wasn’t always like that… what happened?

Myjolynne Kim, a Chuukese cultural history researcher, explains that Chuukese history and traditions present women as important and powerful decision-makers and leaders. But, like the rest of the Federated Staes of Micronesia, Chuuk experienced centuries of cultural change under successive colonial regimes and interactions with missionaries, traders and whalers. Such changes and foreign influences redefined Chuukese women as silent, submissive and subordinate – to this day these traits have submerged their Chuukese identity.

Chuukese women are hence discouraged from participating in politics and in public decision-making on the basis of their “post-colonial cultural identity”, and the common belief that such participation disrespects men and Chuukese culture.

It’s time to be bold for change …

And that’s exactly what Gardenia and Cindy aim to do.

It’s not just about winning a seat in the Senate – though that alone would be history making and a significant step for Chuukese women’s empowerment and towards gender equity. But getting elected is just the starting point. There’s so much more they intend to tackle once they take their places in the Senate:

– promoting gender equity across the board;
– tackling rampant domestic violence and rape (guess who gets blamed);
– improving education (deplorable), hospital and health services (go to another country if you can afford it);
– promoting economic development (woefully lacking), and addressing climate change (little if any government action currently).

And these are just some of the issues that need inspired, indomitable and passionate reform champions – women like Gardenia Aisek and Cindy Mori.

Both Cindy and Gardenia are highly articulate women who aren’t afraid to be outspoken. They’re well versed in Chuukese politics and how government works. Both women have a strong track record of actively working to advance the position of women in Chuuk and of advocating for reform; they have lobbied for education and health reforms and have led and organized community events such as National Women’s Conferences. Through their activism, leadership and passion, they have been an inspiration to Chuukese women and youth.

They are also primary supporters and providers for their families and extended families. This means they also serve as benefactors, mentors and advisors to their families, village chiefs and wider family circles. In standing for election they are reasserting their traditional roles in a matrilineal Chuukese society: they are making a statement that women are Nien Aroor (leaders) who have a voice and place in politics and political decision-making.

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