The Pacific Islands region has often figured at the bottom of global gender parity statistics. The region has the fewest women parliamentarians, at no time in their histories since independence more than a handful collectively. In countries like Vanuatu and Federated States of Micronesia, their tally is zero while the best they have been able to muster is just over eight per cent of elected representatives in Kiribati. There are fewer women than anywhere else holding jobs or who are in entrepreneurship in the formal sector. This is despite Pacific Island politicians’ occasional boasts about the pride of place women enjoy in Pacific culture. In fact, politicians in some Polynesian countries used this argument to justify not ratifying the United Nations’ Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) a few years ago.
Ratifying the CEDAW treaty commits nations to take action to end discrimination against women and girls and affirm principles of fundamental human rights and equality for women and girls. Two Pacific Island nations still figure in the list of only seven countries in the world that are yet to ratify CEDAW – Tonga and Palau. But there are more than straws in the wind indicating change may be round the corner. Two years ago, Pacific Island leaders pledged to work toward gender parity in their island nations. Samoa passed a law ensuring ten per cent reservation for women in parliament. It finally is beginning to appear that the politicians are putting their money where their mouths are: At this year’s Pacific Islands Forum meeting in July, the leaders announced a woman to head the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat – the first ever time in its four decade old history.
What is more, Papua New Guinea’s Dame Meg Taylor, who will take the helm of the region’s most important inter-governmental organisation as Secretary General later this year, will have two women Deputies Secretary General as well. This situation is unprecedented in Pacific Island history. It has been lauded around the world as the leaders’ genuine efforts to promote gender parity in a region where there hasn’t been much progress in the matter. It’s only ironical that the near unanimous decision was made at a meeting in Palau, which is yet to ratify CEDAW. Perhaps there is a message in it for its leaders? It is hoped that this development will set off a trend of greater women’s participation in public affairs throughout the region, rather than turning out to be a single event wonder. The ducks seem to be lining up for this to happen. Nauru elected a woman to its parliament after thirty years, while the Cook Islands saw three women being elected in its July election.
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• We Say is compiled and edited by Samisoni Pareti