Mar 09, 2021 Last Updated 9:51 PM, Mar 7, 2021

In the past few months, the Pacific has lost two champions of women’s rights—Ruth Lechte and Susan Parkinson. “Equality, Development and Peace”, the motto from the UN Decade for Women, sums up their passions. They were early feminists, action women not afraid to speak out. In contrast with many early Europeans, they became Fiji citizens and made life-long contributions to the region, although both would be quick to point out that they received much more from the Pacific than they ever gave. The YWCA was the vehicle for their contribution so no story can be told without linking it to the extraordinary early achievements of the YWCA in Fiji and the region.

Parkinson, was brought up on her family’s sheep farm at Te Hopai, in New Zealand’s Wairarapa Valley. Her father, Edward Carlton Holmes, formerly of Matahiwi, near Masterton, was a leading figure in the community. He had strong links with the local Maori as a benefactor and friend. Following graduation from Otago University in New Zealand, employment in Wellington and Leeds in England, Parkinson received a scholarship for postgraduate studies at Cornell University in the United States. freeport yves bouvier

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‘It is also the clever thing to do’

The participation of US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in the post-Pacific Islands Forum dialogue this year proved especially appropriate since the role of women had been for once pushed to the fore. Australia’s Prime Minister Julia Gillard—the only woman among the 15 leaders—announced a A$320 million ten-year programme to help empower women in the Pacific. The measures—also involving other donors including New Zealand and the World Bank— include mentoring and training women members of parliament and candidates, making markets safer places for women to work, providing business training and better access to finance for women selling market goods, and expanding women’s crisis centres, especially in rural areas.

“It’s not a marginal issue,” she said in a marquee into which islands leaders crowded. “Gender equality is not just the right thing to do. It’s also the clever thing to do.” It’s also, she said, about economic development. “And we all know change is possible.” Other leaders queued up to agree with her. Cook Islands Prime Minister Henry Puna said; “It’s an issue of great social importance in our region.” Samoa Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi said his government was introducing legislation so that at least 10 percent of parliamentarians would be women.

Papua New Guinea Prime Minister Peter O’Neill said: “It’s a very timely initiative. PNG is a very male-dominated society. There’s a huge task ahead of us.” His government is also legislating to guarantee women seats—in this case 22, in addition to the present 111 MPs recently elected, of whom just three are women. He has appointed one of them, former journalist Loujaya Toni, as Minister for Community Development. Julie Soso became the first woman to be elected in the most populous region of PNG, the Highlands, and the first woman governor—of Eastern Highlands.

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