OUR OCEAN, OUR HERITAGE, OUR FUTURE: EMPOWERING ALL WOMEN IN THE BLUE PACIFIC CONTINENT
The Pacific Ocean lies at the heart of Pacific women’s identities, ways and knowledge, and is a source of cultural and material empowerment.
It was with this knowledge that more than 1000 people participated in the 14th Triennial Conference of Pacific Women in April. From across the Blue Pacific continent and beyond, government delegations, civil society, development partners, academia, the private sector and other stakeholders logged in or convened in small groups to talk about issues critical to the future of Pacific women.
The Triennial was followed by the 7th Meeting of Pacific Ministers for Women on May 4. Again, participation represented a wide range of Pacific Community (SPC) members – Australia, Cook Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, Fiji, France, French Polynesia, Guam, Kiribati, Nauru, New Caledonia, New Zealand, Palau, Republic of the Marshall Islands, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu, United States of America, Vanuatu and Wallis and Futuna.
So after four days of discussions, what were the outcomes and what is the way forward?
The meeting produced a large number of action points requiring cooperation and collaboration across all sectors of Pacific societies. As host, French Polynesia’s Minister for Women, Hon. Isabelle Sachet said, “The added challenges of COVID-19 and climate change on women and girls within our various countries, will make our work even harder. However, we have taken a bold step by accepting this Outcomes Document. In 3 years’ time we will look back at this process and what we agreed on through this virtual meeting with pride.”
“This work is for all women and girls in the Pacific. Those who carry most of the responsibility for holding our societies together during the pandemic, be it at home, in health care, at school, markets and across all fields. For the women and girls who face or are at risk of gender-based violence. For the women and girls who experience poverty and struggle to have economic security and protection. For the women and girls who are constantly impacted by climate crisis. For the women who strive to combine professional lives with increased burdens of unpaid care. For the women and girls living with disabilities. And for women and girls in all diversity,” said Fiji’s Minister for Women, Children and Poverty Alleviation, Mereseini Vuniwaqa. This work should be strengthened by an Australian Government pledge of A$170 million (US$132 million) to strengthen gender equality initiatives over the next five years.
“If we ensure women’s economic security, we ensure their safety. We promote their health and well-being that’s not only of benefit to women and girls but to their entire communities,” said Australia’s Minister for Foreign Affairs and Women Marise Payne while announcing the support.
“The focus that you all showed today is a testament on the key priority that your governments place on addressing gender equality in our region,” said the Director General of the Pacific Community (SPC), Dr Stuart Minchin at the end of the conference. “There needs to be greater ownership of this Outcomes Document. We need to work together to ensure that we bring life to its words. The commitment shown by you during the Conference and in today’s Ministerial Meeting reassures me that you have every intention to take ownership.”
ENDING VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN AND GIRLS
Gender-based violence is a scourge of the Pacific. It can take the form of physical or sexual violence at the hands of partners, non-partner sexual assault, sexual exploitation and trafficking, and can arise through practices such as accusations of sorcery. Its root causes are gender inequality, unequal gender power relations, privilege and patriarchy.
Statistically, Pacific Islands women are more likely to suffer violence than women in other parts of the world. COVID-19 has made a bad situation worse. The WHO says on average, 35% of women express gender-based violence (GBV). In the Pacific, this figure can be as high as 70%.
The rate of intimate partner physical and/or sexual violence for women is also high in our region. Women and girls with disabilities can experience up to 10 times more gender-based violence than those without disabilities.
“It is a mark of embarrassment on our region and a prime hurdle to achieve inclusive, equitable and sustainable development. Pacific women and girls are targeted at home as well as in their workplace, in schools, hospital, sport fields, universities and places of worships, on the street and online. It happens everywhere,” Fiji’s Minister for Women told the conference.
From the Solomon Islands, Director of Women Vaela Ngai spoke of the importance of SafeNet, a referral network of gender-based violence support services, coordinated by the Solomon Islands Ministry of Women, Youth, Children and Family Affairs, that aims to ensure survivors of gender-based violence can access the support services they need, when they need it.
“The SafeNet roll out process to the provinces has been one of great learning for us in the Solomons,” Ngai told delegates, speaking of how they are tailoring the model to the circumstances of rural and remote communities, for example, using phone trees and social media during COVID-19 related lockdowns and restrictions.
There has been progress elsewhere. A Papua New Guinea parliamentary committee is holding its first ever inquiry into gender-based violence, with public hearings to look into funding how to make a mooted GBV secretariat effective, justice system responses and the government’s position on gender-based parliamentary seats.
Fiji has developed a five-year National Action Plan to prevent violence against all women and girls. It’s a whole of government, whole of population, inclusive, funded and evidence-based approach to prevent violence against all women and girls before it starts.
And innovative programs ranging from sports-focused education and awareness initiatives such as ‘Get into Rugby’ where “boys learn to respect and treat girls as their equals”, to curriculum and education interventions, to church and faith based initiatives are growing across the region.
The meeting resolved that governments and their partners to take specific action to end violence against women and girls and increase support and services to survivors. It called for:
- Stronger partnerships between civil society and governments at all levels;
- Investment in GBV prevention programs that work with children and young people in formal and informal education settings;
- GBV prevention programs that are based on positive masculinities, respect for women and girls, understanding of consent;
- More resourcing for all GBV programs to reflect the enormity of the problem;
- Balance between prevention, survivor responses and support, criminal justice responses and rehabilitation or perpetrators;
- More support for crisis centres, safe houses and referral networks, including shelter, counselling, medical and financial support, and training towards financial independence;
- Stronger laws, definitions and criminal penalties;
- Training for health officials, counsellors, government officials and all levels, police and other first responders to ensure survivors are centred in GBV response.
WOMEN’S ECONOMIC EMPOWERMENT: FUNDAMENTAL FOR DEVELOPMENT
“Women’s economic empowerment is a development game changer. The more women participate in a formal or informal economy, the more prosperous families, communities, and countries become,” said Dr Mareva Lechat Kitalong, Adviser and Legal Counsel, Office of the President, French Polynesia at the 14th Triennial Conference of Pacific Women.
Across the region, men outnumber women in paid work two to one and in Melanesia, women occupy just one-third of all jobs in the formal economy. Men generally earn 20-50% more than women. Women also suffer from an unequal burden of work with greater responsibilities in the home, family and community.
For Evonne Kennedy, Executive Director at the Business Coalition of Women in Papua New Guinea, family and sexual violence, sexual harassment, and workplace health and safety has affected Women’s Economic Empowerment. The Business Coalition has developed policies that businesses can adopt or adapt to their own needs. Kennedy says: “getting the buy in and leaders need to be understanding how this is impacting their organisations, and the business community at large,” is key.
The founder of French Polynesian start-up Speak Tahiti, Heiura Itae-Tetaa, told the Conference about her own experiences as a business founder: “To be an island woman in the middle of the Pacific is an asset. And I do believe in the potential of island communities and I am deeply convinced as I’ve proved it that our language, our culture is our wealth and that it can actually be the key to opportunities.”
And Adi Maimalaga Tafunai, a pioneering business leader, co-founder and executive director of Women in Business Development in Samoa, also spoke of the importance of culture: “The Pacific is made up of about 22 island countries which means 22 cultures and every one of our cultures does things in different ways, and it’ll be important for us if we’re going to look at gathering the data that we pay attention to this work focusing on our women, our youth, our people with disabilities and the way the culture focuses on them.”
The conference and ministerial called for measures to ensure:
- Women can better participate in all sectors of the economy;
- The value of women’s work is equally acknowledged, valued and remunerated;
- Women have equitable access to social protection policies and programs;
- Informal sector workers and migrant workers have decent paid work and safe workplaces;
- Barriers to women’s access to credit and financial services are reduced;
- Inclusive education and financial literacy training that can help transition women to formal employment;
- Protection of the rights of domestic workers and caregivers;
- Unpaid care and domestic work is recognised and valued through public services, infrastructure and social protection policies;
- Strengthened business leadership by women through targeted support;
- Women’s education, training and employment in science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and information and communications technology, and the development of pathways for them into critical industries;
- Reasonable accommodation and flexible working hours for women;
- Access to safe and efficient transport to and from places of work for women;
- Comprehensive maternity and parental leave that promotes equal recognition of the parenting roles of women and men, as well as safe, affordable and accessible early childhood care.
“We know that people who are the most affected by the impacts of climate change are the ones who depend on natural resources for their livelihoods, live in hardship, do not have financial security, have less mobility, have fewer choices, and have less opportunity to voice their concerns. Overall, there are more women than men suffering from those situations. Moreover, when there is a crisis, there are more domestic violence cases; again, women are the principal victims. Despite this, we still struggle to find the right way to implement climate change strategies that have a tangible impact on women’s lives. I believe that progressing gender equality and empowering women are critical if we want to develop the resilience of our communities. We do need to encourage their leadership and make available the resources they need for their economic security. We have to make sure that they are safe from the adverse impacts of climate change and safe from violence in their home. We must tap into the energy of our youth and the innovations they proposed.“
PUTTING WOMEN AT THE CENTRE OF CLIMATE CHANGE RESPONSES
The 14th Triennial Conference of Pacific Women with acknowledging that climate change is the single greatest threat to the well-being, security and livelihoods of Pacific people, has called for a gender responsive approach to the climate crisis that encourages women’s meaningful participation at a stages of climate change policies, strategies and plans.
The communique calls for traditional knowledge to be recognised, that governments meet social and environmental safeguards when applying for climate financing, that knowledge hubs be established to improve inclusion and sharing of knowledge, and that women and girls are assured of gender-based violence and sexual and reproductive health rights information and services during times of crisis.
And in a resolution that holds true for all the areas discussed by the Triennial and Women’s Conference, it states that stakeholders “recognise that recovery efforts in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic present an opportunity to transform our societies and to place women, especially the most marginalised, at the heart of climate change and crisis responses and the transition to a green economy.”
A TIME FOR ACTION ON
Women in leadership and decision-making
Globally the Pacific has the lowest representation of women in local governments and national parliaments. “We can see women hold 9% of Board Chair positions, 22% of board director seats and 12% of CEO positions across the Pacific. This compares quite favourably with global averages, but those global averages are themselves very low,” the Asian Development Bank’s Sarah Boxall told the conference.
The meetings agreed to:
- Adopt measures to increase women’s participation in all levels of leadership and decision making;
- Support ongoing efforts of the private sector to create and strengthen leadership pathways;
- Actively involve women and girls in crisis response and recovery decisions;
- Ensure women’s access to essential services during crisis situations.
Sex-, age-, and disability-disaggregated data and statistics (SADDD)
“Data and statistics that adequately reflect the lived realities of all women and girls of the Pacific — gender statistics for short — are critical and indispensable tools for developing evidence-based policies, legislation and solutions to achieve gender equality and empowerment of all women and girls,” says Fiji’s Minister for Women, Mereseini Vuniwaqa.
The meetings agreed to:
- Establish mechanisms to identify gender-sensitive and socially inclusive sex-, age- and disability-disaggregated data and statistics gaps, and plans to address and fill gaps;
- Ensure National Statistics Offices are given the responsibility and resourced to lead the culturally responsive collection, management and analysis of SADDD and work with decision makers to inform policy and planning.
Intergenerational dialogue and marginalised groups dialogue and perspectives
- Ensure national plans, policies and legislation are developed through participatory processes that include the perspectives of all marginalised groups in the community, including women and youth.
Collaboration and communication
- Work with partners in media and communications to ensure messages consistent with gender equality and women’s rights;
- Strengthen coordination and partnerships in all measures taken to advance gender equality and women’s rights, including ongoing dialogue and collaboration with civil society, traditional and faith-based leaders and organisations, and communities.
The 14th Triennial Conference of Pacific Women and 7th Meeting of Pacific Ministers for Women has successfully concluded, but the work continues. To stay up to date with how this work is being implemented, visit www.spc.int/human-rights-and-social-development-hrsd