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Lack of Pacific women MPs ‘worst in world’, say advocates

Carmel Sepuloni

Labour MP Carmel Sepuloni ... priority changes needed for women to have an impact on Pacific health issues. Photo: Victoria Young / PMC

Pacific Scoop:
Special report: The dominance of men at the Pacific Islands Forum is a“scandal” that highlights the absence of Parliamentarian women, say women’s groups. Victoria Young reports.

An Australian aid strategist has criticised the lack of women political representation in the Pacific, saying six of the 10 countries that have no female parliamentarians are in this region.

“It is a scandal that just under three percent of all elected leaders in the Pacific are women. This is the lowest percentage in the world,” says Dr Meredith Burgmann, president of the Australian Council for International Development (ACFID),

“The Pacific region is now officially far worse on women’s parliamentary equality than the Gulf states.”

PIF 40 years logoEarlier this week, Shamima Ali, executive director of the Fiji Women’s Crisis Centre, slammed the nature of Pacific Island leadership, labelling it “an old boys club”.

Carmel Sepuloni, chair of the Commonwealth Women Parliamentarians Group, says changes are needed to fix the worst representation of women in the world.

The NZ Labour MP says elected females are part of the solution needed to address important issues such as maternal health and domestic violence and sexual violence.

“If we don’t have women and the decision making tables in these countries then how can we prioritise issues effecting women?”

Sepuloni, who is the only Pacific Island female in the NZ Parliament, says change is slow but should be a priority.

“I’ve talked to government ministers from other Pacific countries on this issue and I’ve heard things like, ‘Why should we let women in, what next, gay people?’”

Campaigning difficulties
Sepuloni told an audience at a Women’s Rights and Advocacy in the Pacific (WRAP) event held alongside the Pacific Islands Forum that campaigning issues such as access to different groups and spaces affect women’s ability to become elected.

Helen Hekana from Bougainville’s Leitana Nehan Women’s Development Agency says money for campaigning is hard to come by and there are logistical problems campaigning across long distances.

Helen Hakana

Bougainville's Helen Hekana ... money for campaigning is hard to come by. Photo: Victoria Young / PMC

“We didn’t have money. We used friends, we mobilised friends who took us from village to village because we didn’t have the budget.”

Sepuloni says earlier this year Solomon Islands Prime Minister Danny Phillips announced that he would include reserved seats for women in the Parliament.

While many French-administered states already have electoral parity laws, Sepuloni says if the change takes place it could “really influence” electoral reform in the rest of the Pacific.

She says funding was accepted by the Solomon Islands government by the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association for electoral reform but changes are yet to be made.

Joycelyn Lai, a Young Women’s Christian Association Solomon Islands representative, says she is unsure about what Phillips will say.

“If they are serious about reserving seats for women that would be very good, very good, but as far as I know in terms of working with women I think we have a long way to go.”

Educating men
Helen Hekana from Bougainville’s Leitana Nehan Women’s Development Agency says while she has campaigned hard for three contestable seats for women, men still need to be educated.

“When we give special seats to women, they seem to think these are the only seats women can contest. And when women contest outside of those seats they say you are getting into men’s spaces.”

Dr Teresia Teaiwa, a Pacific Studies lecturer at Victoria University, says that attitudes towards female representation in Parliament are likely to be part of a very slow cultural change.

“You will always get some people who will say it doesn’t matter that we don’t need women in Parliament, we can influence from behind.”

Siava Tekafa

Tuvalu's Siava Tekafa ... "we call ourselves implementers". Photo: Victoria Young / PMC

Siava Tekafa from the National Women’s Council of Tuvalu says there are attitudes toward women of having dual roles and taking care of the families.

“We call ourselves implementers, we just wait for the men to say what to do and then we carry out the decisions.”

Being a female politician
Former Fiji cabinet minister Ema Tagicakibau, who is now a PhD student at Auckland University, says it is important that women who get elected remember what women’s concerns are, otherwise it is “back to square one for us”.

“It is one thing to get into Parliament, the other thing is to ensure that these women understand the issues that we really want. You know the interests and the needs that they represent so that they don’t just go in and behave like male politicians.”

Tagicakibau, who served in 1999 among eight other female MPs – the largest women representation in a Fiji Parliament – says while it was a great time for women in politics, there were challenges.

“You were bound by your political party agenda, and then if that party gets into government then collision with other parties, more and more male stream and male-centred policies come into place. And you struggle to keep afloat.”

The United Nations Secretary General Ban-ki announced earlier in the week leaders have vowed to improve gender inequalities but it is unclear at this stage how democratic participation could be increased.

Victoria Young is a Postgraduate Diploma in Communication Studies student on the Asia-Pacific Journalism course at AUT University.

Victoria Young on women and the Pacific Islands Forum on 95bFM

Solomon Islands' Joycelyn Lai  ... "we have a long way to go for women." Photo: Victoria Young / PMC