Pacific Scoop

UN community ‘genuinely concerned’ over Pacific women’s rights, says Kedgley

PNG women protest

Papua New Guinean women and children protest over recent brutal gender attacks over allegations of sorcery. Image: One PNG

Pacific Scoop:
Report – By Michael Sergel and Finian Scott

The United Nations and the international community have a “genuine and general concern” about the rights and representation of women in Pacific nations, says UN Women New Zealand spokesperson Sue Kedgley.

During the Pacific Parliamentary and Political Leaders Forum in Wellington, delegates from 18 countries overwhelmingly supported a motion to promote gender equality proposed by Samoan cabinet minister Fiame Naomi Mata’afa.

But Papua New Guinea’s Oro Province governor Gary Juffa accused the UN of painting his countrymen as “thugs who beat their women” and Vanuatu cabinet minister Ralph Regenvanu said serious steps to increase the political representation of women “cannot come from the United Nations”.

APJlogo72_iconKedgley, a former New Zealand Green MP, says Juffa’s comments were “probably an overreaction” and both colonial and traditional values needed to change to improve the conditions of women across the region.

She says the low number of women in Parliament, the high levels of violence, and the legal recognition of polygamous relationships were obvious examples of how far some Pacific nations had to go to achieve gender equality.

“Women desperately need change, but that change is unlikely to come unless women are elected to Parliament in sufficient number to be able to put women’s issues on the political agenda,” she says.

Julie Soso, the female Governor of Papua New Guinea’s Eastern Highlands Province, has told Radio New Zealand’s Johnny Blades that progress is being made in the country – but there is a long way to go.

‘Gaining momentum’
“We are gaining momentum now. Our menfolk are being sensitised already on equal participation, with 15 years of the National Council of Women and other non-government organisations talking about equality and human rights,” she says.

But she says issues like the burning of suspected sorcerers – which is particularly common in her province – can only be addressed by a substantial change in cultural attitudes.

Kedgley says the sorcery issue provides the perfect example of how gender equality does not exist in Papua New Guinea – and that it is entirely appropriate that the international community make gender equality a guiding principle in their aid and diplomacy with the Pacific.

“Our government – through aid and other means – helps to promote gender inequality in the Pacific. But all the research shows that gender equality is critical to development and to growth of the economy,” she says.

“Women must be able to participate economically and politically, and make choices for themselves.”

While Pacific countries have signed up to declarations of gender equality, she believes it is essential that governments implement the declarations and do not just agree to “purely empty platitudes”.

A real commitment will involve political leadership, institutional change, and providing women with opportunities to start small businesses, she says.

Subservient role
She says colonial and indigenous traditions, including some people’s religious beliefs, were being used justify the subservience of women. But she does not believe gender inequality is or should be inherent to any culture or religion.

“I believe traditions are being used to keep women in subservient roles. In the 21st century, there needs to be acceptance that women do not have an inherently subservient role.”

Former Family Planning International director Sumi Subramaniam’s calls for greater family planning resources and reproductive healthcare in the Pacific received a mixed response from delegates and observers during the forum.

A journalist from the gallery shouted abuse at Subramaniam, while Niuan MP Va’aiga Tukuitonga raised genuine concerns that family planning was a cause of overpopulation.

But Samoan cabinet minister Fiame Naomi Mata’afa said she and her government were committed to promoting family planning, and Kedgely says reproductive healthcare is a human right.

“There is a critical need for women for be able to control their own fertility, and that family planning is available to them if they wish.”

Advocacy group Women’s Rights in the Pacific says that women make up just five percent of MPs in the Pacific, that there are seven nations that have one or no female MPs, and women’s representation in lower houses is below that of Arab region countries.

But spokesperson Rebbeca Emery says the forum provided an “opportunity to shine the spotlight on what progress has been made in improving the status of women in the Pacific, and implementing the Gender Equality Declaration”.

Michael Sergel and Finian Scott are Postgraduate Diploma in Communication Studies student journalists at AUT University. They are covering the Pacific politics forum for Pacific Scoop and the Pacific Media Centre as an Asia-Pacific Journalism assignment. Read their live blog: